April 14, 2016


Message from Women in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake

Keywords: Disaster Reconstruction Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.163 (March 2016)

Image photo : Copyright Naomi Chiba All rights reserved.

Five years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake. What thoughts do disaster victims have now? How are they living these days? This issue introduces messages from three women, excerpted from a leaflet issued by Naomi Chiba, who continues recording what she hears from women in Ishinomaki, a disaster-afflicted city, about their disaster experiences.


On March 11, 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake caused immense damage in Eastern Japan. The earthquake and tsunami destroyed many valuable buildings, houses and other property, and took many precious lives. In Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, reconstruction and restoration is now gradually progressing; the city's appearance has been changing, with roads repaired; plants, companies and stores built or restored; and houses newly constructed. A mountain of problems, however, has hindered construction of public housing for disaster victims, development of land for residential areas and preparation for relocation to higher land. These have not been resolved even after five years have passed. Even so, the victims must continue their daily lives. Time passes relentlessly.

How about matters unseen? What have so-called "disaster victims" been thinking since the earthquake, and how do they feel about things? How have the women, in particular, been feeling? There are many women who still cannot rebuild their lives and have no choice but to put up with inconveniences. I started listening to their disaster experiences and recording what I heard.

Some of the women stood talking with me for 10 minutes. Others chatted for 30 minutes over tea. Yet others sat for interviews of more than two hours. I started recording what I heard in March 2014, three years after the disaster. I have recorded the stories of a total of 20 women. They are of various ages, differ in their living environments and suffered varying degrees of damage. No two women had the same life, underwent the same disaster experience, or shared the same thoughts or feelings.

Each of the 20 women is the one and only person who lived her own life before the earthquake, and has been living her own life since then. I believe that we can learn something meaningful from their words and pass their wisdom on to the future. Some readers may sympathize with any of the 20 women's lives, and others may identify themselves with these women.

Photo Photo
Image photo : Copyright Naomi Chiba All rights reserved.

(1) M.N. (in her 60s) May 17, 2014

On March 11, my jewelry store was hit by the tsunami and filled with sludge and rubble. I thought, "My store is ruined." Next day, however, I climbed a hill nearby and started to think about what I should do, what I would do and how I should live, and one idea struck me after another. I continued climbing the hill, Mt. Hiyori, each day. A week later, I went back to my store and realized that I was not the only person who had suffered from the tsunami.

I cleaned the mud-covered jewels at my store. While doing so, I came up with the idea of having my customers' jewels cleaned, since theirs must have gotten dirty, too. I sent postcards to 300 customers and had them bring their jewels to my store, then sent the jewels to a jewelry-cleaning company by parcel delivery. Later, I returned the clean jewels in beautiful bags or cases to their owners. The jewels were "reborn." I just wanted to help them have the jewels cleaned, not to sell products. After the earthquake, I started checking the newspapers for my customers' names in lists of fatalities.

I applied to a lottery for shop owner rights on a temporary shopping street and was chosen. I wanted to help others and thought I would do my best with the unique opportunities at hand. If I did something for others that would have made me happy, it would come back to me. I'm the type of person who turns thought into action immediately. I looked for a role for my shop in this town. I consulted with a bank. The bank may have recognized my enthusiasm and motivation. It listened to me and gave me advice. One of the bank employees told me, "I get good vibes from you, so I want to side with you." I can continue my business thanks to my customers, employees and people around me. I'm grateful to them. I would like to do something for them. I will go straight into action without hesitation. I believe I can make it. I will open the door by myself to take one small step. When I was in my 30s and 40s I underwent a series of hardships. I have wanted to be economically independent since my earlier years, so I had a neighbor look after my mother-in-law in her house.

My philosophy is live and let live. Don't compare yourself to others-- there is no point in it. "Image" is important, so I would like to create a decent shop, not an incomplete one, even though it will be open just temporarily. I say, the results will take care of themselves. Little opportunities may lead to strong connections with others. Care about others, because no one can live alone.

For one reason or another, people come to me to have a talk with me. Humans are wonderful. I am happy to be a human. After the earthquake, I learned how to use PCs and went to an announcement training class. I think I have a duty to be of help to someone. It is important for me to help others and face what lies ahead without fail. I had a severe illness when I was 39. Since the age of 60, I have done everything with all my strength every day. My life is full of curiosity. I'm like an eternal girl.

(2) C.D. (in her 60s) March 29, 2014

I sometimes remember the earthquake. In the aftermath, I used an old-type heater for warmth and cooking. I also used an electric heater. I walked or rode a bicycle or car to go places, and realized that physical strength was necessary. It is important to lead a healthy life daily. I cooked miso soup for volunteers and friends who hurried in to help me.

