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Survivor pens ‘too painful’ 3/11 tale

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

‘March 11, 2011 — We will never forget the day. The disaster …

After the massive earthquake occurred, the huge tsunami destroyed this area.

Many citizens were lost and the survived people also received the deep crack in their hearts.

I had a narrow escape from the tsunami.

Was I fortunate? The answer is no. I survived only by chance. Only by chance …

We hope all the victims of the disaster rest in peace!

We should stand strong for the people who lost their lives.

We, survivors, cherish our seeds of lives or inochidane” (Ed.- meaning seed of life which includes the concept of destiny in a local dialect) which survived the disaster.

So, at first, we sow the seeds of hope in our heart!

Next, we sow the seeds of restoration for our home town!

And then … Let us sow the seed of happiness across the disaster-hit area.

So begins a 58-page book, titled “The Seed of Hope in the Heart,” written entirely in English by Teiichi Sato, a resident of the city of Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture.

The 57-year-old owner of a seed shop there, who self-published the book in March, says he had never read, let alone written, anything in English before he embarked on his project.

But, he says, the forces of the March 11, 2011, tsunami that engulfed Rikuzentakata and many other towns and cities along a 400-km stretch of the Pacific coast of the Tohoku region of northeastern Japan, were so ferocious, his physical and mental loss so aching — and his escape from the monster wave so narrow — that he felt compelled to put everything down in writing.

He chose English as his means of communication because, as he put it, it was “too painful” to write what he felt he needed to in Japanese. But to do so, he had to learn English from scratch, consulting a Japanese-English dictionary.

“There is no way I could’ve written about it in Japanese,” Sato told The Japan Times. “It still shocks me to hear the word ‘kanoke,’ whereas if I use its English equivalent, ‘coffin,’ I feel okay because it’s foreign. I couldn’t bring myself to write about the ordeal in my native tongue.”

I visited Sato at his roadside seed shop late last month, having taken the Tohoku Shinkansen from JR Tokyo Station to Ichinoseki, then changed to a local line to Kesennuma. From there, I caught a bus to Rikuzentakata; it runs five times a day and is now the only local public transport available. Rail operations between Kesennuma and Rikuzentakata, which are about 25 km apart, were paralyzed by the disaster, and it remains unclear whether the damaged track will ever be reconstructed.

As I got off the bus, on which I’d been the only passenger, at the top of a hill on National Route 340, and walked down the slope toward the ocean, a vast barren field came into view. What used to be the bustling commercial and residential hub of this city of more than 23,000 people — with a hotel, a baseball stadium, a shopping mall and a railway station — had vanished.

And the famous 70,000 pine trees that formed the backdrop to a 2-km stretch of shore — a photogenic forest which had presumably protected Rikuzentakata from big tsunamis that struck in 1896, 1933 and 1960 — were also gone. All I could see there was a bare grassy expanse with piles of debris, power shovels and a few damaged and windowless structures waiting to be torn down, including the city hall and a supermarket.

Sato rebuilt and reopened his shop five months after the disaster in the same place where he used to work and live, only 2.5 km from the shore. But it’s nothing like his previous establishment. The prefabricated, one-room structure is a second-hand shed he bought through an online auction site and assembled by himself. He made a shade out of vinyl plates for the plants, and reinforced it with wood he found among the rubble. Then he carved and hand-painted a couple of wooden signs, which he also made out of debris, and wrote in English: “I came back!!”

“Samurai sprites (sic) never give up!”

This well-built man with a weathered face even managed to dig a hole in the ground with handmade tools, and found a water source deep down, five meters below the surface.

As he recounts in his book, Sato, who now lives in temporary housing with his wife, says it was only a “chance” that separated him from all the other tsunami victims, who number more than 1,700 in Rikuzentakata alone.

In all the time since 2000 when Sato opened the shop in his hometown after working as a buyer for vegetable and fruit products manufacturer Nippon Del Monte for 25 years, it had never occurred to him that it and his whole neighborhood would one day be wiped out in minutes by a tsunami.

