Kesennuma Filipinos closer-knit than ever

by Setsuko Kamiya

Staff Writer

Like many residents of this port city known for its rich bonito, saury and shark fin catches, Marivel Gunji had worked in the fisheries industry, in her case for more than a decade. When the earthquake hit March 11, she was at her factory slicing up fish that seemed to suddenly come back to life.

“It shook so hard that the fish were bouncing and bouncing, as if they were alive,” said Gunji, a 32-year-old Filipino who came to Japan 13 years ago. “I was really surprised because it shook so strong.”

So was everyone else. When the quake stopped, Gunji’s boss urged everyone to evacuate. Gunji heeded the warning but soom found herself in the middle of a traffic jam caused by others trying to flee the impending tsunami.

Of all the foreign ethnic groups residing on the coast of the Tohoku region, Chinese and Filipinos were two of the largest to experience the magnitude 9.0 quake and tsunami.

The minority groups are a vital part of the fisheries industry, which like others in Japan is suffering from a shortage of workers.

But while many Chinese work as fish-processing trainees, the Filipinos are mostly women married to Japanese who have established a new life in the community.

Some have since returned to their home countries. But others, including Gunji, remain resilient, choosing to face the difficulties and strengthen their community bonds.

Gunji and her friends told The Japan Times that a major quake that struck the northeast coast on March 9 was a deceptively weak precursor to the Great East Japan Earthquake two days later.

Many expected tsunami, but not on a scale that would swallow the port, destroy its factories and claim thousands of lives.

“After the earthquake on March 9, there was a tsunami that came up around knee high, but that was it. So we all went out to sing karaoke that night,” recalled Charito Ito, 37.

Judging from their previous earthquake experiences, they were used to thinking tsunami would only reach that level. But on March 11, while Gunji was stuck in traffic, she witnessed fishing boats being pushed onto land as the ocean invaded.

Horrified, she stopped the car to call her husband, but to no avail.

“I couldn’t reach him because the cell phone wasn’t working anymore,” Gunji said, adding she was panicking by then.

Before she knew it, her car was floating. And when a nearby house was washed away, the force of its uprooting made her car spin round and round on the spot.

She also remembers seeing propane tanks swirling around with it, caught up in the same eddy that claimed her car.

Gunji survived by escaping from the rear window, which had been knocked out by chance by another floating car that hit hers. She was then rescued by residents on the third floor of a nearby apartment building and remained there until they were picked up by Self-Defense Forces members the next day.

Gunji survived the ordeal uninjured and was able to reach her home and reunite with her family.

Gunji’s friends Maria Sugawara, 40, and Jennifer Sato, 31, who were working at other fish processing factories in the area, said they were able to leave quickly and avoid the traffic jam and pick up their children.

Felina Kumagai, 43, said she and her work friends drove together but at one point decided to stop and run to an elementary school where they barely escaped being swallowed by the tsunami.

As for Ito, she was off that day and at home when the quake hit. She took her elderly neighbor by car to a community center to escape the tsunami but ended up going to another place when the water encroached, she said.

The day was completely different for Rachel Takahashi, 40, who was on a bullet train headed for Tokyo to fly to the Philippines for two months.

The quake stopped the train between Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, and Omiya, Saitama Prefecture, at 2:46 p.m.

“When I first saw on television that the city of Kesennuma was washed away by tsunami, I was shaking. I feared that everyone died,” said Takahashi, who has lived in Japan for 18 years.

Since cellphone service was dead, it took a few hours before she could find out if her family was safe.

When she got through, it turned out that the house was fine — except for the first floor, which was flooded by about 1 meter of water.

Takahashi, who acts as a kind of big sister to other women in the local Filipino community, canceled her trip to the Philippines and tried to return to Kesennuma.

It took about 10 days to get home, however, because transportation to Tohoku was limited.

“It was very hard being away from my family,” she said. Takahashi spent that week with her sister-in-law in Chiba Prefecture, while calling all her Filipino friends to confirm their safety.

“When I learned that someone was alive, I wrote their names on my Facebook page, because I wanted to let their families in the Philippines know they are okay,” said Takahashi, a full-time mother to two teenagers, aged 14 and 16.

One local Filipino woman ended up being claimed by the tsunami.

Survivors interviewed at Takahashi’s home managed to save their homes. The historic temblor knocked down cupboards and shelves, turning their homes into a mess, they said.

Some were reluctant to clean up for a few days because of all of the aftershocks. And although they managed to avoid going to shelters, living at home meant they lacked water, electricity and gas. And there were no places to get necessities, either.

Thanks to church groups, nonprofit organizations and the Philippine Embassy, which came searching for them, the Filipino community of Kesennuma has been receiving the supplies they need and are managing to get on with their lives.

“We’re very grateful, because many Japanese who are living in their own houses don’t have enough support,” Ito said.

Takahashi and Ito have made a list of all the Filipinos in Kesennuma and their families and dividing and distributing the relief goods they receive. It was actually the first time they learned that there are more than 60 households with Filipino women in Kesennuma, they said.

It was through a Tagalog-language newspaper received a few weeks later from a support group that Ito said she and others learned about the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis.

“We can read Japanese to a certain level but need help when there are some difficult kanji,” she said.

While the radiation scare worries them, jobs and income are their biggest concerns. Most worked as full-time employees and are now on unemployment insurance. Their spouses also lost jobs.

Having school-age children means they will continue to need income. But the prospects look grim.

Worried families and friends back home have urged them to return to the Philippines. But the women said they are attached to their lives in Kesennuma.

“Of course, I want to go and see my family and reassure them that I’m well. Even though I tell them I’m OK, they are always really worried about me,” Takahashi said.

“But we have kids and family here. And I want to make sure my Filipino friends here are OK. So it’s not easy to go back.”

All the women said they came to Japan via marriage but had to learn the language and the culture through their husbands and mothers-in-law.

But after more than a decade here, Kesennuma is now their home.

Ito and Gunji still can’t help crying when they pass by and see the factories they worked at in complete ruins.

But if there is a positive side to this devastating experience, Takahashi said the Filipino community has been able to strengthen its network and is helping each member work through their anxiety. Although they knew each other before, they only got together occasionally, Takahashi said. Now it is different.

“Because they are all out of work now, we can now get together during the day. We eat and have good laughs together. It’s actually good, because if we’re at home by ourselves, there’s too much to worry about,” Takahashi said.

“It’s hard not to recall what happened, but it doesn’t help to look back. We need to move forward,” she said.