This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on May 11, 2015
Immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake four years ago (2011), one small community was driven into a desperate situation because it received no helping hand.
All access to the city center, including by road or rail, was cut off, and around 200 residents were totally isolated.
They had no water or emergency rations, and not even an evacuation site to go to.
“Why don’t we figure out how to live for a month on our own?”
In that critical situation, the residents helped each other and managed to survive.
“We were able to survive the huge disaster thanks to the bonding between us all.”
In this edition of TOMORROW, Jason Hancock reports on this community.
“What did they do to survive? On this episode, I want to look at an area that demonstrated the power of community, and what we can learn from them to prepare for future disasters.”
(Jason Hancock: Reporter)
Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture suffered great damage in the 3.11 disaster, with more than 4,000 houses being washed away.
20 minutes by car from the city center is the coastal village of Nagahora.
Following the disaster, it took the villagers one year to revive their traditional cultivation of high-grade wakame seaweed. April is the high season for wakame, so it is the busiest time of the year.
“Hello. Sorry to disturb you. What’s this?”
“Sanriku seaweed, right? Can I try some?”
“You’re right. Very salty!”
“Do you often do this work together?”
“We all help each other. That’s the way we’ve always lived.”
Before the disaster, the village had about 250 residents of all ages, from babies to those in their 90s. Then the huge tsunami hit.
Nagahora is located on a peninsula in the southeast part of Rikuzentakata. The tsunami smashed directly into the east side of the peninsula and also the west side via the bay.
Debris blocked the roads running from Nagahora to the city center, leaving the community isolated.
Almost half of Nagahora’s 60 houses, 28, were washed away. Luckily all the residents managed to escape.
However, the community center which was supposed to be their evacuation site had been destroyed, so the residents had no place to shelter.
One man was quick to take action. It was the head of the Nagahora Neighborhood Association, whose house was located on a hillside and had escaped damage.
“Hello. Mr. Maekawa? How do you do? I’m Jason.”
Yuichi Maekawa quickly went around the community on the day of the earthquake and talked to all the residents.
“I said, ‘Come over to my place, anyway’ because it was beginning to get dark. ‘We’ll be in trouble if everyone’s scattered, so at least tonight we should all stay together and keep warm, and we’ll wait for dawn to come.’”
(Yuichi Maekawa: Former Head of Nagahora Neighborhood Association)
The residents who had lost their houses, about 100, gathered at Maekawa’s house.
Everyone knew each other well by sight. Maekawa opened up the whole of his new house, including his kitchen and corridors, to create an evacuation site.
“Everything was open. Everyone slept together all in a huddle with just a sheet or blanket. Of course, we didn’t have enough futons for everyone.”
So the whole community at least had a place to shelter from the rain and snow as a temporary measure. However, they received some bad news.
They were informed that Nagahora was isolated, and it could not expect any help. The village leaders held an urgent discussion and decided they would do their best to stay alive by themselves for one month.
“We reckoned it would be a long-term struggle starting the next day. Around ten of us discussed it here. We all agreed that if it was going to last a long time, we would at least have to secure food somehow or other. Moreover, some people didn’t have the medicines they needed, and we didn’t have any supply of kerosene. We also needed to secure toilets and find milk for the babies. Each of us said, ‘OK, I’ll do this from tomorrow’ or ‘I’ll be responsible for that then’, and so on. In fact, it was already the next morning by the time we got to sleep!”
The residents started making a move the next day.
“Hello. Mr. Toba?”
Mitsugu Toba is a sheet metal worker. The tsunami washed away both his house and his workshop next to the ocean. He took on responsibility for supplying foodstuffs.
“We decided we’d do something to try and survive for one month. I knew that if you have to endure that kind of hardship, you might get very irritated if you are hungry. I realized what we should do first was secure enough food to keep everyone calm. So I started checking where we could find food in the community. I visited the villagers in all the houses that had not been damaged in the disaster and asked them how much rice they had.”
