English translation tells tales of 100 Miyagi tsunami survivors

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

It was the inspiration and eagerness of Hitomi Nakanishi, an Australia-based Japanese scholar, that led to the publication of an English-language book with recollections and photos of the experiences of 100 survivors of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami in and around Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture.

Nakanishi, 37, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Canberra, told The Japan Times last week that she wanted as many people as possible around the globe to know about the book, which she believes will help prepare them if a disaster hits their own country.

The book is an English translation of the Japanese version, which was published in 2012 by Tokyo-based publisher Junposha Co.

The same publisher released the English version on March 10 to commemorate the third anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami.

The stories in “Surviving the 2011 Tsunami: 100 Testimonies of Ishinomaki Area Survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake” first ran in the Ishinomaki Kahoku newspaper from June 2011 to March 2012 in a series titled “My March 11.”

The newspaper is published daily by Sanriku Kahoku Shimpo Co., headquartered in Ishinomaki.

Nakanishi came across the Japanese book when she visited the newspaper publisher in summer 2012 during a tour of the tsunami-affected areas in Tohoku.

She was immediately struck by the astounding accounts of the tsunami that swept the coasts of Ishinomaki, Higashi Matsushima and Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture, and soon came up with the idea of publishing the book in English.

“I asked via the Internet for volunteers who would translate Japanese into English, and soon managed to gather 26 volunteers — both Japanese and Australian,” she said.

Sixteen Australian volunteers — most of them English teachers that Nakanishi found with the help of the Japanese Embassy in Canberra — did the editing and proofreading.

One of the subjects in the book, 35-year-old Yukako Sasaki, vividly describes how, pregnant and with just days to go before her due date, she climbed the stairs to the third floor of her sister’s house — worried all the while that her water might break and she would suddenly give birth. With her niece, she spent the night in the house while down below muddy floodwaters shattered the front door and inundated the first floor.

“After a sleepless night, the piled-up cars and the people who had most likely lost their lives were visible from the window. I could tell that something really awful had happened, but if I looked outside, my pains would appear so I waited inside the storage room to be rescued,” Sasaki is quoted as saying in the book.

She gave birth to a boy six days later.

Another survivor, Masayoshi Kotono, 49, recalls: “Houses and cars being washed away by the tsunami, raging with fire, were now coming toward me. I would rather drown than be burned to death, I said to myself and jumped into the water. It was perhaps this desperate decision that determined my fate.

“No matter how hard I tried to swim, I was swept back to the hillside again and again by the force of the waves. I couldn’t reach the building. Just when I felt the muscles in my arms and legs had reached their limits, I grabbed on to some rubble that just happened to come floating toward me. I was washed away several hundred meters and then managed to crawl onto a house I had landed on by chance,” he said in his testimony.

Nakanishi cited two reasons for seeing her book project through.

For one thing, she believed that people around the world could use it to prepare for a possible disaster.

“One can find many tips in the book on how the Japanese prepare for a disaster in daily life on a personal level — such as which route to take and where to evacuate, how one can cooperate with the neighbors, etc.,” she said.

“This is very useful for the people of the world to know — especially for people that live in areas that may be prone to natural disasters like the earthquake and tsunami. They can apply the knowledge and information from what is written in this book. It’s important to let them know how important, and how much difference it will make for each person to prepare for a disaster.”

Secondly, Nakanishi said, she thinks the knowledge and experience contained in the book can also be useful in the field of urban planning. For example, “even with a 5-cm water level difference, some towns were washed away, and some weren’t,” she said.

“In the 2011 tsunami, water came from different parts of the ocean in a complex form. I think this can be sample material to investigate further about landscape and urban planning,” she added.

Mina Nishisaka, 35, a volunteer translator based in Tokyo, said that she couldn’t stop crying when she translated the stories.

“The stories were so vivid that I had to stop typing many times — just thinking about the horrific experiences the survivors had to go through,” she said.

“For those of us who did not actually experience the Tohoku disaster, the horrific scenes we witnessed that day (on TV and other sources) are not as vivid as they were three years ago. People tend to forget, and sometimes that is one way to move on, but this book reminds me that we must not forget the lives lost and the precious lessons we learned from this tragic disaster.”

She added that giving the stories an English voice “allows these lessons to be shared all over the world.”

“Keeping the voices of the tsunami survivors alive is one of the most important things we can do to save lives when and if another disaster should strike,” she said.

Another volunteer translator, Motoko Kimura, 35, said that not only does the book provide a good lesson about the tsunami disaster that many can learn from, but each story also tells the reader about “the value of human lives, human dignity amidst despair, and the courage and spirit of cooperation among the victims at the time of the disaster.”

“It’s often difficult for Japanese information to reach the world due to the language barrier — especially such things as the truth of the March 11 disaster,” she said.

“I hope that as many people as possible from abroad — including those who live in Japan, those from countries that have earthquakes, and countries that are now trying to recover from war or a disaster — to take a look at the book.”

Project leader Nakanishi said that disaster prevention and reduction are being emphasized today, and that it’s important “to learn from the disasters that already happened, and prepare ourselves for the future.”

“In this book, there are so many photos and maps, and the words of the survivors,” Nakanishi said. “I think it’s a very rare piece of publication. I would like lots of libraries around the world to possess the book and use it as valuable information in the years to come.”

  • Steven Mitchell

    Is the English title of this book “Surviving the 2011 Tsunami: 100 Testimonies of Ishinomaki Area Survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake”?