This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on December 8, 2014
“Today I’m in a public bath house in Japan. I’m Jason Hancock! The Japanese love to take a hot bath after a long day. But when disaster struck North-East Japan in March 2011, it was very cold. For those living in evacuation shelters, they longed to take a hot bath. Today, we’ll take a close look at baths that were set up in disaster-stricken areas and those responsible for them.”
(Jason Hancock: Reporter)
The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in North-East Japan were of an unprecedented magnitude.
People who suddenly found themselves in the middle of a crisis situation found comfort in mobile bathing facilities.
“It’s been a big help.”
“Best I’ve ever felt!”
Japan Ground Self Defense Force units were the first to set up temporary bathhouses in the disaster-stricken areas.
(Hikaru Uchimi: Japan Ground Self Defense Forces)
The wish of all the Ground Self Defense Force members was to provide the evacuees living in cold and uncomfortable evacuation shelters with at least some kind of warmth and comfort.
Jason heads to Tamura City in Fukushima Prefecture. Tamura City was not hit by the tsunami, but the city was plunged into chaos nevertheless.
The day after the disaster. An evacuation order was given to all residents who lived within a 20-kilometer radius of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. About 8,000 people evacuated to Tamura City.
Jason visits one of the evacuees, Kazuaki Fushimi, who had to move out of the town of Okuma where the nuclear power plant is located.
Kazuaki thought the evacuation would be temporary. However, now, more than three years after the disaster, he is still not able to return to his hometown, and he remains here in Tamura City.
“I wasn’t sure what evacuation meant…or what would happen to the nuclear plant… People had to leave their homes with just their children and a few belongings. And here we are now, still stuck here.”
Kazuaki stayed at this gymnasium the first six months after he evacuated. None of the evacuees had any idea when or if they could return home. With uncertainty filling the air, Kazuaki found relief in the bathhouse.
“The tents and the baths were set up here.”
The Ground Self Defense Force had set up a temporary bathhouse at the shelter. When the disaster hit, there was snow in Tamura city. The baths not only warmed but also comforted people who had suddenly been forced to evacuate.
“In the bath, you could forget about all the bad things, that’s why it was so great. You had to come back to reality when you got out, but it was really nice, even if it was just for a moment.”
The temporary bathing facility here was the first to be set up, just six days after the earthquake and tsunami.
The Ground Self Defense Force continued to provide temporary bathing facilities in the disaster-stricken region. In March alone, they created 17 bathing facilities, mainly at evacuation shelters.
“It’s my first bath in eight days. I haven’t taken one since the earthquake.”
The hot baths warmed the evacuees’ hearts and helped to bring smiles back to their faces.
“I think what I’ll remember the most about talking with Fushimi-san was when we asked him about living in the evacuation center, he got very choked up and started to cry. Obviously, it was a very emotional time for him. But what I also remember was how he talked about the bath time was his escape. And it was a chance for him to forget all of his problems he had, everything he was going through, and just enjoy the moment of being in the bath.”
About 70,000 Ground Self Defense Force personnel from all over Japan were mobilized for disaster relief after the Great East Japan earthquake.
The bathhouse in Tamura City was set up by a Ground Self Defense Force unit from Nerima Ward in Tokyo.
Jason pays a visit to the members of the unit who were in charge of that bathing facility.
“For how long did you provide the bathing facilities?”
“We began on March 17th, 2011.”
(Mitsuaki Saruya: Japan Ground Self Defense Force)
“Within a week of the disaster?”
“Yes. And we continued for 142 days, until August 5th, 2011.”
“What kind of reactions did you get from the residents?”
“Many people were surprised that we had this kind of equipment. They were also very happy to be able to bathe in a big tub.”
(Michio Murakawa: JGSDF)
In the March 2011 disaster, the Ground Self Defense Force operated search and rescue missions, cleared debris, restored roads, and assisted in managing the nuclear plant accident.
There were also units that supplied water and food to evacuees and residents. These units are officially part of the Logistic Support Regiments, and they were also responsible for providing the temporary bathing facilities in the disaster-stricken areas.
So how are the mobile baths set up? This unit is about to run a set-up drill.
“Attention! Begin the set up!”
The facility is transported in two vehicles.
The first truck carries the personnel.
The attached trailer is equipped with a boiler system. The boiler is capable of heating 5 tons of water in just 45 minutes.
The parts for building the facility are in the second truck. This equipment, called the Type 2 Field Bathing Set, is deployed by Ground Self Defence Force divisions across Japan.
First, the tents are erected. 11 members work as a team to set up the facility.
Once the metal pipes are connected, a tarpaulin is pulled over the top. There are three tents. The front area is the changing room, and the back is the bathing area.
Next the bathtub is put together. It is made with metal pipes and a vinyl sheet. It is a simple but sturdy structure that can hold up to 15 bathers at once.
