HIGASHIMATSUSHIMA, MIYAGI PREF. – The public library in the city of Higashimatsushima, in Miyagi Prefecture, has succeeded in preserving the memories of local residents who survived the 2011 massive earthquake and tsunami so that people all over the world can share their experiences.
The Higashimatsushima City Library has compiled accounts from about 150 victims, some of which have been translated into English and put online thanks to a volunteer group launched by a Japanese woman living in the United States.
In mid-February, three officials from the library went to the house of Masafumi Kamenoi, a priest at Shirahige Shrine, which was destroyed by the tsunami.
“What I remember the most from that day was the sound of beeping horns from the crashed cars. I also heard a woman screaming ‘Help me!’ all night long,” Kamenoi told his interviewers.
He spent the night of March 11, 2011, on a hill near his house, about 1 km from the sea, with his father who was miraculously rescued from his car after it was carried away by the tsunami.
More than 1,100 residents died after the tsunami hit Higashimatsushima, which had a population of about 43,000 before the disaster. Roughly 65 percent of its residential area was flooded that day.
Looking back on developments related to his shrine and the local community in the four years since the disaster, Kamenoi said he was initially busy with rituals associated with the scrapping of damaged houses.
“Everybody who invited me was crying all the time. I didn’t dare offer encouraging words, so I just prayed,” he said in the videotaped interview.
About two years later, the situation gradually changed and Kamenoi’s work shifted to ceremonies for new houses. “I feel I am not so busy now. But I believe I must become busy again next year as collective housing relocations to higher ground will start.”
Asked about what he wanted to relay to future generations, the 56-year-old priest said, “I just wanted to convey the danger of tsunami near the sea.”
Among stories contained in the collection of memoirs, titled “Experiences of the Earthquake,” a man in his 70s whose wife is still missing said she left their evacuation center to go return home and get their dog. He said if he had realized what she was going to do, “I could have stopped her from running back.”
A man in his 30s said a car in which he and his family members were in was carried some 700 or 800 meters by the devastating wave.
The man, his wife and child were eventually able to get out of their car and spent the night in a tree.
A member of a volunteer firefighter group in his 40s took part in the search for missing people after the disaster.
When he got to the coast, he was lost for words at the sight he saw. “We found bodies under the debris of houses,” he said, adding that he was about to burst into tears. “I just had to suppress all my feelings.”
Deputy librarian Yoshitaka Kato, 44, started collecting the stories in June 2012 to put on record what happened in Higashimatsushima.
“Although many of the pictures and movies taken by survivors on their mobile phones disappeared due to the tsunami, we can record their memories” through the library’s efforts, Kato said.
“At the same time, I think these memoirs can send a message to the world that we have (recovered) thanks to your support,” he added.
Despite a lack of manpower, in particular in terms of foreign languages, the library was able to complete the English version of the stories with the help of volunteers.
Yoko Yorihiro, living in Harrison, New York, asked friends for assistance and then launched the group Words to the World, which included housewives and students.
After Yorihiro donated some of the profits earned at a spring festival in Harrison to the Higashimatsushima library last year, Kato took the plunge and asked her to help translate the memoirs into English.
The 86 members of the group — together with around 100 volunteer translators her husband recruited — finished the work in three months.
“I put my priority in involving as many people as possible in this translation because this is a chance to learn about the disaster, face the victims and look at the reconstruction, which will prevent the tragedy from fading away,” said Yorihiro.
“I am so honored to have given a hand to those who suffered even from a place far away,” she added.
Kato said the library will continue to collect various kinds of materials related to the 2011 disasters, including photographs, movies and local government and school magazines as well as newspaper articles, for the purpose of updating a digital archive documenting the city’s reconstruction.
“Resumption of the disrupted railway this year, collective housing relocation from next year and the construction of huge banks along the sea will significantly change the landscape,” he added.