By Corinne Morier
“Tonari desu ka?” Are we neighbors? asks Yoshida-san, a former resident of Tomioka village, of us Americans as she shows us a map of Fukushima prefecture, pointing out the village and noting that it is on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. When she sees how many of us are from America, she smiles and bows slightly. “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!” Best regards, please!
Although some places in the prefecture avoided direct damage from either the earthquake or the tsunami, Tomioka village was devastated by what can only be considered a triple threat. First the earthquake, a magnitude 9.0 quake, the largest in Japan’s history, shook the village. Then the tsunami, a monster wave 21 meters high, engulfed the village in its monstrous strength. Based on the descriptions of those who witnessed it , it almost seems a shame to call it a wall of water. And as if that wasn’t enough, those who evacuated Tomioka village safely cannot return home because of radiation concerns.
We had the opportunity to hear the stories of women from the village — including Keiko Yoshida and Tomoko Endo — talk about what happened, before, during, and after the disaster.
The people of Tomioka were evacuated the day after the earthquake and lived for four days in the village of Kawamura as evacuees. After that, they moved to Koriyama City and spent the next few months of their lives living in the convention center. It was so cramped that each person only had a space large enough to lie flat on their backs; Yoshida-san describes it for us as “If you turn over in your sleep, you’ll be faced with a guy you don’t know.”
In a town of only about 15,000 residents, eighteen died in the tsunami and another six are missing and presumed dead. Another 240 are indirect casualties of the disaster: suicides, health problems and other issues that were a direct cause of being evacuated.
Endo-san, a dignified older woman with a kind face, also took a turn telling us her story. “So many things have happened in the three years, six months since the earthquake, that I’ve cried more than a few times,” she remarks.
A farmer in Tomioka, she grew rice and vegetables and raised cattle. She was putting fertilizer on the cattle’s feed when the earthquake hit. It was impossible to continue working, so she threw down her machinery and ran up the hill. She ran away from several cell phone towers that seemed as if they would fall over.
“This might be the end of the world,” she thought at the time.
Although there was no running water, electricity or phone service available, she stayed in her home that night, despite the terrifying aftershocks that continued to rack the earth. The next morning, they were instructed to evacuate to Kawauchi village. Endo-san made sure to feed the cows before leaving the house, thinking that she could return the next day or the day after that; all she took with her was a small shopping bag that she usually takes when grocery shopping. She remarks that she has never spent another comfortable moment in Tomioka or stayed overnight in her home since then. She did return every day from Kawauchi, traveling 25 kilometers to her hometown to feed the cattle, but although the police wore protective clothing such as masks and hazmat suits, none of the evacuees were given this sort of protection. They just wore their regular clothing, even in polluted zones.
When they were evacuated to Koriyama, she was given one blanket and a small space on the concrete floor and spent the next three months of her life there. Everything that she ate and all the clothes she wore were all given to her; nothing remained of her former life.
But through the help of volunteers who came in to the center to help, as well as the Self-Defense Armed Forces, she was able to have some semblance of a life. The armed forces created a sort of outdoor bath for everyone, in which she was able to clean herself and spend a few relaxing moments soaking in the hot water of one of Japan’s favorite pastimes. However, she spent the three months worrying about the cattle she left behind. The last time they had been fed was the morning of March sixteenth, and all she could think about was about how much time had passed since then, and were her cattle alive or dead.
Yoshida-san remarks to us afterward that Endo-san and others like her wear a “mask,” that although they seem in good spirits, when the day is over and they are alone again, the tears flow uncontrollably as they sit in their temporary homes.