Even on the day of the disaster, he was initially relaxed, he recalled, misled by a tsunami alert repeatedly broadcast on national NHK radio saying the wave reaching the city would only be 3 meters high. That information was completely wrong, we know now, as the tsunami ended up being close to 15 meters high, flooding and destroying communities even 10 km inland.

Sato and his wife left the shop soon after the magnitude 9.0 quake struck that day — not because he felt any imminent threat of a tsunami but because he was worried about his aging mother living in an old wooden house in the mountains. “When I left, I told my neighbors that I would go and check on my mother,” he recalled. “A half of my neighbors have disappeared.”

Some 300 meters away from his shop and home, he later heard from other survivors, people were running, cycling and driving to a concrete railway bridge 10 meters above sea level, believing they would be safe there. They were all swept away. He says he could have easily gone there himself, had it not been for his mother.

As Sato drove, he recalled, he realized his car was running out of gas. “I thought about stopping by a gas station on the way,” he said. The gas station, he later found, was also swallowed by the wave. “My wife and I argued over whether to stop there and we decided not to; had we gone in, we would have probably died.”

He described how his sense of urgency went up several notches as he drove along the national highway. Congestion was growing, he said, and he felt increasingly intimidated by the cars behind him, despite himself driving faster than usual.

“Behind us, we felt a strange atmosphere and something was approaching,” he wrote. “Outside the car, we heard a noise, which was clearly not those of car engines.”

Eventually, he got to his mother’s house, which had remained intact. She was safe, though she was so horrified by the quake she was crying by the roadside, he wrote. They spent the next few days without electricity, without access to any news and therefore completely in the dark about what exactly happened to the city, Sato said.

He learned of the true scale of the disaster only when he was driving back toward the city a few days later and saw mountains of rubble along the way. Unable to reach the city center, he had to park his car when he could drive no further due to all the debris.

And just as I myself had so recently done, Sato then went down a hill off National Route 340 to get to where his shop and home was — only to be stunned by what he saw, he wrote.

“My seed shop was not visible to me,” are the words he used. “My expectation had gone somewhere in vain. I prostrated with grief. My knees were attached to the ground. I could not move in the shock. A domestic TV reporter was talking like a machine gun next to me. … I thought that was like another world.”

Sato decided to rebuild his shop where it used to be, he says, as he had no other choice. “I started selling seeds in a truck, at the end of March (2011),” he said. “I had stocked lots of seeds when the disaster struck, right before the planting season. All of my seeds were gone — leaving only my debt. I can’t wait for the government to rebuild the city. My reconstruction began immediately afterward.”

Nineteen months have passed since he lost everything, and 70 to 80 percent of his customers have come back, Sato said. Meanwhile, his English essay keeps growing as new ideas keep coming to him on what he wants to write about — such as the region’s history and his own research into the now-vanished 70,000 pine trees and how local people had started to plant them some 350 years ago. (He says his checks on damaged trees by the shore suggests few are that old, with most being around 100 years old — perhaps a sign that many others have fallen prey to previous tsunamis.)

Sato will complete and self-publish a longer version of his English book in time for the second anniversary of the disaster, on March 11, 2013. Meanwhile, he’s also been toiling away at a Chinese version of the book, though, like English, he has never written or read a book in Chinese.

“I don’t find it (writing in a foreign language) so difficult, though I don’t find it easy, either,” he said, full of a sense of mission to pass on the details and the lessons of the disaster to other people.

“There is nothing too hard to accomplish — when you think about the pain of being killed by a tsunami.”

To see an excerpt of “The Seed of Hope in the Heart,” visit www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20121216x4.html. To obtain a copy of the self-published book (available for ¥1,000, plus ¥200 postage to a domestic address), contact Teiichi Sato at taneuru@dune.ocn.ne.jp.