This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on December 15, 2014
November 2014. A unique evacuation drill is being held in Sendai. It is designed specifically for the city’s non-Japanese residents.
Using earthquake simulation equipment, they can experience shakes resembling real earthquakes.
Jason Hancock visits Sendai to report on the training.
“Hi. Where are you guys from?”
“I feel very very impressive that how can that be real. I think those very good to know how strong it can be.”
The purpose of this drill is to help the non-Japanese community understand earthquakes, particularly for those who have never experienced one.
The city has been focusing on this activity since the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Immediately after the quake, some conflicts emerged between Japanese and non-Japanese evacuees.
They occurred at this evacuation center in a Sendai suburb, where around half of the evacuees were foreigners.
“The foreign evacuees would go without putting their blankets and other things away. They left half-eaten food scattered around. We couldn’t believe it.”
(Kuniharu Nikaido: Local Japanese resident)
“They said to me, ‘What can a foreigner like you do to help us?’ It was very disappointing.”
(Gulzar Asanova: Kyrgyzstan)
The problems between the Japanese and the non-Japanese groups included differences in customs and language.
“Looking back on my own experience, if something like this had happened if I had only been in Japan for few weeks or a few months, it would have been very,very scary. I wouldn’t know who to talk to. I wouldn’t know where to go. So I’m very curious to find out how those in that situation made it through and what they did.”
“Please help me!”
(Indian woman: Evacuation drill participant)
So how was the international tension eased? Let's see the efforts that were made.
Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture, the biggest city in the Tohoku region. This is the residential district of Sanjo-machi in Aoba Ward.
Many foreigners live in this district. They come from various countries and speak many different languages.
“Hi. Do you guys have a minute? So I heard there is a big non-Japanese population around here. Why is that?”
“It’s Tohoku University student’s house. I guess this is the only reason around here.”
“For foreign students, non-Japanese students? How long have you guys been for?”
“Three days, you’re brand new! Welcome to Japan!”
“Do you have a minute, can I talk to you for a minute?”
“Are you a student? How long have you been here for?”
“Actually just for two months.”
“Since two months ago, okay. Do you like it in this area?”
“Yeah. Very cold but suitable ‘til now.”
“Good. Have you felt any earthquakes?”
“Yeah! But it’s not too strong.”
“Ok. If there were an earthquake, do you know where to go?”
“Actually I don’t know about that.”
This is normally a rather quiet place, but it became chaotic when the earthquake hit.
The massive earthquake hit Sendai at 2:46 pm on March 11, 2011.
Utilities such as water and electricity were cut off and a number of buildings collapsed.
In Sendai alone, around 100,000 residents were forced to evacuate.
The Sanjo Junior High School was designated as the evacuation center for Sanjo-machi.
The maximum capacity, according to the city plan, was 960 residents. The evacuees were supposed to spend a few days in various school buildings including gym and martial arts hall.
Let’s see how some of the foreign residents found out about this center and got there.
Mohammed Aminul from Bangladesh was taking a lesson at a school 4 kilometers away from Sanjo-machi. He did not speak Japanese very well at that time.
“I was on the 6th floor of this building. I thought I was going to die when the earthquake hit because the building was starting to collapse and it was just chaotic.”
(Md. Aminul: from Bangladesh)
Aminul was understandably shocked as it was his first ever experience of an earthquake. What was happening? Where could he go? He had no idea. He was very concerned about his roommate who was also from Bangladesh.
“When I couldn’t reach him by mobile phone, I got worried even more. What had happened to him? Was he still alive? I was really scared.”
Aminul thought he should go back to the dormitory in Sanjo-machi, with the hope of finding his friend there.
This is the foreign students’ dormitory of the Tohoku University in Sanjo-machi. About 400 foreign students were living there at the time of the earthquake.
Gulzar Asanova from Kyrgystan was one of them.
She was about to go out with her husband when the earthquake hit. The two of them raced outside.
“To tell you the truth, I thought we were going to die. It was the biggest earthquake I'd ever experienced. My friends who were there with me got very panicky. Seeing them made me even more nervous.”
(Gulzar Asanova: from Kyrgyzstan)
As the aftershocks continued, Asanova thought about evacuating to some place safe. Then she recalled an evacuation drill she had participated in six months before.
The Sanjo Junior High was the designated evacuation center. It was only a few hundred meters from her dormitory.
“When we got here, there were lots of Japanese people milling around this school.There were some over there, some here. Just all really close to school. There were several middle-aged Japanese men, in their 50s I suppose, standing here and directing people to go inside the school building. That kind of confirmed to me that the Japanese are really very well-prepared for disasters and know what to do. So when I saw that I felt a bit relieved.”
“During the aftershocks, I was squatting like this.”
(Fang Yu: from China)
Fang Yu from China is a student doing university research who also lived in the dormitory. He held tightly on to a tree.
