A little over one year has passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. During that time, we have heard many stories about the destruction, loss of life, livelihood, property, the perseverance demonstrated and goodwill generated by this disaster.
We find it easier to connect to the disaster on a more personal level when the experiences are shared by someone many of us know in some way. Peter David Wilson, an easygoing English teacher from Vancouver, Canada, has been in Japan for 16 years, the last nine at James English School. He has settled down and started a family. He was living in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, one of the more devastated areas, when the disaster struck. Here is a snippet of his story.
Tell us about your first 24 hours after the earthquake.
At the time, I was teaching English to a small group (ladies in their early 60s) on the 3rd floor of the building. We made it halfway to the door and then things really started shaking and you couldn’t even stand up. The office was just trashed like out of a scene from a movie.
When it stopped shaking, we went outside wondering what do we do, and noticed people starting to gather near city hall. There was an announcement over the PA that there was a 6-meter tsunami coming, and recommending that we head to high ground to one of the evacuation centers.
Unfortunately, a lot of people lost in the tsunami lived through the large earthquake that hit Miyagi 30 years ago (a 7.7 magnitude, 5 on the Japanese scale, killed 28) and didn’t believe the tsunami would come this far inland or be that big. So there were some doubters as to the official announcement about the size of the tsunami heading toward us.
Anyway, we started evacuating in the snow up the hill to the city gymnasium, in a daze, completely in shock, without our jackets, with me just thinking about my wife and baby at home and my daughter in kindergarten. Once we arrived at the first shelter, we were then directed to another shelter, an elementary school, as this one was filling up. I also got word that was the school where my daughter and her class was now at. At the second shelter, I was able to get my daughter, and, luckily I got an email on my phone from my wife letting me know that they were fine. All communication went dead after that.
Now everyone at the shelter and outside looked shell shocked, blank looks on their faces but interestingly enough, everyone was acting very orderly, no pushing or shoving, no fighting. Everyone was calm -- maybe it's just Japanese culture -- but everyone was worried about everyone else.
How was life at the shelter?
At the shelter, one of the parents of a former student was there, noticed us and called out and offered to allow my daughter and I to stay at their house as it was not damaged. This was just my daughter and me, as I still had no idea of where my wife was at that time as all communication was lost after the earthquake but before the tsunami. We were reunited on the afternoon of the second day. While my office nearly landed in the street and everything was thrown about, nothing fell over in my apartment on the other side of town. My wife had to walk through knee-high water to get to the shelter and our apartment was flooded, but her experience was very different.
The earthquake was the traumatic experience for me; the tsunami, which I didn’t see from the shelter, was the traumatic part for my wife and mother-in-law. They had no chance to flee. They were about ready to get into the car and try to pick up our eldest daughter when the water started rushing in, so they took refuge in our neighbor’s apartment upstairs. They watched our apartment flooding and our neighbor’s car being washed away; the hazard lights came on, the alarm sounded until the car nose-dived and sank.
Back at the home where we stayed, one of the other families staying with us owned a sake shop which was flooded and trashed. Anyway, he make a few trips to his shop for some sake. We had some basic food and water from the shelter, and after the children went to sleep at night, we all just got drunk. We lived through a traumatic experience, and there was nothing else to do without electricity, water, etc.
How did you let the rest of the world know you were alive?
There was no electricity and my phone’s recharger broke due to water damage. Electricity came on a few days after that and then we heard about places that had found some phone reception. We were able to jerryrig a charger out of an old computer game charger and my broken charger. You could see people holding up their phones looking for anyplace with some reception and then when someone found a small area that just had one bar of reception, everyone would gather in that area to try to make a call.
Afterwards, why didn’t you leave Japan?
It was the second day when Fukushima happened, and I knew I was going to go back to Canada. My wife’s English is so-so, we have two little kids, we would have no job, nothing at all, but I didn’t care. We were alive. Better that we are alive and destitute and safe than have my family in danger.
I called the president at James English School to let him know about my decision to go back to Canada. It was not a call that I wanted to make as the school has been very good to me. He understood completely and I had explained that my number one issue was the Fukushima nuclear problem and wanted my kids out of here. I let him know that I would like to come back and work here again once the situation was safe.
The president at James offered to relocate me to a city called Tendo in Yamagata which was surrounded by mountains and there was no radiation from the reactors, and my wife and I decided it was a safe place. Our school was very supportive in relocating me, my starting schedule and teaching load at Tendo, etc. And this is not just with me; the school has been very supportive and understanding whenever a teacher had family problems, etc.
Had I gone back to Canada, I would have gone back to no job and would have left all of my wife’s family. I have an income and can come back on the weekends to help out and keep in contact with her family. Tendo is a quick 90-minute drive to Ishinomaki.
How has this experience changed you?
I have always been an easygoing guy, but many things do not bother me now as I feel that I am living on borrowed time and my family or I could have easily died that day. The little inconveniences don’t bother me and material items have lost importance. It is just stuff; my family is all that matters.
I also got to see how good some people can be. The people I stayed with, they are friends for life. Before the earthquake, I knew them just as nice people, but you really learn how generous people can be in such a situation. They were greatly affected by the earthquake, and they didn’t hesitate to open their home to as many as they could. No water, electricity, nothing, but their house was standing and they thought they could offer more comfort than the shelter.
What is one interesting thing you can tell us that we didn’t see on the news?
The smell. The smell was difficult to describe. Most of the homes here are on septic tanks, the gasoline and oil from the overturned cars, and all the sewers and drains were clogged up by debris, so the water didn’t recede in many places. And when the water did recede, there one big mass of black goop. It was quite an odor.
Tell us about your life now, one year after 3/11.
I still teach at Tendo, but come back to Ishinomaki every weekend to see my wife’s family and help out where I can. I would like to move back and work in Ishinomaki again as soon as we can. I’ve lived here a total of 16 years, so Ishinomaki is my home.© Japan Today