(Mitsugu Toba: In charge of “Food”)
This is the rice list made up by Toba and his friends. How much rice did each household have in store? They made a survey of the unhulled and white rice stock of all the households, and decided it should be shared by everyone in the community.
“How did you persuade everyone to share their rice?”
“Well, in fact it was really difficult to ask people to share their rice with everyone else. In fact I was one of the victims, so I was extremely reluctant to go round asking for rice: honestly speaking, I was begging for it. But they all said, ‘Sure, take it! If our rice will help, have some’. That’s the way it went, even though sharing their rice might leave them short themselves. But anyway they all offered it to us, they urged us to take it!”
Farmer Yukio Kikawada was one of those Toba visited to ask about rice.
He willingly agreed to provide 30 kilograms of unhulled rice he had stored at his home.
“We were all in the same boat. It wouldn’t be any good at all if you had some rice to eat and others didn’t. All the families in the community have been here since a long time ago. We’ve lived together here in both good times and bad times.”
(Yukio Kikawada: Farmer)
Not one of the households refused to offer rice to Toba.
This footage on Nagahora was filmed by NHK shortly after the disaster. Toba had collected 700 kilograms of rice and everyone shared it very carefully so that all the residents of the community could survive for one month.
Not only rice but all the items in the villagers’ fridges and freezers were offered for communal use.
“The electricity was cut off, so all the items stored in our freezers would go bad.”
“Do you know ‘awabi’?”
“No, what’s that?”
“It’s a high-class shellfish.”
“Abalone and sea urchin appeared.”
“We didn’t want to waste them, so we ate them all!”
“Interesting! So, eating abalone now reminds you of those days.”
Another essential item for survival is water. The public water supply had been cut off by the earthquake. Tsuyoshi Murakami was the one who addressed this issue.
Actually, there has long been spring water available in the Nagahora community, and it could be used both as water for daily life and drinking water.
“I was the head of the water supply association. This forest and the rice fields belong to my family, and we could use the spring water from over there.”
(Tsuyoshi Murakami: In charge of “Water”)
Nagahora has three different springs, which are called the “mountain water supply”.
Right after the disaster, Murakami confirmed that the spring water was not contaminated and then started work on the supply.
“I set up the 1-ton tanks that are used for the Wakame to store water for washing. And you could drink the water there because it all came from here.”
He used the big tanks normally used for washing Wakame seaweed that everyone was familiar with.
He recovered them from the debris and set up a water site for all the residents of the community to use.
He prepared different tanks for drinking and washing, taking special care to ensure sanitation.
The Nagahora community had secured food and water. However, there was another important issue to do with survival: medicine.
Michikazu Murakami suffers from high blood pressure. The tsunami washed away his ocean-side house and all the medicines that had been prescribed the previous day were lost.
“I’d been taking medicine for my blood pressure for more than 10 years. But, the tsunami took everything, so I didn’t have any pills to take the next day. ‘Oh, my God,’ I thought, ‘I won’t be able to survive!’ I asked around trying my best to find some, but my clinic was also washed away, so there were no clinical charts left, nothing. At that time, I really thought it was the end.”
(Michikazu Murakami: Age 80)
Besides Murakami, there were many villagers who needed medicine for their diabetes and heart problems.
One man came forward, saying he could do something about that. It was Kyoichi Konno, who is a carpenter.
Among the residents whose houses were washed away, Konno was the only one who had escaped uphill by car. Moreover, he had filled his car’s tank with gasoline the previous day.
“I decided to offer myself for the role of trying to collect medicine because my car had survived.”
(Kyoichi Konno: In charge of “Medicine”)
“You used this car to get medicine?”
“That’s right. I collected requests from everyone in the community.”
A survey had been carried out on the illnesses of the residents right after the disaster so they would be ready to head to the hospital as soon as the roads were cleared.
