I never thought at my age, that I would be in this spot. But this is where I am at 74, in the taiikukan (体育館 gymnasium) of a middle school in Miyagi Prefecture, now known as a hinanjo (避難所 evacuation center) for people who lost their homes to the earthquake and tsunami that hit the region on March 11. I lived in a little house that I shared with my son, his wife and my two grandchildren. Arigataikotoni (ありがたいことに thankfully), this house was spared but it’s been drenched in a meter of sea water. My son travels every day from the hinanjo to pump out the mud and clean up the mess. The grandchildren have relocated to my daughter’s house in another prefecture, and it’s hard to say when we can live together as a family again.

I’m not complaining. It’s a miracle that none of my family are missing. But let me say this: life in a hinanjo is like living an slow death. It’s not just the discomfort and stress of sleeping among 200 other people in a gymnasium. In the mornings, we elderly are awake at 4 a.m. but jitai suru (辞退する refrain from) using any amenities until 8 a.m. We want the working people to get their turn first. And at night, we try to go to bed as soon as possible, so others can do the same. Still, the darkness is overwhelming and the yoruno jikan (よるの時間 night hours) are so long. It’s hard to get to sleep when people are constantly coughing and sobbing, and coming and going by one’s pillow. In the mornings we’re left feeling drained.

But far worse is the feeling that I’m a burden, and have nothing whatever to do. At home, there was always some chore to be done. Now I can hardly hear myself think and the hinanjo meals that consist mainly of cold convenience-store foodstuffs aren’t exactly beneficial to my seishin (精神 spirit) or my shoukaki-kei (消化器系 digestive system).

Oh no, there I go again. My son is always telling me that I’m a kuchiurusai obaasan (口うるさいおばあさん an old woman who’s always complaining and scolding) but that’s what happens when a person reaches 70 — which in Japan used to be described as “koki.” It’s comprised of the kanji characters “ko” of kodai (古代 ancient) and “ki” of kisho (希少 rarity) — put the two together and what you get is a concept that means very rare since ancient times. When you consider that the average lifespan for the Japanese at the beginning of the 20th century was 45 years, living to 70 is indeed a rarity. Can’t he recognize that, and treat me with respect?

That’s what’s missing from this hinanjo life: respect. I don’t mean that people aren’t nice, because they are. They’re shinsetsu (親切 kind) and atatakai (暖かい warm) and so concerned. Most of the people working here are borantia (ボランティア volunteers) and the doctors here have come all the way from Kobe, because they dealt with quake victims before, during the Hanshin disaster 16 years ago. I’m of the kōreisha (高齢者 elderly) group so they take our temperature daily, give us medication when it’s available and see to it that we go to the bathroom. Apparently, the doctors pay us special attention because they must prevent deaths in the hinanjo. It just doesn’t look good for a survivor to die — not for the volunteers who are working so hard, for the government who are at their wits’ end trying to mend the huge rupture in the fabric of this country’s system, and the national image.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not accusing or indicting. But treating us like fossils in an incubation box (albeit a cold one) isn’t what respect is about. The kōreisha of Japan are not the helpless, burdensome bunch of toshiyori (年寄り oldies) that everyone seems to think. What saddens us most is the feeling that we are meiwaku wo kaketeiru (迷惑をかけている imposing on others), and being deprived of the opportunity to work and contribute. Some of us may need care, but many kōreisha have a huge reserve of knowledge and experience to draw on, namely those awful years during World War II. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: sensochū no kotowo omoeba nandemonai (戦争中のことを思えば何でもない when I think of what it was like during the war, this is nothing.) It’s a sentiment shared by everyone over 70, I think. And the whole world should know that the Imperial Family — yes! — have shut off the main electrical system in the palace and are now living by candlelight, and the Emperor has said the exact same thing.

When I was a child I carried water and lived on hard potatoes and so did everyone else. Watashitachi wo motto katsuyō shite kudasai (私たちをもっと活用してください Utilize us more, please) is what I say. The nationwide slogan now calls for all Japanese to be as one (ひとつになろう、日本 hitotsuni narō, Nippon) but it feels like we oldies are being left out. I speak for many when I say, we want in! Chikarani naritai (力になりたい I want to help) is not just the battle cry of the young.

Today’s column is based on a conversation with a tsunami survivor in the Natori district of Miyagi Prefecture. She prefers not to give her name.

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