While the bathhouse is being set up, another truck arrives.
This truck is equipped with a water filtration system.
Even in areas where water cannot be easily secured, the unit can filter water from rivers and use it for the baths.
The filtered water is transported by truck and stored in water tanks. Then the boilers heat the water to a perfect temperature for a bath.
“Switch boiler on!”
(Unit member 1)
“Boiler switched on!”
(Unit member 2)
The entire process from set up to filling the tub takes about three hours. Then the bath is ready.
Setting up temporary bathhouses as a part of disaster relief operations began 20 years ago, in the wake of the 1995 Hanshin-Awaji earthquake. The Ground Self Defense Forces wanted to help ease the stress of evacuees during those uncertain times. Providing a hot bath seemed to be the right answer.
Attention is even given to the exterior to make the bathhouse more welcoming. Long noren curtains are hung at the entrance.
Pictures of local festivities decorate the noren were hung in this bathhouse run by a unit from Yamagata Prefecture.
At another one operated by a unit from Aomori was a motif of the famous Nebuta Festival.
The Ground Self Defense Force is equipped with 22 Type 2 Field Bathing Sets nationwide. During the March 2011 disaster, all 22 of them were deployed to Tohoku.
“How’s the water temperature?”
“Is it okay?”
“It has been a big help.”
“Best feeling ever! I just finished cleaning up trash, so it feels good.”
However, not every unit deployed for disaster relief was equipped with a Type 2 Field Bathing Set. Units without one had to come up with ideas to provide bathing facilities.
Jason visits a Ground Self Defense Force unit based in Fukushima Prefecture. Without the official equipment, it came up with a unique way to provide baths.
The unit first utilized its mobile rice cooker to heat water and set up hot showers for the evacuees.
The evacuees were delighted with the showers. But as life in the shelter lingered on, they longed for a hot bath to soak in all the way up to their shoulders.
The members thought up an alternative option.
“That’s it over there.”
(Takeshi Hiruta: JGSDF)
“Really? That was the bathtub?”
“Yes, it’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?”
“I can’t believe it. Wow! And you can fill it with about 2,000 litres of water? Wow, this is completely different from what I imagined! I’ve seen other baths on this trip, but this one is totally unexpected.”
A rescue boat used during the first days of disaster relief was turned into a bathtub.
“Please join me!”
“OK. I will.”
“So people sat in here like this?”
“Yes. We had washing stools set up outside and people soaked here in the tub.”
Even without the official Field Bathing Set, such ideas helped set up 14 bathing facilities in the disaster-stricken areas.
When the evacuees saw the boat bath they shouted in joy. Since it was the only bathtub in the area, the mornings were reserved for the use of women and the afternoons for men. On a busy day, 200 people bathed in just one day. To make life in the evacuation center as comfortable as possible, the unit set up a suggestion box in the bathhouse waiting area.
Knowing that evacuees would be stiff from sleeping on hard floors, the unit also began giving massages.
And the unit served hot mochi rice-cakes during the cold months, and chilled noodles in the summer.
They even transported water from a hot spring in Fukushima for the bathtub. The members hoped it would ease the back pains of the elderly evacuees.
Word spread about the unit’s various efforts. Soon this bathing facility became so popular that evacuees from other shelters came to visit.
“I was really impressed with the way the teams here in Fukushima were able to use the resources that they had to answer the needs of the people they were helping.”
Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture. One family here says that their spirits were truly uplifted by the Ground Self Defense Force’s bathhouse.
Hatsumiya Akasaka and her children.
The tsunami washed away the Akasakas’ house. Hatsumiya and her husband are now renting a home and live there with their three children.
After evacuating Hatsumiya noticed a change in her youngest daughter Serina, who was then three years old.
“She didn’t smile much any more… You know how kids make such a fuss when they’re two or three years old? But she was so quiet. Look at her now… Back then she didn’t fuss at all.”
Hatsumiya kept the pictures Serina drew right after the earthquake and tsunami.
“According to her this is the ocean. She must have seen black waves at the time.”
Jagged waves and swirls. Many of Serina’s pictures were drawn and colored in black.
“See, they’re mostly black. That wasn’t normal for her. Actually, she loved pink.”
Hatsumiya still remembers when Serina began to smile more again.
Going to the bathhouse operated by a unit from Yamagata seemed to be the cause. It was set up two weeks after the earthquake, and long lines formed right away.
Hatsumiya’s children loved taking a bath and they waited patiently in their excitement.
“This is it, the bath place!”
“That’s right, it’s the bathhouse.”
Kiara, the eldest daughter, and Serina both still remember the bathhouse well.
“It was big. There were no showers, but it was really big.”