On March 13th, Konno headed to the hospital along a road which had been cleared enough for one car to pass. It took more than two hours for a distance that would normally have taken only 20 minutes because he had to keep stopping to remove debris.
Although he finally arrived at the hospital, he could not get hold of medicines for all the residents because the information he had collected from them was insufficient.
“It wasn’t so easy. When I asked what medicine they needed, someone said ‘Medicine for blood pressure’, and they wrote ‘I want medicine to make my blood flow smoothly’! Of course, the doctor didn’t know their symptoms or what to prescribe based on that comment!”
“Doctors don’t want to give the wrong medicine, and they’re not sure if you aren’t the patient.”
Konno took some of those who needed medicine to the hospital the next day. In that way he continued supplying medicine for two weeks.
Full-scale support finally reached the Nagahora community one week after the earthquake. Up to then, the residents had combined their strengths to overcome the crisis.
“No casualties, no injuries, which is an amazing thing… If I was in the same situation, I would be very scared to have that responsibility to take everyone’s lives into my own hands. That would be pretty big. I don’t know if I could do it.”
Two weeks after the disaster, the residents of Nagahora launched a new initiative: mental care activities for children.
The schools had been temporarily closed down. Many outside people were coming in and out of the area, and there was a need for taking care about safety, so the children mostly stayed indoors.
Kaito Murakami was about to start elementary school when the earthquake struck. His house was washed away and he was evacuated to the home of one of his relatives.
“At the evacuation site, I played puzzles sent in as emergency relief goods. And I made cranes and other things with origami paper.”
(Kaito Murakami: Age 10)
One woman quickly came forward for the sake of the children. At that time, Yoko Murakami was a junior high school mathematics teacher.
“I was wondering what I could do for everyone and I started thinking about the children who couldn’t go to school and probably had to stay at home all the time. They couldn’t go outside to play because of the situation, of course, so I thought it would be good if they could all get together for both studying and playing.”
(Yoko Murakami: Former junior high school teacher)
Murakami consulted Mr. Gamo, who was living in a large house, and 12 days after the disaster he offered part of his house as a place where the children could gather.
“How did you use this room?”
“It was this area, right?”
“What was this area for?”
“We had a table here.”
Around 30 children were living as evacuees in the community. At this temporary private school, classes were started for children from the first grade of elementary school to the third grade of junior high school. They were held every weekday.
“Mothers looked after the first graders of elementary school.”
With aftershocks continuing, Murakami wanted to give the children some peace of mind, however small. Hoping it would be a place where they could play and study together just as they used to do before the disaster, it was named ‘Nagahora Genki School’, the ‘Full of Beans School’.
Kaito is now in the fourth grade at elementary school. He remembers one thing in particular even today.
“I did this kind of drill.”
“How was it studying here?”
“It was fun.”
“What do you remember?”
“I think I played around here.”
One major feature of Nagahora Genki School was the inclusion of physical education classes every day. The school was eager for the children to move their bodies energetically to get rid of stress and anxiety.
“‘What? Long-rope jumping again today?’ I was expecting that sort of comment, but none of them said that. They had the same long-rope jumping every day, but they looked so happy! Some little old ladies who had evacuated to the neighborhood came round to the side of the field over there and watched the children doing physical exercises and long-rope jumping.”
“So this school lifted the children’s spirits and invigorated the community?”
“Well, yes, I think it did have that kind of effect. After all, the cheerful voices of the children made us all feel happier and better as well.”
The hand-made school continued for almost one month until the regular school classes resumed in the middle of April.
Seiji Murakami served as a mediator for the residents after the earthquake. He explains the key factor behind the ability of the whole community to overcome the hard times together.
“Having heard everyone’s stories, I think everything went well. Why was that?”
“Well, it’s a small community and in our everyday lives we support each other. We’re aware of our different personalities and special skills. We naturally understand each other. That’s why each of the residents knew more or less what role they should take during the 3.11 disaster without having to discuss it much. It was like a synchronized instrument, with each person anticipating the wishes of the others. So I think each single connection within our normal community life performed a big role in that major disaster. That’s how I look at it.”
