Embracing 3.11 – On-the-spot report from a volunteer of disaster-relief activity for the Tohoku Earthquake – [NO.1]

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Photography and Text/Julian Ross


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It appeared, after the waters receded, that the rubble piled up to the second floor.


Destruction beyond belief. Even after blanket TV coverage of horrific images, I was not prepared for the abject misery that is Ishinomaki.

As we drove slowly through the mounds of rubbish on either side of the street, the sides of every house carried the high water mark of the tsunami. Here it was 2 meters, far short of the maximum 37 meters, but enough to destroy the entire ground floor of every house in the area. Those who had returned to what was left of their houses were methodically throwing out all their possessions onto the street.

“When cars started floating past my house, I dropped everything to save my wife, mother and myself,” said the brawny sixty-something year old. As he spoke quietly, his fingers restlessly writhed with unvoiced tension.

“The water was already above my waist. Our only hope was to get up the stairs to the second floor, but the water was rising too fast. I grabbed my mother in one arm and young grandchild in the other, but the water ripped the toddler out of my grip. When the water receded four days later, I found her lying face up.” As the words came tumbling out, our team of five volunteers could only listen.

“My mother, half paralyzed, couldn’t get up the stairs on her own. The freezing water rose fast, carrying us and the furniture toward the roof. I gripped her tightly in one arm and punched a breathing hole through the approaching living room ceiling with my other. And there we stayed suspended for 30 minutes as the tsunami reached its peak with just a little air-gap left. But my weak mother couldn’t take it. She softly told me it was time to meet her parents again after so long, then silently slipped away. And my wife soon followed her.”

“When the first tsunami receded before the second bigger wave came, I could get up the stairs to the second floor. After a freezing night, the next morning I could see my daughter on the roof of the house opposite, clinging onto her daughter. Their feet had frozen in the icy water during the night, so I swam across and hauled them back to my second floor. I could see another two neighbors on their roof, but they weren’t moving.”

“That morning, we saw something floating toward our house, and realized it was a woman clinging to the top of a tatami mat. We managed to grab her as she passed and hauled her in, but she was severely lacerated and weak from the cold, and she soon died. Like my wife and mother, I guess she was lucky not to die on her own.”

There are hundreds of thousands of similar, untold stories. They do not appear in the media.


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They, one of the devastated household, showed a little smile on their face after we helped them clean up their home.


Julian Ross
Julian Ross has lived in Japan since 1990 and works as a freelance technical editor. (When not working, he can usually be found hiking in the mountains with his dog, also from the UK.)


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