It was the inspiration and eagerness of Hitomi Nakanishi, an Australia-based Japanese scholar, that led to the publication of an English-language book with recollections and photos of the experiences of 100 survivors of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami in and around Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture.
Nakanishi, 37, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Canberra, told The Japan Times last week that she wanted as many people as possible around the globe to know about the book, which she believes will help prepare them if a disaster hits their own country.
The book is an English translation of the Japanese version, which was published in 2012 by Tokyo-based publisher Junposha Co.
The same publisher released the English version on March 10 to commemorate the third anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami.
The stories in “Surviving the 2011 Tsunami: 100 Testimonies of Ishinomaki Area Survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake” first ran in the Ishinomaki Kahoku newspaper from June 2011 to March 2012 in a series titled “My March 11.”
The newspaper is published daily by Sanriku Kahoku Shimpo Co., headquartered in Ishinomaki.
Nakanishi came across the Japanese book when she visited the newspaper publisher in summer 2012 during a tour of the tsunami-affected areas in Tohoku.
She was immediately struck by the astounding accounts of the tsunami that swept the coasts of Ishinomaki, Higashi Matsushima and Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture, and soon came up with the idea of publishing the book in English.
“I asked via the Internet for volunteers who would translate Japanese into English, and soon managed to gather 26 volunteers — both Japanese and Australian,” she said.
Sixteen Australian volunteers — most of them English teachers that Nakanishi found with the help of the Japanese Embassy in Canberra — did the editing and proofreading.
One of the subjects in the book, 35-year-old Yukako Sasaki, vividly describes how, pregnant and with just days to go before her due date, she climbed the stairs to the third floor of her sister’s house — worried all the while that her water might break and she would suddenly give birth. With her niece, she spent the night in the house while down below muddy floodwaters shattered the front door and inundated the first floor.
“After a sleepless night, the piled-up cars and the people who had most likely lost their lives were visible from the window. I could tell that something really awful had happened, but if I looked outside, my pains would appear so I waited inside the storage room to be rescued,” Sasaki is quoted as saying in the book.
She gave birth to a boy six days later.
Another survivor, Masayoshi Kotono, 49, recalls: “Houses and cars being washed away by the tsunami, raging with fire, were now coming toward me. I would rather drown than be burned to death, I said to myself and jumped into the water. It was perhaps this desperate decision that determined my fate.
“No matter how hard I tried to swim, I was swept back to the hillside again and again by the force of the waves. I couldn’t reach the building. Just when I felt the muscles in my arms and legs had reached their limits, I grabbed on to some rubble that just happened to come floating toward me. I was washed away several hundred meters and then managed to crawl onto a house I had landed on by chance,” he said in his testimony.
Nakanishi cited two reasons for seeing her book project through.
For one thing, she believed that people around the world could use it to prepare for a possible disaster.
“One can find many tips in the book on how the Japanese prepare for a disaster in daily life on a personal level — such as which route to take and where to evacuate, how one can cooperate with the neighbors, etc.,” she said.
“This is very useful for the people of the world to know — especially for people that live in areas that may be prone to natural disasters like the earthquake and tsunami. They can apply the knowledge and information from what is written in this book. It’s important to let them know how important, and how much difference it will make for each person to prepare for a disaster.”
Secondly, Nakanishi said, she thinks the knowledge and experience contained in the book can also be useful in the field of urban planning. For example, “even with a 5-cm water level difference, some towns were washed away, and some weren’t,” she said.
“In the 2011 tsunami, water came from different parts of the ocean in a complex form. I think this can be sample material to investigate further about landscape and urban planning,” she added.
Mina Nishisaka, 35, a volunteer translator based in Tokyo, said that she couldn’t stop crying when she translated the stories.
“The stories were so vivid that I had to stop typing many times — just thinking about the horrific experiences the survivors had to go through,” she said.
“For those of us who did not actually experience the Tohoku disaster, the horrific scenes we witnessed that day (on TV and other sources) are not as vivid as they were three years ago. People tend to forget, and sometimes that is one way to move on, but this book reminds me that we must not forget the lives lost and the precious lessons we learned from this tragic disaster.”
She added that giving the stories an English voice “allows these lessons to be shared all over the world.”
“Keeping the voices of the tsunami survivors alive is one of the most important things we can do to save lives when and if another disaster should strike,” she said.