He remembered the destruction caused in China by the Sichuan Earthquake.
“I just stayed like that. I didn't know what to do.”
An hour later, it started to snow and he moved to the lobby of his dormitory.
“About half an hour later, the caretaker showed up in the lobby. He said that I shouldn’t stay there because the power had been cut off. He advised me to head to Sanjo Junior High School.”
Meanwhile, Aminul finally arrived at his apartment. And he was reunited with his roommate. His friend was crouching down in the parking lot in front of the apartment because he was scared by the aftershocks.
They felt totally lost, with no idea where they should go. Then they saw several Japanese all running in the same direction, so they followed them and arrived at the Sanjo Junior High School evacuation center.
The heads of each neighborhood association were in charge at the center. Kuniharu Nikaido was one of them.
He was surprised to see so many foreigners when he arrived at the school.
“I didn't expect to see that many people, especially lots of non-Japanese there.”
(Kuniharu Nikaido: Head of neighborhood association)
Around half of the 1,000 evacuees were foreigners. Some had got there by obtaining information via Twitter, others had received the information in emails from friends.
There was food available there for 600 people. Nikaido was concerned that they would soon run out.
“Foreigners kept arriving all through the night. Some people were using their mobile phone to tell friends that food was available at the school. I think some people came here in order to get food. That’s what I heard from the Japanese evacuees. And some were even coming here from Higashi Sendai.”
“Is that far?”
“Yes, it is.”
These messages were posted at the evacuation center. Many foreigners wrote their names to let their families or friends know that they were safe.
Looking closely, you find not only Asian names but also European, Middle Eastern and other names.
Around sunset, Fang finally reached the center and was reunited with his Chinese friends. He was greatly relieved. But he also felt anxiety, not knowing what the future would hold for him.
“Due to the power blackout, it was dark inside and outside. I was so scared and the aftershocks were making people shout out and cry. There were many Japanese there, but I only spoke to my Chinese friends.”
This is how the evacuation life of the Japanese and the foreigners got started.
The next morning. The atmosphere was already tense.
A feeling of distrust was developing between the two groups due to differences in customs and language.
“The foreigners didn’t know the rules commonly understood by the Japanese. I was told one group had gathered around a stove eaten something and then left the garbage there. When I got there, it was still there, left as it was. That was hard to understand from our viewpoint. It seemed so rude.”
Nikaido and the school teachers asked English-speaking teachers to translate the rules on things like how to discard the garbage. But there were people from many different countries, so not everyone understood English.
Some foreigners were becoming increasingly dissatisfied due to the lack of information. Newspapers were distributed, but only some parts were translated.
“They only distributed Japanese newspapers, so we couldn’t read them. We had no idea what was written. We were most anxious to hear updates about the nuclear power plants and the tsunami.”
There were also food issues, because some foreigners could not eat the distributed food items for religious reasons.
“I’m a Muslim, so I couldn’t eat some of the dishes. Some Bangladeshi evacuees started cooking food for themselves.”
Muslims have dietary rules, such as avoiding pork, so they shared food to fill their empty stomachs.
There was also a certain psychological distance between the Japanese and foreign evacuees. One foreign woman found this situation problematic.
It was Mrs. Asanova from Kirghiz. She and her husband offered to help.
“We asked them if there was anything we could do because we were willing to help in any way we could. When we said that, they looked at us with doubtful eyes, as if our offer was something of a nuisance. They seemed to be saying, ‘What can you foreigners do to help?’ We were very disappointed because we thought we were part of the community.”
(Gulzar Asanova: from Kyrgyzstan)
In the end, they decided to participate voluntarily in running the center.
They scooped water out of the swimming pool and cleaned the toilets.
“They were so dirty and smelly, we couldn’t stand it anymore. So we kept on cleaning them.”
Thanks to their efforts, the atmosphere at the center began to improve. Japanese and foreign evacuees started joining forces to help keep the center clean.
Two days after the disaster.
As one of the center managers, Nikaido’s opinion about the foreigners gradually changed.
“At the beginning, I was scared. In tense situations like that, people get upset easily. As the number of people grew and the space got smaller, people naturally grew more excited. But as time went by, some of the foreigners became friendlier and approached me to give me some candies. So in return, I gave them some bread. I learned for the first time they were really good people. I wish I could have realized that sooner!”
But the next day, evacuation life at the junior high suddenly came to an end.
The electricity supply was restored, and the center was closed. It was just about the time when the tense atmosphere had finally eased.
Three and a half years later...
Jason visits Fang, the Chinese researcher who experienced evacuation life at the center.
He is still at the same university continuing his research work. He has sends out details of his experience after the disaster using his blog and newspaper reports.
“We gradually learned the Japanese rules of life after spending some years here. But when we first came, we had no idea. No one taught us about things like that.”
