Personal Stories of Surviving the Japanese Tsunami

It’s hard to know where to begin writing memories of our return visit to Rikuzantakata, a city devastated by the North East Earthquake and Tsunami of March 2011. My husband, Richard, and I visited the area after a year the disaster with Cocoro, a small aromatherapy charity. We went back in September 2019 to mark the closure of the charity. We’re pictured below with others therapists from the charity.

Reconstruction Underway

When we arrived in Rikuzentakata this time we were surprised by how much building work was still taking place. We had expected a fuller recovery.

However, the infrastructure is in place with new roads and train lines. Impressive 12m high sea walls are in place to withstand another natural disaster. New shops, hotels and schools have been rebuilt and fishing boats are back on the sea.

Several key buildings such as the Youth Hostel and Elementary School have been kept in a state of ruin to recognise the courage of those who risked their own lives to help others, and as a memory of those who died.

First-Hand Experiences

But it is the personal stories from local people of such immense trauma and loss that will be our lasting memory from this visit. With the help of interpreters, we were able to hear first-hand experiences from people who had survived. Until now many had chosen to keep their suffering to themselves. Now they were keen to share their harrowing experiences as a way of making some sense of what had happened to them. Sharing stories helps keep alive the memories of everyone and everything that had been lost. A headmaster told us that children are also now starting to write down their memories. They still can’t talk about their feelings, but they can write them down. Regular in-school counselling will be needed for many years to come.

Stories of Terror and Tragedy

Local people told us about running away from the terrifying ‘wall of white’, holding on to children’s hands and trying not to listen to the screaming around them. They told us about sheltering in the cold without water or electricity waiting and waiting for help. Some had to wait two weeks before they knew their children were alive. One lady (pictured above)  told us how she had to identify her father-in-law among a pile of bodies. She said there were adults, children and babies. Many were missing limbs or badly disfigured. It is is sight that still haunts her. She had been with her father-in-law in their shop only minutes before the tsunami hit, but made the difficult decision to run to her daughter’s school to help save her.

We heard stories about flashbacks to the feeling of ground sinking behind their feet and cars being tossed in the air. People told us exactly where they had run to high ground to escape. They showed us where they had lived and worked – now unrecognisable. They described how they had seen their homes and all their belongings and precious possessions being washed away – one house after another house.

 

One couple (pictured below) explained how their small aromatherapy oil business was completely destroyed and their son killed. It took enormous spirit and support from the local community to gain the motivation to restart the company.

Remarkable Women

Eight years after the disaster, local people are recognising the need for continuing physical and emotional self-care. I was invited to run a self-care workshop for some remarkable women, many of whom were school teachers, who had been in the midst of the tragedy and saved the lives of children with their courage and care. They are pictured below holding hand-made hearts, taken as gifts from the UK, and very much treasured and appreciated.

These women had received massages from Cocoro Charity therapists immediately after the disaster. They found it so relaxing and therapeutic they asked for training so they could bring the power of positive touch to others. They formed their own off-shoot of the charity – Cocoro Ria – with 22 members and made regular visits to temporary homes bringing massage, refreshments and friendship to the elderly.

Self-Care Workshop

With the closure of the charity, members of Cocoro Ria were invited to my self-care workshop to take some ‘me time’ to reflect on their future and explore ways to help care for themselves. They talked at length about how the charity had given them a sense of purpose and community which they will miss, but these resilient women were also looking forward to a new future.

We practiced self-massage techniques, had some fun with Story Massage, and worked on Vision Boards, a totally new but very successful exercise for them. Many said that since the tsunami they had not looked after their own needs. After working on their vision boards, they now they have plans which include travelling, wearing stylish clothes, taking a full aromatherapy diploma and replanting their gardens with flowers.

The Tree of Hope

We left the area with a real feeling of hope. And this was emphasised by our visit to a new memorial park and exhibition centre built around the ‘Lone Miracle Pine Tree’ – the only tree from 70,000 pine trees to remain standing after the tsunami. The tree became known as the Tree of Hope. Sadly, it was so damaged by sea water that it died. However, the City preserved it as a symbol to honour the deceased, and of hope and recovery. And now the park can be visited by local people and others from all over the world who wish to pay tribute to those who died and those who survived – and to find out more information from the displays of artefacts and video footage.

My Personal Reflections

Listening to the terrifying experiences of local people and looking around the exhibition certainly helped to put my own concerns into perspective. It made me determined to live each day to the full. Spending time with these inspiring women taught me far more than I could ever learn on a life-time of workshops.

 

 

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