Reflections on the field trip in Otsuchi and Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, Japan

10th Feb – 12th Feb 2019

Traveling to the Iwate Prefecture through CAMPUS Asia seemed to be the perfect opportunity to meet a different side of Japan as an exchange student at Waseda University. Little did I know that I’d meet so many wonderful individuals from Peking University, Korea University, and Waseda University. And I definitely didn’t expect to feel so many emotions throughout the whole trip. I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn more about Iwate, and more importantly, about the people. A special thanks to Prof. Umemori, Prof. Koyama, Prof. Miyamoto, and Mr. Kokido for sharing their knowledge and experiences and their guidance throughout the programme.

Otsuchi Town and Kamaishi City were severely affected by the tsunami on the 11th of March 2011, which destroyed everything on its way, taking away many lives. The individuals we met have taught us so much just by sharing their stories with us. I truly admire the strength and resilience of their spirits. They were brave enough to open themselves to us, a bunch of students on a field trip with no clear idea of what would happen in Iwate. I don’t think there was a person among us who was ready for the vulnerability. It’s a hard thing to do – being exposed, standing in front of people while they lower their walls, one by one. Their words came directly from their hearts. It’s impossible to feel indifferent about what they’re going through.

Before the tsunami in 2011, Otsuchi wasn’t visited nor known. However, after the natural disaster, the town started to become associated with the tsunami and it makes some people unhappy. Still to this day, there’s conflict among the local population. For instance, the remains of the town hall was a dilemma for the local government. The population was divided into two groups – the ones who wanted to preserve it as a memorial (for some, it was the only thing that connected them to their loved ones who lost their lives there); and the ones who wanted to build something new. Miss Kamitani, the head of a local NGO and our guide, presented two cases to illustrate the situation:

  • an old lady defended that the remains should be preserved, as when she worked in the garden around it, she felt connected to her daughter who used to work there;
  • a man, who lost his wife and their kid, had to move to another city which is three hours away because the remains were a painful reminder. He comes back to Otsuchi on the eleventh day of every month to visit their grave.
Three messages are engraved: the danger of the tsunami after an earthquake; seek shelter on the highest place, and do not build houses near the coast.
A reconstructed temple. It has a story: the monk who lived there and his son were distributing supplies to the people who sought shelter in the temple after the earthquake. However, shortly after, the tsunami hit the temple and killed him and his family. His wife managed to survive. Their daughter, who was in Tokyo at that time, couldn’t bear the pain and committed suicide. A tragedy of this dimension not only affects the locals, but also their entirely family who might be living in other regions of Japan.
When climbing the hill to the evacuation area (the picture shows the view from the top of the hill), many people faced a dilemma – should they run for their own lives or help their loved ones (grandparents, younger children)? They faced awful and extremely difficult situations that one should go through because of a natural disaster.
The little green house also has a story: inside there’s a statue of a goddess. The things around the house were destroyed, but the statue remained intact. It became a symbol of hope and perseverance.

When we checked in at Horaikan, they received us with a warm welcome. After dinner, the owner of the hotel, Mrs. Iwasaki, told us her story. The tsunami push her away when she was in the hotel. Fortunately, she managed to survive. Even after that, she never thought of leaving. She stayed and rebuilt the hotel. It’s her home after all. Her choice says more than what I could write here.

The view in front of Horaikan.

On the 11th of February, two business owners based in Kamaishi shared their stories and challenges they face with us. Mr. Aoki, owner of a reconstruction company (Aoki Doboku), told us that the first job after the tsunami was to clean the rubble. The hardest part of their job was that they never knew what they would find in between the rubble. The company offered jobs for those who lost their previous jobs due to the destruction of infrastructure. Therefore, the workers he contracted were victims themselves, making their job extremely hard.

Mr. Kimihagora, owner of a seafood company (Yamakiichi Shouten), buys products directly from the local fishermen. It’s a small company with only eight employees. The products he sells have fame and are highly valued (especially the scallops) throughout Japan. Even though his company and its national impact are small, he wishes to continue to make his contribution in order to make more people know about Kamaishi. Both companies face many challenges due to the ageing population and lack of young people in the industries – issues that aren’t easy to solve.

Later on the same day, we went to Kirikiri to participate in a workshop with a non-profit organisation called Kirikiri Koku.

Mr. Haga’s wife taught us how to organise the pieces of wood.

Mr. Haga, the founder of the organisation, shared his story with us after the wood chopping activity. He chose to not sit when he told us his story in order to show us respect as we worked hard after he taught us how to chop wood.

Mr. Haga

His story touched us all:

During the time prior to the earthquake, he was just relaxing at home. It was a cold day. Then, when it hit, his wife went to the nursery to help the people there while he stayed in. He eventually left as well. On his way to the evacuation area, he saw an old lady, who was on her way to her relatives’ house, and he decided to help her.

When he finally arrived to the evacuation area, he knew what would come next: a tsunami. However, he realised that he left his dog at home, and without thinking, he went back to rescue his dog, even though he knew he was in great danger.

In the temporary shelter, which was the auditorium of a primary school, he listened to other people’s stories about them trying to save other residents whilst the tsunami was destroying everything on its way. After the tsunami, he and his wife went to the place where their house was, checking if it was okay. They found nothing. Everything was gone. The town was in broken pieces. How could they stay there after what happened? He told his wife that they should leave. His wife refused and said that she wanted to live just like her parents lived in their hometown, and protect their ancestors’ land. If a tsunami strikes again, they should go to the evacuation area like they did. After listening to her words, Mr. Haga felt ashamed. He realised that she was right: they couldn’t simply leave everything behind and run away. Still to this day they live together in Kirikiri.