Another volunteer translator, Motoko Kimura, 35, said that not only does the book provide a good lesson about the tsunami disaster that many can learn from, but each story also tells the reader about “the value of human lives, human dignity amidst despair, and the courage and spirit of cooperation among the victims at the time of the disaster.”
“It’s often difficult for Japanese information to reach the world due to the language barrier — especially such things as the truth of the March 11 disaster,” she said.
“I hope that as many people as possible from abroad — including those who live in Japan, those from countries that have earthquakes, and countries that are now trying to recover from war or a disaster — to take a look at the book.”
Project leader Nakanishi said that disaster prevention and reduction are being emphasized today, and that it’s important “to learn from the disasters that already happened, and prepare ourselves for the future.”
“In this book, there are so many photos and maps, and the words of the survivors,” Nakanishi said. “I think it’s a very rare piece of publication. I would like lots of libraries around the world to possess the book and use it as valuable information in the years to come.”
Michael Anop, a longtime Tokyo resident and entrepreneur, says he is “very much a people’s person,” as demonstrated by a definite talent for connecting with the right individuals to make things happen.
As a teenager, he dreamed of a career working with young people in the counseling field. But after arriving in Japan just as the bubble era came to an end in the late 1980s, he was soon carving out a niche for himself in the business world.
Years later, the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of the Tohoku region proved to be a turning point in his life.
While volunteering in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, he watched families resettle into temporary housing and realized he could make a difference in their lives through building playgrounds for the children. He moved quickly to bring his idea to fruition, resulting in the “Playground of Hope” project.
A father of two, Anop understands how important it is for kids to feel they have a safe place to call their own. “As an entrepreneur, you look for a void in the market and rush to fill it to make a profit. But in this case, I was rushing because kids are only kids for a short time and I knew the government had so many other things to fix first,” he says. “Building new parks was at least three or four years down the agenda and so I wanted to do something for those kids now.”
The Massachusetts native originally came to this country to try his hand at modeling, after hearing about opportunities while traveling round Europe in his student days. Arriving in 1989 in his mid-20s, he quickly found success, landing his first photo shoot within a month. However, as the modeling market became saturated with foreigners, Anop gradually shifted his attention to other endeavors.
“It was the end of the bubble era but money was still flowing. By 1991, I was running a nightclub in Roppongi. It was a fluke — I knew someone who had just closed a rock club, six months after opening it, and I talked him into letting me open an ‘after-hours nightclub’ where people could hang out after the other clubs had closed. This led to connections with all the ‘in crowd’ photographers, dancers, DJs — and morphed into chances to work on other projects.”
Over the ensuing years, Anop branched out into event planning and music video production, his crowning achievement being a video for the Japanese rock band L’Arc-en-Ciel. “It was a novelty to work with foreigners back then, so it was relatively easy to get a foot in the door,” he notes. “But I actually did make a good producer!”
Anop first met his Japanese wife-to-be during this period, while doing product promotions in a “pedestrian paradise” in Harajuku. “Part of Omotesando was closed to traffic on Sundays in those days, and it was where all the street bands and dancers hung out. She was the manager for one of the bands, and came up to me and starting chatting in English.” Although the pedestrian paradise in the area ended in the late 1990s, the couple’s friendship endured and they married in 2004.
These days, Anop’s main business is handling the Japanese franchise for the Z-CARD, a compact communications and marketing tool that is widely used at Japanese rock music festivals. He also runs a talent management and production agency, Eclipse Production.
Shortly after the 2011 mega-quake, he started volunteering in the tsunami-ravaged Tohoku communities.
“After the events in Tohoku, I found myself with time on my hands. I had people in place to take care of business here in Tokyo, so I was ready to give back by volunteering. This was the first time I’d seen people in profound shock. They were there, but they weren’t there,” he says somberly.
As volunteering efforts moved from rescue to recovery, Anop became involved in helping to coordinate the delivery and distribution of regular truckloads of water and produce to people in temporary housing units. “I started noticing things. I saw a small boy, around my daughter’s age, clinging to his mother’s legs. He didn’t want to leave her side. Clearly, the kid was stressed out and so was she.
“I also noticed that the people in the temporary units came out of their houses and interacted when we arrived with the food and water. These were people who had been thrown together by the disaster, people who had never met before and had no previous connections. They had to learn how to become a community again.”
Some months before, a friend of Anop’s in Italy, who sold playground equipment, had asked if he could be of any help. “At the time, my reaction was, ‘How?’ But thinking it over, I realized those kids had nothing. They were playing with stones and sticks. I began thinking about places we could put up a playground.”
