Stranded for three days after March 11, 2011, with her mother-in-law and young children on the second floor of their home near the industrial port of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Naoko Nakayama fought panic by communicating the only way she could: scribbling on torn scraps of paper.

She wrote about how their toddler was running around the house naked before the shaking started; how their daughter held onto a beam in the upstairs bedroom, wide-eyed, as she listened to the dishes crashing in the kitchen; and how Nakayama herself made desperate plans to use the children’s bunk bed as a makeshift boat.

With one eye on the encroaching waves outside the window, she kept jotting things down. The notes were a substitute for what she would say to her husband, as a way to counter her worrying about his safety and that of their extended family and friends.

“I needed to be able to tell him what had happened in his absence. I wanted to talk to someone about the disaster,” she recalled.

Nakayama kept writing about anything she could find: how they used diapers instead of a toilet and rationed out fruit juice salvaged from the flooded area downstairs; how they wandered in hip-deep water after being stranded in the house for three days, taking turns carrying the children before they were discovered and guided by Self-Defense Forces personnel to an emergency shelter.

She jotted down her impressions and feelings so much that it became a habit that continued even after her husband found them at an evacuation center five days after the earthquake, when restored cellphone services allowed her to give up the paper scraps for a blog.

“In the evacuation center, there was no place to speak privately and no way to publicly voice my fears. Everyone was having a hard time and I was not the only one in distress,” she said. “I was also determined to keep my tired or worried feelings hidden from my children. If I created a blog, someone far away could read it. I was only able to show my true feelings in a blog.”

Nakayama’s early need to reach out and the subsequent popularity of her blog led to “Ne Ne, Shittetaa” (“I Know What Happened”), a manga based on her blog entries describing the Great East Japan Earthquake, the tsunami and the rebuilding efforts of their family, which was one of the first to move back to the devastated Tsukiyama port area of Ishinomaki. Illustrated by Shin Masuda and recently translated into English by Suzanne Yonesaka and Masami Iwasaki, Nakayama hopes her message of determined hope resonates with other disaster victims around the world.

Since her manga is mainly directed at children, the illustrations are rendered in a child-friendly, cute style. Nakayama’s text, however, does not avoid the grim reality of her family’s experience. One especially poignant passage reveals how she told her children that their grandfather, Nakayama’s father-in-law, perished in the tsunami. Other passages reveal her children’s lingering fears: “Mama, please don’t become a photo. Please live for a long time.”

Yet Nakayama firmly believes it is the remembering that leads to recovery, both physical and mental.

“The disaster took many things away from us, and it’s so devastating that sometimes I just want to forget all about what happened on March 11. But more importantly, I want to try hard to give my children confidence to know what to do, to protect themselves first by escaping and not worry about anything else,” she said. “I feel strongly that I should be talking to as many people as possible about what I experienced and the hardship we went through, to help others to be strong and overcome any disaster.”

Nakayama said it is important to build children’s confidence going forward.

“Many children living in the disaster area cannot remember the earthquake or tsunami now. Yet it is important to treasure their experiences in order to gain confidence in their own strength and resilience. Helping each other, with so many strangers and friends helping us, gave us such joy. Because of so many people’s help, our home is rebuilt and is now a fun and clean place for people to gather.”

Out of the 1,000 households that once made up the Tsukiyama neighborhood, Nakayama estimates that only 30 have returned. Nakayama and her husband made the difficult decision to return to honor his father.

“I knew I could not accept it myself if I just let our house be destroyed,” she said. “My father-in-law was a carpenter and built this house for us. The house saved us. We decided to fix the house and live here again, even with our fear.”

Nothing in Nakayama’s past indicated her need to write. A trained physical therapist, Nakayama worked part-time while raising their two young children. She herself admits being puzzled by her own urge to write, and then by the popularity of the blog, which gradually spread — first among local residents and then to wider audiences as a forum for victims of the disaster to connect with each other.

Over 1,000 copies of the manga were sold by word of mouth alone, and NHK gave it national coverage in a Children’s Day program this year. She was awarded a grant from the Toyota Foundation and hopes to use the money to continue publicizing the work.

After the house was rebuilt, Nakayama traveled from Kobe to Hokkaido to speak at schools about her experience. Her blog has become a connecting point for many affected by the tragedy, and she released a second comic book in late June detailing stories from around Japan related to the March 11 disasters.

“This new manga reveals a wide range of stories, different types of people all sharing their own experiences. There are records of people who directly experienced the tragedy and other stories from people who did not feel the earthquake at all physically. I’m very excited to share these stories, which we collected from people reading my blog who wanted to share their own experiences.”

Nakayama also feels thankful she has the potential to reach an international audience, thanks to the two translators, who are professors at Hokkai-Gakuen University in Sapporo.

Iwasaki, an anthropologist with close ties to Ishinomaki, started bringing her university students for relief work to Miyagi soon after the tragedy. Once she saw Nakayama’s manga, she shared it with her colleague, Yonesaka, and together they volunteered to translate it into English. It took six months to complete the translation, but all three women hope the work will find an international audience to help others in disaster-hit areas around the world.

Nakayama continues to use her blog to share information and has since added a Facebook page, hoping her online presence will remind people of the disaster areas and the people who live there.

“We still need help, clearing debris and with other relief work, even now, over two years after the disaster. The television does not really show the reality anymore, but we still need help.

“After all, the experiences we are sharing are very small. They are just everyday parent and child stories that may not seem like important news. But if the manga or my blog triggers something in people so that they can look back on a tragedy and go on, or learn to trust and believe in their family members, I hope they will keep on reading.”

For more information, see: www.kozakana3.justhpbs.jp/English.html in English or www.kozakana3.justhpbs.jp/index.html in Japanese. Nakayama’s original blog can be read at ameblo.jp/kozakana-ishinomaki/.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.