The children enjoyed more than just a hot bath at the facility. They looked forward to spending time with the Ground Self Defense Force personnel. The girls’ favorite was Hikaru, a member from the unit based in Yamagata.
“She laughed a lot!”
“Yeah, she’s laughing in the photo!”
“The kids would brighten up when they played with the Ground Self Defense Force members. They took such good care of the kids, especially the Yamagata Unit. I can’t thank them enough. If they hadn’t come here, I’m sure it would have taken much longer for the kids to cheer up.”
Jason heads to Yamagata to meet the woman who cheered the children up so much.
“You must be Hikaru!”
(Hikaru Uchimi: Logistic Support Regiment, JGSDF)
“Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too.”
“I’ve heard so much about you, it’s like we’ve already met!”
It was Hikaru Uchimi who encouraged Hatsumiya’s family. She is still in the unit that provides support by setting up bathing facilities.
“OK, put the rest of the hooks on.”
Hikaru is now in charge of training the unit. She passes on her experience from the March 2011 disaster to her juniors.
While serving in Ishinomaki, Hikaru received many letters from the children. She still keeps in touch with Hatsumiya who sends her letters with photos from time to time.
“Three years have passed already and you begin to forget some things. I look back and wonder how they’re doing. They give me a lot of encouragement.”
Looking back at the disaster relief mission, Hikaru feels some uncertainty. In the middle of those harsh conditions and unimaginable damage, did she respond with a positive attitude? Was she able to really encourage the disaster victims?
“Looking back, I wonder how much I was able to respond to the evacuees with a smile on my face. I think I could’ve been more considerate.”
However Hikaru shouldn’t be concerned. Her efforts had a great effect on the children. Serina’s drawings are clear proof. She drew this picture at Christmas that same year. The colors are bright and the girl is smiling.
The family treasures a photo taken with Hikaru, who lifted the children’s sprits.
Another family in Ishinomaki remembers the same unit from Yamagata.
Masahiro Koike and his wife Mikiko, run a barber shop in Ishinomaki.
Their shop and home, located on the coast, was completely destroyed by the tsunami.
The Koikes escaped to a library which was designated as an evacuation shelter. They remained there until the end of October, when they were finally selected by lottery to enter temporary housing.
Stuck in an evacuation shelter, the Koikes found a moment of comfort in the bathhouses set up by the Ground Self Defense Force.
“So what was the bath like? How did you feel?”
“It was like all the difficult and hard things just flew away. Words can’t describe how good it felt to soak in the hot bath. I was really happy.”
(Manaka Koike: Daughter)
“In the baths we talked a lot about how we were going to get through this disaster and what we were going to do after.”
(Mikiko Koike: Wife)
“I guess there are things that you can only talk about in a bath?”
“Yes, in the shelter we didn’t talk about the future much. But in the bath we often talked about our next step. It was different.”
The Koikes also have fond memories of the consideration shown by the unit. The unit’s kindness helped them through the long-term evacuation.
“The Ground Self Defense Force members always had a smile for us. And… if we needed anything... they always helped us so I’m so grateful.”
“Did you have a chance to thank them?”
“Well, you see, I tried searching for them on the Internet. But the only keywords related to the bath that I remembered were ‘Yamagata 6th Regiment.’”
When the Koikes hear Jason is visiting the camp in Yamagata they decide to write messages to the unit. It is a good opportunity to thank the members for all they did for them three years ago.
Jason returns to the Ground Self Defense Force Camp in Yamagata.
He delivers the Koike family’s letter to Hikaru, who is now in charge of training the mobile bath unit.
“Thank you for all your help during those hard times. On March 11th we evacuated to the library and stayed there for almost 6 months. We greatly appreciate all the supplies you brought us. When we heard you were building a bathhouse we were so happy. Because of your hard work, setting up early in the morning and cleaning after we had finished, we could enjoy a relaxing hot bath. And through it all, you never forgot to smile and take time to talk with us.
The children became closer to you because you greeted them when they left for school and returned. And they could go to you for advice… You were like their big brothers and sisters. And that led to the healing of their hearts. As Grand Self Defense Force members you not only took your mission seriously but also took the time to understand us. We were very encouraged by your actions. We sincerely thank you for opening up the children’s hearts again.”
(Letter from Mikiko Koike)
“How do you feel?”
“Well... as a member of the Ground Self Defense Force, I’m able to do things that I couldn’t do on my own, and help people who are in need…(crying) Excuse me… This really means a lot to me.”
“Before coming to Tohoku for this episode, I didn’t realize the big part the bath played in the healing process here. The talks that everyone had in the baths and the encouragement they gave each other and the support for the future they gave each other was priceless. More than just a hot place to clean their bodies, they offered an escape from the world, from their tragedies. I’m very happy that I was able to come here and grateful to meet everyone, and happy to learn from those in the bath.”