(Ao Xiang: Fang's Wife)
“I think the Japanese are extremely patient. They bear with something to the end while suppressing their true feelings. They could just tell us ‘no’ from the beginning, but they don't do that and put up with the situation. But at the last minute, they explode, and that is very shocking.”
“Yes, I know I know.”
“Do you think it’s a language problem?”
“No, I don't think it’s a language issue. Japanese are rather shy, I think.”
“When we were at the center, the Japanese there never told us what we should not be doing. I don't think it is a language issue.”
Since the quake, Aminul from Bangladesh has been sending out information to foreign residents.
“Welcome to ‘Hello Sendai’!”
(Md. Aminul & Guests)
Today, he is a guest on a local radio show.
He talks about rules and customs unique to Japan.
“How about when you want to get off the bus?”
“OK, I just press the button, like ‘pingpon’, and after that bus stops at my station.”
He hopes his information will help foreign residents become assimilated into Japanese society.
The neighborhood associations that were involved with the administration of the evacuation center have also started taking action.
Based on the experiences they had at that time, they want to hold drill that Japanese and foreign residents together and establish joint evacuation center.
“Many of them have to learn our culture first, before emergencies.”
(Neighorhood association member)
“We have to include them in the plans, telling them that ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ They shouldn’t just stick to their own ways using the excuse that they’re foreigners. We want them to participate in the evacuation training for them to be fully prepared and involved with the future center.”
(Chida: Neighborhood association member)
“Many of them weren’t here in 2011.”
(Neighorhood association member)
“Of course there are various groups, such as a Chinese groups and a Korean group.”
(Kuniharu Nikaido: Head of neighborhood association)
Nikaido and the other men all experienced various conflicts after the quake. Their goal now is to live in harmony with the foreign residents.
The first training to establish a joint evacuation center is about to begin.
Taking part are about 30 foreigners from 8 countries, including China and Indonesia.
First, the evacuation manual created since the quake is distributed.
It has been translated into 11 languages, including Chinese, Korean, and Nepali as well as English. The manual is easy to understand and shows how to be prepared for disasters and how to live at an evacuation center.
The biggest point they revised from the previous manual was how to run the evacuation centers. They decided to appoint some non-Japanese who are fluent in Japanese to join the management as evacuation leaders.
“Please try to write it fast. Each of you.”
The first thing they need to do is make a list of evacuees. Each evacuee is requested to write down their names and addresses.
“Hi. Are you a Chinese student? Please write your name and gender right here.”
With this list, they can easily check who is here when families or embassies contact the center. So it’s an indispensable task.
The recipe for today is pork stew, which is a very familiar dish to Japanese.
In the meantime, Aminul has been appointed to prepare food for foreigners. He decides to cook curry that Muslims can eat.
He also wants the Japanese to try his curry.
“Attention please! Would you like to try the special curry I’ve made? This is Bangladeshi halal curry. Please try, please try a bit.”
(Md. Aminul: from Bagladesh)
“How do you like it?”
“It’s really good!”
“It's Bangladeshi halal curry, so Muslims can eat it. Anyone could eat this at the time of a disaster, right?”
“It’s good. Not too spicy.”
(Japanese woman 1)
(Japanese woman 2)
“I’m so happy they liked it. I guess many Japanese don’t know we Muslims cannot eat certain things, or we can cook something like this. It’s great that they’ve got to know that.”
By getting foreigners involved in the administration, the barriers between Japanese and non-Japanese are gradually coming down.
“Are you from America?”
“Brazil? Do you have curry and rice in Brazil? No? I see.”
“You don't have to be polite. Just eat as much as you can.”
“It’s delicious! It will be hot!”
“Yeah, it’s hot, isn’t it? I should be speaking in English!”
“I live near here and often see foreigners around. I've exchanged greetings with them, but I've never really had a conversation like this. I learned that we can understand each other if we try. Communication is universal, I think.”
“I hope to see you again.”
“We don't know where we might meet again. Just say Hi, ok?”
“I've learned so many things. I'm so happy that I’ve had some interactions with Japanese people.”
“What do you think is the most important thing?”
“To help each other is the most important thing, I believe.”
Helping each other can be the solution for overcoming a crisis or difficulties.
“The foreign residents were not acting like guests. They simply didn't know what to do. When we ask them to do something, they’re willing to do it. Today, they took the initiative whenever we asked. So we Japanese also have to be open so that we can better understand them. Then we can make changes. Today's activity was very meaningful.”
“What was interesting was the fact that it wasn’t the words that was the barrier between everyone. It was the communication. Emergency preparedness and evacuation training that I saw that was in sendai was wonderful. I feel like its activity like that that are going to help the non-Japanese community know what to do in the situation. And also Japanese know how to interact non-Japanese community. And because of exercises like this in a future if ever emergency or catastrophe like this, it will go much smoother because of these efforts.”