Anop initially contacted Japanese manufacturers of playground equipment, but was “blown away” by the cost and the regulations. Being mostly made of metal, domestic play equipment is costly and complicated to set up. Through his Italian friend, he was put in contact with U.S.-based Rainbow Play Systems. Following negotiations, Anop agreed to become their Japan distributor and, in turn, the company offered their products at a special price for Tohoku. “Playground of Hope” was under way.
“I was flying by the seat of my pants at first,” he admits. “Rainbow’s equipment is wooden, so relatively cheap and simple to set up. I wasn’t even sure what the installation regulations for this type of playground were when we started.” Fortunately, subsequent enquiries to the Japan Park Facilities Association revealed that Anop and his team were doing everything right and meeting all safety specifications.
“Playground of Hope” was initially meant to be a short-term project, with Anop envisaging building between six and eight playgrounds. He launched the project under the umbrella of Side by Side International, an established Japanese NPO heavily involved with relief work in Tohoku.
“I tell people that if I had known back then what I know now, I probably would never have started!” he said, grinning. “It has become a major endeavor.” Once things were moving, however, he found it easy to get people involved and enthusiastic about “Playground of Hope.” Anop has adopted what he describes as a “fiscal sponsorship model,” whereby companies pledge the funds to purchase equipment and then send up employees to work as volunteers while bonding through the common goal of putting a playground together.
Although the main focus has been on helping the children in Tohoku, Anop made a wonderful discovery. “I quickly realized that we were in fact building multigenerational play spaces. The kids come out to play, and the parents come out with them and start interacting, as you do, standing around while your kids are playing. Then, since we put in flowers and benches, elderly people would also come out, to sit down or to water the flowers.”
Unlike many of the neighborhood playgrounds for children in this country, which cater to mostly preschoolers, “Playground of Hope’s” equipment can be enjoyed by children aged between 3 and 12, fostering interaction between a wide range of ages. Future playground installations will include basketball hoops and soccer goals for the benefit of older children, too.
Anop recalls one particularly heartfelt comment from a resident in a temporary housing community. “He told me, ‘I had forgotten what it was like to hear the sound of children playing.’ I had to fight back the tears when I heard that.”
Once the playground is set up, the onus is on the residents to care for it and complete the recommended yearly maintenance. On the first anniversary, Anop and his team revisit, bringing paint, sandpaper and the necessary equipment. “We show them what to do, and our visits are very successful, with lots of people turning out and getting involved.”
Seventeen successful installations down the track, Anop is looking ahead to ways to help keep his project growing. Along with Neil Rosenblatt, who has come on board as his partner, Anop is hoping that “Playground of Hope” can gain NPO status by the end of the year.
He has recently been inspired by a U.S.-based charity called KaBoom!, which partners with communities to help them build playgrounds. “They have a planning kit they make available, and I’d like to move forward to a time when we can offer something similar, with information on how to fund-raise and install the play equipment.”
Anop believes that the “Playground of Hope” model could be extended to other impoverished areas of Japan, where there aren’t enough young families. “If you can go in and set up a playground quite cheaply, the area becomes attractive for people with children, and it contributes to the community.”
When he comes home to his family in Tokyo, Anop is much like any other father on the weekends, accompanying his own children to their local park. He recently took his 7-year-old son to see one of the “Playground of Hope” installations and described it as a wonderful bonding experience. Meanwhile, his daughter, 5, is also developing an awareness of why her father leaves for several days at a time for “Playground of Hope.” “She told me, ‘You know, Daddy, when I grow up I want to work with you to help those kids,’ ” he says proudly.
By MINORU MATSUTANI
Fourth of five parts
The March disasters generated an outpouring of volunteerism unseen since — let alone matched by — what followed the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake.
Lifting spirits: Members of volunteer group Team Heal Japan remove debris from a home in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, in July. COURTESY OF TEAM HEAL JAPAN
From Tohoku to Tokyo, the impact of March 11 shook the country to its foundations. Skyscrapers wobbled like jelly in the megaquake and mountainous tsunami washed away homes, cars and lives along a wide stretch of the Tohoku coast. The destruction, played out constantly on TV and the Internet, was forever etched in the minds of the nation’s people.
The unprecedented disaster prompted an equal measure of volunteerism as even people untouched and living far away from the impact zone took it upon themselves to pitch in and help the survivors.
This effort to pitch in and rebuild the affected areas, experts and volunteer organizations say, has fostered a strong spirit of helping that will aid relief efforts in future disasters.