Thanks to the local community power that is still alive in the Tohoku Region, the residents were able to overcome the crisis situation.
It is common these days to think that having that sort of contact with the neighbors is rather difficult. However, that attitude is now changing little by little.
This 29-floor-high apartment building stands in Kawaguchi, a commuter town north of Tokyo.
Something created here this year reflects a lesson learned from the Great East Japan Earthquake.
“It’s a well!”
Based on their bitter experience of having the water supply cut off during the 3.11 disaster, the residents shared the expense of constructing this 52-meter-deep well.
“So who came up with this idea?”
“Who? Well, it wasn’t just one person.”
(Ryoji Sato: Chief Director, Residents’ Association)
“After the earthquake four years ago, our water was cut off. We residents all thought that securing a stable water supply was something important to do.”
(Masahiko Sugiyama: Secretary-general, Residents’ Association)
The well can provide enough water for the daily needs of all the households. But that is not all.
“Can all the residents use it?”
“Yes. But we also want to make it available for all the neighborhood in emergency situations. People can then gather here to get water, and that will encourage everyone to talk to each other. So, creating this will also help to increase communication. There’s the old expression ‘Idle chatter around the well’. Well, we hope we’ll get that sort of atmosphere here in the future, yes.”
Building on the disaster experience, the traditional way of being on good neighborly terms is about to be revived.
A similar initiative has also been launched at a newly built condominium in Tokyo.
It is a Sunday afternoon, and many of the residents are taking part in a special event.
It is a seminar on how to construct temporary toilets. Some condominiums are now anticipating the loss of lifelines at the time of a disaster by preparing items like this. The organizers want to take this opportunity to give as many people as possible some hands-on practice.
But the session has another aim as well.
“We want to spend about five minutes for everyone to introduce themself. Anything will do: ‘I have this hobby’ or ‘My special skill is this’, or whatever you like.”
(Shintaro Okazaki: Mitsubishi Jisho Residence)
By introducing themselves, the residents can let the other residents know what they could do during a disaster.
“I’m Yamada from apartment 703. I’ve taken a seminar on fire and disaster prevention, and I got a qualification for that last year. I’ll be taking basic and advanced lifesaving courses this year. Nice to meet you!”
“I’m Mrs. Yamada. The other day, I joined an AED seminar for the first time. So I may be of some use if a situation calls for instant reaction. Thank you.”
“I have experience of housing-related work, so I hope I can be of some help to you.”
“If you have young children and have any kind of trouble, please come and talk to me. I can perhaps be useful because I’ve had experience with raising children, although I must admit it was some time ago!”
Knowing that fellow residents have skills like those means everyone can help each other when the need arises.
“How old is your baby?”
“Six months? Your first child? One lady was saying she has skills regarding raising children. Is this the first time you’ve met her?”
“Yes. I feel secure knowing that we have someone like her living here.”
“I know them all by sight, but we’ve never had a conversation. It’s the first time.”
“How about if an earthquake occurred here?”
“Well, if we hadn’t had this kind of event, I think it would be difficult for us to ask for help or communicate properly.”
“What effects do these seminars have?”
“I think everyone will feel more secure knowing they have other people to rely on. If you think you can do something, you’re not a person waiting for help but a person who’s prepared to act with the confidence that you can help. That’s very meaningful.”
(Shintaro Okazaki: Mitsubishi Jisho Residence)
The idea of having proper contact with neighbors who you can rely on if the worst happens is now beginning to be reevaluated everywhere.
“In the case of Nagahora, they were able to turn to each other for help, as the sense of community has been there for generations. That same feeling of community is now being felt in larger cities as apartments are taking steps not only for emergency preparedness but for community-building as well. So if you live in the city or the countryside, remembering that you are part of the community will make a big difference.”