Japan’s Victims: Surviving Day by Day

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Jun Suzuki stands inside a room at the Tokubetsu Yogo Homu Jikeien, a special nursing care home for the elderly, where he and his parents were caught in the tsunami floodwaters in Minamisanriku during the March 11 Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami that devastated the northeast coast of Japan. He and his parents survived when the waters receded after peaking only one foot from the ceiling inside the nursing home. Two months after the disaster, the water line, just a foot below the ceiling, is still visible. (Photos by Darrell Miho)

By DARRELL MIHO
Rafu Contributor

Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture.–It’s 4:50 in the morning and golden rays of sunshine are already streaming through the glass block windows at the Shizugawa High School Judo Dojo.

The sound of rustling blankets can be heard coming from one corner while sounds of snoring emanate from all around. The sliding metal door opens and closes as early risers tend to their morning business.

There is no running water. Six portable toilets are lined up outside the dojo – three for women and three for men. A five-gallon plastic jug with a spout and a plastic bowl serve as a temporary sink. Soap, hand sanitizer, paper towels and a wastebasket sit next to the jug of water. Cleanliness is of the utmost importance to prevent the spread of germs and diseases.

At 5:30 a.m., Jun Suzuki is standing outside the entrance of the dojo wearing a pair of burgundy sweat pants and a long-sleeved black t-shirt under his black surfboard aloha shirt. While he takes his morning smoke, two ladies walk by and they greet each other with a softly spoken “Ohayou gozaimasu.” It’s a friendly exchange between fellow evacuees.

5-year-old Ruka Sato, left, and Sena Sato, 4, play with hula hoops at the Shizukawa High School Evacuation Center.

The morning is brisk as a new day begins at one of the 41 evacuation centers set up in Minamisanriku after the March 11, magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan and nearly wiped out this small fishing port in the Miyagi Prefecture.

Suzuki is one of 105 residents at the Shizugawa High School Evacuation Center that sits on a hill above the town where his house once stood just over 12 weeks ago. Most of the residents here escaped with only the clothes on their back. Some, like Suzuki, are just lucky to be alive.

At 5:50 a.m., Suzuki walks across the soccer field and down two flights of stairs to the Tokubetsu Yogo Homu Jikein, a special nursing home for the elderly, where he and his parents fled after they saw the tsunami engulfing their hometown. Inside, he walks down a dark, debris-littered hallway and leads us into the room where they were trapped by the tsunami floodwaters.

Over two months later, you can still see the brown waterline just below the ceiling indicating just how close they were to drowning. There was only a foot of air space left to breath. He reaches up towards a metal curtain rod and explains how he hoisted himself up to keep his head above the water.

“I thought I was going to die,” he said. If the water kept rising for another few minutes, he and his parents probably would have joined the list of over 14,000 people confirmed dead or missing in the Miyagi Prefecture alone.

Suzuki’s story is just one of the many survival stories to be heard from evacuees who now live in 2559 shelters located throughout Japan. While their lives have all changed forever, the residents try to move forward and return back to as much of a normal life as one could possibly have under the circumstances.

At 7:00 a.m., the school children are all dressed in uniform and board shuttle buses bound for schools in Iwanuma, 30 minutes away. The parents who still have jobs go to work just as before. Others do chores around the shelter. The elderly go for walks or sit around drinking tea, eating sembei and talking with their new neighbors on the other side of the three-foot-high, 1/8 inch-thick cardboard wall that separates them. This is their new life living in an evacuation center.

Students cram in to the small study room at the facility, to get their school work done.

There is very little privacy. As you walk through the shelter, you can see inside each family’s living space. You can see who’s neat and who’s messy. One family made a door that opens and closes. Another made a sliding door held by a clothes clamp. Blankets are neatly stacked against the cardboard walls.

There are 40 families living in the roughly 3,000-square-foot dojo. None of the cardboard cubicles is more than 70 square feet. Despite the cramped quarters, there have been no conflicts. Everyone has adapted well to their new living conditions. Everyone understands each other’s plight. This is their new community.

At noon, lunch is served for the few residents who remain at the dojo during the day. There is a full kitchen they can use to prepare family style meals in large metal pots and bowls. Today, they are having packaged onigiri (rice balls), takikomi gohan (mixed rice) and miso soup.

After lunch, some residents walk upstairs to browse through the free market. Residents can pick up everyday items like diapers, soap and clothing as well as books, toys and school supplies free of charge.

Outside, final touches are being completed on the newly constructed temporary housing units. The protective fencing is being removed and asphalt was being finished and sealed, but the units will remain uninhabitable for the near future. There is still no running water in many parts of Minamisanriku. The water supply is still contaminated from the tsunami that flattened this quiet town nestled between the hills of cedar trees and the Pacific Ocean.
Wet clothes dance on the clothesline in the afternoon breeze while another load of laundry is agitating in the washing machine. Nearby, Sena Sato, 4, and Ruka Sato, 5, each play with a hula-hoop.

At 2:30 in the afternoon, Japanese Self-Defense Forces from Okinawa, who are stationed at the high school, off load cases of dried kitsune udon into the school’s gym which serves as a warehouse for supplies. Shortly after, they carry jugs of hot water to be used for an evening bath.

A group of dentists arrive at the shelter to inspect the dentures of some of the residents. Doctors and counselors make regular visits to ensure everyone’s physical and mental well-being. Volunteers do everything from cleaning the portable toilets, taking the elderly to run errands and playing with the children.

Evacuees line up for dinner at the Shizukawa High School Evacuation Center in Minamisanriku. Evacuee living spaces are divided using cardboard boxes and packing tape.

At 5:30, dinner is served. Evacuees line up and pile styrofoam bowls of rice, cucumber salad, watermelon and packaged onigiri onto makeshift plastic and cardboard trays and shuffle back to their living areas to eat with their family. Suzuki hands beer to those of legal drinking age. One resident smiles and slides two cans into her apron pockets. It’s not fine dining, but there is enough for everyone.

After dinner, students head upstairs to a small room with square modular shelving on each side and a table in the middle. Five students are crammed into the 60-square-foot space to study with no computers and no internet.

Just steps outside, some other students are treated to a special lesson in the multi-purpose room, equipped with folding chairs and tables. On one side, folded ping pong tables separate it from more living spaces. Empty supply boxes are stacked to create two more walls. On this particular night, a few soldiers from Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are teaching the kids sanshin, an Okinawan style of the shamisen.

At 9:00 p.m., it’s lights out. The sound of rustling blankets and snoring returns to the dojo as solar-powered portable lights illuminate the walkways. Most of the residents call it a night. Some sit outside, smoking a cigarette and talking amongst each other.

The future is unknown for these evacuees. Many are not sure if they can stay. Government officials have yet to make a decision on whether or not the residents can rebuild in the tsunami zone or if they must relocate.

For Suzuki, Minamisanriku is his home.

“I wish I can stay in my hometown.” he said. “This is where I was born.”

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