The March 11 experience also boosted the nation’s charitable spirit toward people overseas, although monetary donations to developing countries did not increase last year and it remains unclear if the growing mood to lend help will translate into more future contributions.
“There will be typhoons, floods and other disasters in Japan. When those happen, those who have helped in Tohoku will find and again put on their work boots and go help,” said Sean Muramatsu, who founded the volunteer group Team Heal Japan in the wake of March 11.
Muramatsu assembles volunteers mainly via Facebook and word of mouth, and has been to the Tohoku region — mainly Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture — 17 times since April.
Team Heal Japan has 180 volunteers and each trip has about 30 participants, he said.
With the recovery effort moving ahead, there are fewer things for volunteers to do than in the first few months, so Team Heal Japan has made fewer trips to the region, he added.
“I now know that I can be of help to someone and will volunteer when other natural disasters happen,” said Yuro Nishimura, 20, a Chuo University student, who has participated in several Team Heal Japan trips.
“The team’s members all have the same volunteer spirit and become friends easily,” he said. “I felt people bonded very strongly through volunteering.”
Kensuke Suzuki, an associate professor of sociology at Kwansei Gakuin University, believes Nishimura and other young people will continue the volunteer movement.
Some experienced the Hanshin quake in Kobe as children in 1995 and have engaged in social services, including picking up roadside trash, a mandatory activity at some junior high and high schools, he said.
“The volunteer spirit was alive in young people before (March 11). The disaster just provided them an opportunity to express it,” Suzuki said.
Startup groups like Team Heal Japan weren’t the only ones to send volunteers to Tohoku.
Large nonprofit organizations — including Peace Boat — also dispatched volunteers to Tohoku, where the tsunami killed at least 20,000 and devastated coastal towns in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures.
Peace Boat, a Japanese nonprofit organization that has sponsored volunteer journeys around the world since 1983, organized similar trips to Kobe in 1995. But the Tohoku turnout was unsurpassed.
“We sent volunteers to Kobe, but there was an overwhelming number of people who wanted to engage in the Tohoku volunteer effort,” said Peace Boat spokesman Shigehiro Goda. “We started gathering volunteers on March 20 and held the first information session for applicants on March 23. The session was packed.”
Peace Boat, based in Takadanobaba, in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, set up its own volunteer center in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, one of the areas worst-hit by the tsunami. It sent more than 90 buses and 47,000 volunteers from March until the end of October. For the Kobe quake, Peace Boat sent about 10,000 volunteers.
Tohoku-bound volunteers last year who were not part of groups like Team Heal Japan and Peace Boat numbered roughly 780,000 as of the end of November, according to municipal volunteer centers in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures. When those of the established groups are added, the overall number reached about 1.17 million, Goda said.
In the Kobe area in 1995, the number was said to be around 1.3 million, but an official count was not compiled, thus such statistics do not paint an accurate comparison with the Tohoku turnout, Goda said.
Media also played a greater role in the 2011 disasters.
The tsunami devastation, the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant crisis and footage of the havoc seen on YouTube and shared with friends via social networking sites definitely made it easier to raise awareness of the need for volunteers, he said.
One remarkable difference between Kobe and Tohoku is that 70 companies, including Mitsubishi Corp., registered with Peace Boat to send employees as volunteers last year. In 1995 that number was zero.
“In many cases, employees pushed their employers to amend company rules to make it easy to go volunteer,” Goda said. “I also heard from many participating companies that people who engaged in volunteer work felt more motivated toward their jobs. Some companies are considering making volunteer work a part of new graduates’ training.”
The expanding presence of social networking services also made it easy for untrained volunteer groups, including Muramatsu’s Team Heal Japan, to recruit help.
Some people prefer impromptu groups because they may feel professional organizations are too rigid and stifling, said Kasako, a freelance writer, blogger and photographer, who asked that his last name not be used.
He also applauded the amateur groups for making volunteering more familiar than ever to ordinary people.
Peace Boat’s Goda said volunteers and organizers, as well as disaster-hit municipalities, have learned from the 1995 disaster, making volunteer operations smoother last year.
After 1995, municipalities nationwide set up volunteer centers to receive calls from disaster victims about their needs and to accept and efficiently dispatch aid manpower.
Volunteers last year also learned how to behave in front of survivors. They didn’t sleep in the temporary shelters or eat free meals with the victims as was the case in 1995, Goda said.