I want to care for the global environment. After the earthquake, I opened up my repaired house to local people and have been hosting gatherings with senior neighbors since then. Through these gatherings, I sometimes hear about things for the first time that happened just after the disaster, such as how my cat behaved when the earthquake occurred. I came to realize the importance of associating with neighbors such as by speaking to them frequently. If I let a neighbor know that I will go out for a while, I don't have to lock the doors of my house.

I realized I had been kept alive. "To live" means "to be kept alive." I wasn't killed by the tsunami. The disaster has changed something inside me. I've had a stronger urge to do things than before. I also think I should do something for people who died unwillingly. Some died because they happened to be at the beach that day even though their house was in the hills, and others died because after evacuating to higher ground, they thought it would be okay to return to their houses at a lower altitude. Some of my acquaintances survived by evacuating to a place at someone's beckoning. I ponder over the differences between those who survived and those who died in the disaster. When I consider why I survived, I feel like I have been requested to do something. For others. I ask myself what made the difference between life and death for people who were in the same place at the same time under the same conditions. The disaster may have revealed each person's nature. I want to consider human nature, ways of life, and what lies ahead.

I'm not attached to material objects any more. My sense of value over what I should care about has changed. Association with people, involvement with neighbors, and considerate words and behaviors toward others are all important. It may also be important to offer a helping hand gently and make good use of one's imagination. Having a variety of experiences enriches our lives and makes us more compassionate. What we need will come to us when really needed.

We must value nature. The tsunami brought black stinking sludge back to us from the ocean. My husband, son and I had to live together (with three cats) in a tiny room on the second floor of our house for a while, but I was happy and we were of one mind. Candlelight and a battery-powered light were our only sources of illumination. We woke up with the morning sun and went to bed with the sunset. We humans should change our way of life. We should focus on what we have instead of what we don't have. Nature repairs itself. I will take over a closed cafe one of my acquaintances used to own and reopen it in August 2014.

(3) Y.Z. (in her 60s) June 22, 2014

People in Ishinomaki ignored words carved on a stone monument: "Don't build houses from this point on to the seaside." Forty or fifty years ago, real estate agents would warn of tsunami risks at that location, but there were people who purchased land there anyway. Three years have passed since the disaster, but the reconstruction process is so tough for them.

On the day of the disaster, I thought -- as a person who was allowed to live -- I should live for people who lost their lives. I lost my neighbors and my house. It can't be helped. Others also had similar experiences. I saw many dead bodies. I was supported by many people and wonder how I can return the favor to them. I don't want any material things. Many people told me that being alive was enough even if they had no possessions. I was supported by their words. Certainly, I was also supported by supplies and others' hearts. I felt that people who had faith were strong, tender-hearted and gentle.

There is a plan to leave a disaster-stricken elementary school building as it is as a relic of the disaster, but I oppose it. Seeing the building makes me sad and reminds me of the fact that many people lost their lives. I am happy to live with my husband. I should not continue to be sad. Merely reconstructing our house is not the ultimate goal. I want to go see Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Three years -- three inexplicable years -- have passed since the disaster. I want to start a construction business.

For me, the loss of my elderly sister in 2013 was more painful than the disaster. I want to return the favor of kindness to someone at home or abroad. I am lucky that I have many friends. There are friends I talk with. Alone, a person can do nothing. Trust is important. We can do something about material goods. I have friends who invite me to stay the night.

I use my car not only to get around by myself but also to offer rides to acquaintances who lost their cars. Actually, I got my driver's license at the age of 45. I completely lost my house, but I'm all right, because I have family. After the disaster, I came to understand humanity and the inner thoughts of others. I was shocked when someone told me, "You had it coming." I won't meet or interact with bad persons. There were also nice people who travelled a long way to bring me rice and miso (fermented bean paste).

I want to live the way I like. I have worked for 20 years, so I have no regrets if I die at any time. I have taken care of others in my own way. Of course, I don't want to die and leave my husband alone. For men, living alone seems too sad. It does no good to think about it. I will stand up and face problems.

Before the disaster, I was into rings and leather items and had many kimonos, shoes and bags. I'm not interested in them at all anymore. I don't want to wear rings now. It's amazing, but there is nothing I want to possess. My desire for possessions is gone. In our earlier years, my husband left on a ship and I raised our children by myself. I left my children in someone's care to go to work.

In our future newsletters we will introduce others' messages, with Ms. Chiba's hope that their messages will reach women in Japan and elsewhere in the world.

For anyone wanting to contact Ms. Chiba, please email her at:

Photo Photo
Image photo : Copyright Naomi Chiba All rights reserved.

Written by Junko Edahiro