UM to Fukushima: Moving forward while looking back at the 3.11 tsunami

Naofumi Otani describes his experience on the night of 3.11. He says that the memory is always in front of him, even as he moves further away from it with time. (Katy Spence)

Editor’s note: Each year, Montana Journalism Abroad gives student journalists an opportunity to hone international reporting skills through on-the-ground coverage of a timely issue. This year’s class just returned from Fukushima, Japan, where students wrote about the effects of the nuclear crisis that followed the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. In the coming days, Missoula Current will present the University of Montana students’ work. You can access their complete report online at this site. We begin by going back to the day of the disaster.

Naofumi Otani biked into town as soon as the tsunami waters receded from his home on a hill. He saw no color and no sound on the familiar landscape.

“The devastation was like a war zone,” said the director of the library at Ishinomaki Senshu University. The sprawling coastal town of Ishinomaki was the hardest hit area by the tsunami of March 11, 2011. Thirteen percent of the town was flooded. Of the roughly 20,000 people who died in the earthquake and tsunami, 4,000 had lived here.

Otani was at home when the earthquake struck, rattling his house. His home lay behind one of Ishinomaki’s hills, which offered some protection from the sheer force of the tsunami. But the water couldn’t be stopped. It surged up the river, flooding the roads and creeping up into his house, step by step. On the first floor, the water came all the way up to his knees. Outside it was even higher.

Otani and his family ran up to the second floor of the house. They stayed there for four days, waiting for the water to seep away. When he emerged, he was shocked to see boats and ships in the streets. His two cars were destroyed by the flooding, so he biked into town to search for food and water. The town was silent, cold and gray. The receding water left a layer of black muck or silt on everything. The sky was dark and cold.

Then, Otani went to work. The campus was the only place he saw any color in the aftermath of the tsunami and he wasn’t the only one drawn to it.

Some students, faculty and staff  had remained safely on campus, which occupies a flat stretch 4 kilometers from the coast. Electricity, water and gas were out on campus and all over Ishinomaki. In the days that followed, helicopters brought rescued people from nearby islands and remote parts of town. Volunteer organizations set up tents. Japanese Self-Defense Forces brought food, water and portable toilets. The university emerged as an impromptu evacuation center and volunteer staging area.

Ishinomaki Senshu University wasn’t ready to be an evacuation center, Takashi said, but plans had been discussed for such a need and those were put into action.

Around 1,000 tsunami survivors came to the campus, Takashi said. They took shelter in the classrooms or on the university grounds.

By March 14, a volunteer center opened on campus, and soon the roads were cleared so that disaster aid vehicles could come through.

Naomi Chiba stands on the university field that became a campground for survivors of the Tsunami in 2011. (Sydney MacDonald)

Naomi Chiba, who also works at the library, said the university’s philosophy is to be open to the public, despite being a private school. There are no walls or fences blocking the campus off from the town. Chiba said that since 3.11, it has become especially important as a community center.

Chiba had been in the library when the earthquake hit. She recalls those days as a time of terror for her town and she truly thought that she, too, might die. Instead, she took shelter in the university with students, staff and faculty and threw herself into helping the hundreds of victims and thousands of volunteers who arrive to her campus.

She distinctly remembers the cold as she and the others stuck on campus survived the first three days without food. Finally, a truck carrying crates of bananas made its way through the flooded roads. On the first day, her ration was one-third of a banana, and she said it was like a gift. On the second day, she got half a banana. On the third day, everyone was able to eat a whole banana. She said she couldn’t eat bananas for a year after that.

She chuckled at the memory of the volunteers and survivors trying to figure out what to do with all of the banana peels leftover. “Now I can laugh about that, but at the time it was very serious,” Chiba said.

Ishinomaki is Chiba’s hometown, and 3.11 is more than just a memory.

“It’s a center of my life,” she said. “I can’t escape it.”

It took two weeks for the phone lines to be repaired throughout Ishinomaki. As soon as phones were working, restaurant-owner Chizuko Ujiee called the manufacturer of her kamameshi machine to put in a new order. Kamameshi is a traditional Japanese kettle rice stewed with broth in specially made iron pots.

The first floor of Takikawa, her traditional Japanese restaurant, was destroyed in the tsunami. The water covered the tatami floors, destroyed the shoji screens and rose all the way up to the ceiling. She returned when the toxic stew receded and was stunned to find a ship lodged into one of the rooms.

But Ujiee, 73, is a businesswoman through and through. She knew that the best thing she could do for Ishinomaki was to make a strong recovery herself. And there was no way she was going to let any other restaurateur steal her signature meal. So she reached for the phone.

“If you experience natural disasters like this, the first thing you should do is stand up on your own,” she said. “If you sit down and say, ‘Help me, help me,’ no one will help you. But if you stand up, people will find you and help you.”

The 103-year-old restaurant has been in Ujiee’s family for generations. She’s the third generation to own it and she plans to pass on the restaurant to her granddaughter when she’s of age.

Her customers also span the generations. Many people from the town whose companies had been washed away in the tsunami told her that Takikawa’s kamameshi brought back good memories of Ishinomaki.

The recipe has mostly stayed the same over the years. Ujiie still goes to the same farmer for the rice to use in the kamameshi. Luckily, that farm hadn’t been destroyed in the tsunami.

Ujiee said despite all the misfortune caused by the tsunami, there are “small fortunes” that can be put together.​

Otani considers himself very lucky to have not lost any family members in the disaster. He’s still searching for answers on how people move forward after such large scale destruction and grief.

Otani said he still looks at 3.11 as if it’s right in front of him. It’s a milestone that never fades, and one that he can never move around. He continues to go forward in life, day by day, working at the library that acts as a part-time community center, but his eyes remain on the day of the tsunami.