Goda said he wants to improve volunteer-municipality coordination by strengthening Peace Boat’s collaboration with local governments.
Japanese made aware of the significance of volunteering also turned their attention overseas, to people permanently in need. However, the rise in volunteerism did not translate into an increase in donations for developing countries because many had already donated funds to Tohoku.
Nonprofit organizations hope the spirit will continue to grow so they can collect more donations in the future.
“Japanese volunteerism has clearly changed,” said Kiyotaka Watanabe, executive director of the nonprofit organization Hunger Free World.
“We now know the water, electricity and food supplies can be cut off. I believe Japanese can now sympathize with children living in hunger better than before.”
Hunger Free World supports people facing famine in South Asia and Africa, including in Bangladesh and Burkina Faso.
The group is expected to net ¥177 million in donations for developing countries in the fiscal year that ends this March, unchanged from a year earlier, Watanabe said.
He said, however, that donations decreased rapidly in the March-June period last year because people’s donation allowance went mainly to Tohoku. To combat this, the group began a campaign in June collecting donations via used postcards, devoting half the funds amassed to Tohoku and the rest to developing countries.
The campaign worked, helping the group recoup the March-June drop in donations in both cash and used postcards, Watanabe said.
The amount donated to large charity groups such as Unicef and World Vision was unchanged because of their name recognition.
“People’s interest was pretty much toward east Japan, but we also got lots of donations for children caught up in the East Africa drought,” UNICEF spokeswoman Tomomi Inoue said.
Meanwhile, Japan International Volunteer Center said donations to developing countries will decrease from a year earlier for the current fiscal year, although the amount in the nine months to December did not decrease as much as feared, spokesman Noriko Hirose said.
Donations to the center’s projects in nine countries, including Laos and Sudan, dropped by more than 10 percent in those nine months, she said. However, donations to Tohoku made up for the loss, and thus the total amount collected by the group was unchanged from a year ago, she said.
Hirose, noting the March disasters boosted people’s charitable spirit, said she had thought carefully about how best to inform the public that war orphans in Sudan and other countries are also desperate.
“Japanese have become much more charity-minded and want to support Tohoku as well as overseas — not just Tohoku,” she said.
after i ofunato, i met up with IDRO japan, which is a small disaster relief non-profit based in kyoto, with mostly expat members.
IDRO is a small organization, able to move around and work where needed, and the day after i arrived at the base come in funakoshi village on ogatsu peninsula near ishinomaki, we went to kaneyama in fukushima to help shovel out the mud from the flooding the previous week.
it was kind of a far drive, but it felt like definitely the right thing to do, and i am very glad that we could help with the mud clean-up—the local folks definitely needed the help, and shoveling mud is hard work.
for my last work day in ofunato, i had the pleasure of helping prepare for the tanabata festival, which unfortunately was happening after i left. but putting up the decorations in the street was pretty fun! the decorations are attached to huge bamboo poles, which have to been carried, set up, and lashed to the electric poles, all with the correct angle and without getting them snagged on any power lines. the first one took a long time, but our team got better after that. actually i didn’t do much heavy lifting, but mostly trying to translate for the guys from all hands who didn’t understand japanese, as we guided the bamboo up and down the street and angled it. the streets were destroyed by the tsunami, so when they rebuild them, they built in little holes to hold the bamboo. we worked together with some local guys, and there were also student volunteers from a university in tokyo, and also high school students.
also, for the last few nights, i had the chance to help a local neighborhood group who was preparing their float-a wooden frame, which is then covered with paper panels hand painted with scenes (in this case, it was the kid’s float, so lots of cartoon characters) and hand painted geometric trim.
i still feel like there are a lot of challenges involved with bringing outsiders into a local community in general, and all hands is not immune, and is in fact working on this. in fact, the night before i left there was a meeting about how to improve the role of the translators on job sites. but when the local neighborhood groups are welcoming the international volunteers to join in their festival, and i have the chance to work next to the local ladies as they are brushing glue on the frames for the paper, as we are carrying the bamboo together down the street, i’m not worried about this relationship. we (foreign volunteers) may be strange and different, may sometimes be awkward or accidentally rude, and we definitely are a new sight that was not in ofunato 6 months ago. but it feels like the local people have embraced all hands, the volunteers’ smiling faces that are as bright as the clothes are dirty after a day in the ditches. i feel that huge credit is due to the folks who organized all hand volunteers’ participation in the tanabata festival, which you can see more of here.