a new school year, 3 years in

i started a new job this april, at tohoku university in sendai. i am really happy about this opportunity, and excited too.

one reason i am excited about living in sendai is that it is much closer to get to many places in the disaster area (some coastal areas in sendai were also struck by the tsunami, but in most of the city there is no sign of a disaster). this week was my first trip this year, and yesterday and today i was in onagawa town and the surrounding areas.  it’s been 3 years since the tsunami.  in some ways 3 years has flashed by, and 3 years is also an eternity for people waiting for certainty, for answers, to know what is going to happen to their homes and their towns, and what are the decisions that will guide these outcomes.

3 years in, i am struck by how matter-of-fact people are about talking about death, as a women who runs a cafe in a temporary shopping arcade told us when describing her friends who just left the cafe, and how many family members they lost, and how it is nice for them to get together and chat. they are friends from when they were the same year in school, and they came out visit onagawa from sendai together. 3 years is enough time to get used to hearing and telling these stories…almost.

i am reminded of last february, when i heard the story of mr. N, in natori, who shared his experience of staying on the roof all night in the cold with flood-waters all around. mr N is a leader in his area, and in the center established to pass on the experiences, and his is also a key organizer for my friend who is doing ethnographic interviews in the areas. but they had never heard mr N’s own story. although his own family was safe, he shared the story of the local girl who was killed by the tsunami, the daughter of his childhood friend, and the experience of that family. and for him, and for us listening, the fact that 3 years had passed was irrelevant–it might as well have been 3 days, for rawness of that pain.

today, we stopped by and talked with mr T, a man who is building his own house, on his own mountainside property in ogatsu, starting by cutting down trees, one by one. at first he was working with just hand tools, although now he has the use of a small bulldozer provided by mr K’s disaster relief NGO.  i met him last year, and he has made progress on his project, and like last year, i felt that he radiates a kind of steady energy, that comes from working on his own project rather that waiting for something from the government, and also from being on this land, working with these trees, which he clearly loves doing.  in the midst of our discussion, he described a vivid picture (which is seared into his own brain) of the people who were swept away in front of his eyes. the water came, not directly up the river from the sea, but from around the other side of a hill nearby. he survived by climbing a tree, and when the water went down, on the mountainside were we were standing. he explains how far the water came up–unbelievably high, to where we are standing, probably we climbed 40-50 feet up to here. and he wants to build his house higher than that. in japan, there is the expression tendenko, which means that everyone should save themselves in a disaster, or run away on their own. from a disaster prevention point of view, this tradition was highlighted after the earthquake, as many people die when they go back or stay back to rescue or check on other people. from a disaster education point of view, the important thing is to have plan and rely in the fact that wherever your loved ones are (at school, work, home, etc.) they we also evacuate, so no one will waste time going to check on each other. this can be an important factor to save lives, but tendenko can be interpreted differently (and is impossible to translate) as an every-man-for-himself attitude. I heard a speaker at TEDxTohoku in 2011 explain this really well: that whereas the press focused on the tendenko concept, in reality, people naturally help each other, children held hands and ran away together. mr T also mentions tendenko as he is discribing the pain of not being able to help the people he saw, and says that tendenko is not naturally our human response.

mr T is consciously staying busy, looking forward, aware of how having this project, building a house with his own hands is a good thing. he tells us about how volunteers who have helped him, young and old, have enjoyed it and gotten some positive inspiration. mr T is probably in his late 60s, and says other retirees have said they feel motivated by what he is doing.


About liz

from the u.s., recently moved from kobe to sendai, japan, researching community-based housing recovery after disaster.


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