He couldn’t fall asleep during the first night in the shelter. So, he decided to go out, and went to the place which was once a communal space. There was just wreckage. After a while, he started hearing a woman screaming names, perhaps her loved ones who were still missing… He followed the voice and finally saw her back, covered in snow. And he thought that, at that moment, she was the saddest person in the world. He felt her pain. He felt grateful that his family survived the disaster, and he concluded that he wasn’t a victim.

The temporary shelter didn’t have a heating system and it was hard for him seeing the children shaking because of the cold temperature. He felt he had to do something to provide some comfort for them. Thus, he decided to get gas from the gas station. He couldn’t ask permission from the owner because he was one of the people who were missing. Nevertheless, he decided to do it anyway for the sake of the children. As when Mr. Haga and some local residents were getting the gas, the owner appeared. Mr. Haga immediately kneeled down and apologised, calling himself a thief. The owner answered: ‘you are doing a good job. My business is only successful because of all of you, so let me return to the community.’, giving total access of his gas.

Mr. Haga could never fall asleep during the nights. He couldn’t stop thinking about the people who were missing. There was a fire at the children’s playground, and he decided to observe the fire. He did it for hours, and he told us that he felt like as if the bright flames were purifying his soul. He even asked questions to it – how can he go on with his life? How can he protect his family? What should he do now? And the fire answered. In fact, it said many things to him. The fire told him that he should move on with his life. After all, he was not a victim. And that he should pursue the passions of the people who lost their lives. The fire gave him strength. It wasn’t only the fire, but also the words of his wife and the screaming woman that became the sources of his inner strength.

In this way, he started his own non-profit organisation, Kirikiri Koku. Traditionally, the town had a big fishermen community. However, after the tsunami, only two fishermen survived. They felt as if they’ve lost the ocean. It made Mr. Haga turn to the mountains, which remained the same after the natural disasters. He saw value on them, and he decided to create an organisation in order to create jobs. They could become less dependent from the ocean.

His organisation only takes down trees which can’t grow anymore or the ones which are sick. Mr. Haga wants to preserve the good trees for future generations, just like the past generation planted the trees with the future generation in their minds. I was amazed by the sacrifice he’s willing to make and his long-term perspective.

Then, he told us that one day during the Summer, it was very hot and he had to stop walking as he was carrying heavy things. He decided to rest for a bit under a tree. As he looked up to the sky, he saw the faces of the people who passed away during the tsunami. He felt warmth in his heart and his body regained energy to be able to walk again. The same situation happens when he’s chopping the trees. The people are his source of strength and motivation. The memory of those who died in the tragedy isn’t a burden. On the contrary, he keeps them in his memory with determination.

He ended his story saying that ‘God’ for him wasn’t a higher entity, but the people who left an impact on him – the woman who was screaming for her loved ones, the people who helped him getting the gas, among others – God is everywhere, he said. And he still remembers the feeling of the fire he watched during that night. His soul was purified for the rest of his life.

Even before watching the fire, he had shown us that his values were never lost. He went back to his house, following the instinct to save his dog. His decision wasn’t logical, but it was a very human one.

The key concept of CAMPUS Asia Spring programme was empathy. We were taught that it’s okay to feel emotions rather than forcing ourselves to be logical and cold all the time. We were taught to express our feelings without being ashamed of them. I can’t stress enough how grateful I feel for being one of the people who listened to their words. I saw pain, but also a glimmer of hope. After all, it has been eight years. Some wounds, naturally, are still healing. The recovery process has been slow, but it isn’t something that can be rushed. On the contrary, one must be very careful. As Miss Kamitani told us, they had bad experiences with consultants and academics who came to Iwate and suggested many brilliant policy solutions; however, they didn’t consider how the local people felt about them in the first place. It made me realise how easy it was for us as well: we are there for a short period of time, we listen to them, we feel sadness temporarily, and then we finally leave.

Thus, her words really impacted me: I didn’t want to become one of the people who wanted to help but could leave so easily with their heartless solutions behind. I’ve been thinking a lot since I left Iwate. They were so kind, always with a smile in their faces. But I wanted to see beyond that, so I tried to put myself on their shoes. As I also grew up near the ocean, I could strongly relate to the deep connection that they have with it. Many people called them irrational – why would they want to stay in such a dangerous place? Why don’t they move to somewhere else safer? At first, I admit that I didn’t understand their decision either. However, after listening to their stories, I started to understand why. The immense love that they have for their hometowns prevailed over ‘logical’ decisions.

Gradually, I started to empathise with them. I imagined myself in my hometown, a small city on the coast of Portugal, and how badly the lives would be affected if a tsunami hits the city. Many people live near the coast, just like in Otsuchi and Kamaishi. Most of the people grew up in that small city, but we are proud of our origins, just like some residents of Iwate. I drew the similarities on my mind. But the people in Kamaishi and Otsuchi are, without a doubt, more determined. They know the fact that they live in a fragile place with the risk of being hit by a tsunami again and again in the future. And many of them refuse to leave their home anyway. They’re willing to make the sacrifice in order to continue the way of life of their ancestors. Mr. Haga’s emphasis on the importance of the work of the previous generations and his work for the future generations left an enormous impact on me. It’s something that my own parents often talk about with me – they want me to understand the sacrifices made for a better future not for ourselves, but for the people who will live here after us. It reminded me how powerful love can be. With love, forgiveness comes along. After going through so much pain and loss, their hearts never lost kindness. I concluded that there’s no irrationality at all. We can see clearly why they have chosen to stay in Iwate. It’s so much more than the beautiful scenery. Their long history and their strong bond to Otsuchi or Kamaishi make all of them connected to each other. And that’s something that not even time can make it fade away.

portuguese-chinese · rediscovering my old passion for writing · writer @NoodleShopMedia ☾

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