Following the most powerful earthquake ever to hit Japan, the sheer scale of the tsunami which smashed into northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011 was unprecedented. Coastal communities were devastated by waves which at their highest reached 40.5 meters above sea level, travelled up to 10km inland, and swept everything along with them. Mud, debris, cars, boats, houses, and fire.
The small town of Otsuchi in Iwate Prefecture was one of the hardest hit. About 10% of the population perished or went missing, including the mayor and many town officials. Iwate’s leading local newspaper, the Iwate Tokai Shimbun, was unable to continue operating as their printing press was washed out to sea, and two of their reporters were killed.
In 2012, a group of journalists banded together to once again start reporting the news from Otsuchi to support the town’s recovery, using the Internet to connect with people. Tsunami survivors have shared their stories of terror, panic, suffering and hope for the future through this new newspaper, known as the Otsuchi Mirai Shimbun (Otsuchi Future Times). These stories have been translated from the original Japanese into English by a team of 28 hard-working volunteers from Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S., and published on the second anniversary of the disaster as a Kindle ebook.
Here are some excerpts from these true stories of survival:
“Otsuchi was a giant washing machine. Round and round the whirlpool spun. Cars and houses that had been swept away came smashing into my house, with a grinding sound. The volume was incredible. Amid the noise, I heard voices saying, “Please help—!” and hissing sounds from leaking propane tanks. Car horns were beeping from alarms that had short-circuited. Although I could hear people calling out, “Please help! Please help!” I couldn’t see anyone.
Then there were others who were trapped like I was, being swept away on their rooftops. I could see them being swallowed into the vortex, one by one. It was sometime past 3, so the late afternoon sun glinted across the scene.
What I remember vividly to this day was a guy wearing a blue anorak and jeans, a slender fellow with an armband—he was waving at me. 40 or 50 meters away (approx.130-164 ft). It wasn’t like he was asking me to help. He had a big smile on his face, as if to say, ‘You too, huh?’” (Written by Kayo Mimizuka, translated by Aya Nakazato and Daniel Cook).
“In amongst the floating debris were people crawling, waving their hands and crying for help, but we couldn’t help them. We could see people in the water, and couldn’t stand it. My mother was panicking, saying we had to get away somewhere, and though there was nowhere to run to, she paced around the roof. In a situation like that, if you panic, you die, and we had to think of what to do next. Anyway, I was thinking of trying to retrieve anything we could use from the debris, but I kept catching sight of people being swept away. I’d see them, then they’d be swallowed up. The floating debris was like a living thing; you could see it flowing, but looking closer, as it flowed along it was constantly moving and changing.” (Written by Kahoru Yuki, translated by Eriko Masuda and Sharni Williamson).
In Otsuchi today, debris has been cleared away and grassy plots remain where buildings once stood. Local businesses have reopened in prefab temporary buildings- about 40% of the surviving townspeople still live in temporary housing units. The trauma lingers, but the community still has a strong beating heart. As survivor Miyoko Abe (60) puts it, “Otsuchi is a great town. I want to rebuild as quick as we can. Make Otsuchi come alive again so that the people who moved inland come back.” The first few steps have been taken along the road to recovery.
"Life after the Tsunami: A Collection of the Otsuchi Mirai Shimbun News Reports” (JCEJ) which features 21 true stories, is available from the Amazon Kindle store: Amazon Kindle Store: Life After The Tsunami
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