JOSO, IBARAKI PREF. – One week after an unprecedented flood overwhelmed the city of Joso in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japanese-Brazilian resident David Kiyoshi Shibata believes it’s a miracle he’s still alive.
Despite being 185 cm tall, Shibata says he found himself completely engulfed by the deluge and had to fight hard to keep his head above the surging waters. He narrowly escaped death by taking refuge on the roof of a nearby house, but in the process a fragment of broken glass sliced open his wrist, leaving a wound that required five stitches.
None of this, however, would have happened had the city of Joso warned of the approaching danger over a loudspeaker in languages other than Japanese, the Sao Paulo native says.
“I didn’t understand a thing about what they were saying,” said Shibata, a 35-year-old former construction worker. Although he speaks conversational Japanese, he could not understand the loudspeaker announcement.
“Japanese people had plenty of time to escape, it seemed, but my friends and I didn’t because we didn’t understand the warning. Even if we wanted to call for help, we didn’t know what to say. I really thought we were going to die,” he said.
Shibata is one of more than 4,000 foreign residents in Joso who are grappling with the language barrier and a lack of information in the aftermath of the typhoon-driven flooding that inundated a third of the city and has driven thousands from their homes.
Like Shibata, many non-Japanese in the area now lambaste the city’s handling of the disaster, saying it paid little heed to their need to be alerted to the deadly ferocity of the flood.
Joso has one of the highest concentrations of foreign residents among cities in Ibaraki Prefecture. As of the end of last year, a total of 4,263 people, or more than 6 percent of the city’s population, was non-Japanese, according to Ibaraki Prefecture. Of that, 2,041 were Brazilians, followed by 934 Filipinos, 287 Chinese and 245 Peruvians.
Mostly, they are employees of nearby food-processing factories and their families, according to Tsukuba University researcher Mariko Ikeda, who wrote a paper on the city’s Brazilians last year.
On Wednesday, water subsided in most parts of Mitsukaido, one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods of Joso — although remnants of the devastation were still visible in some areas. Roads were covered with dried mud, debris was piled high, and buildings reeked of sludge and sewage as residents busied themselves with cleanup efforts.
One resident, 34-year-old Alex Sakaue, was seen cleaning his mom-and-pop Brazilian restaurant, which he says was under 2 meters of water once the flood struck his area. The water, he said, ruined everything from kitchen appliances to furniture, making it impossible for him to resume his business in the foreseeable future.
Like Shibata, Sakaue made no secret of his anger at the city’s tardy initial response.
“The city knows there are many Brazilians living in this area and that many of us don’t understand the language well. How could they not have the decency of pre-recording emergency warnings in Portuguese to let us know where to evacuate?” said Sakaue, who himself spoke fluent Japanese.
“I’m furious,” he added.
Another Japanese-Brazilian resident, 22-year-old Guilherme Dacosta Takahashi, said emergency alerts emailed by the city were all written in Japanese, peppered with complex kanji characters that made little sense to the majority of his compatriots.
“It would’ve been better if they had translated the alerts to different languages or written them in easier-to-understand Japanese for us,” Takahashi said.
Phone calls to the city office, which itself was flooded and was reported to have lost the use of its emergency batteries, went unanswered on Wednesday and Thursday.
On its website, the city offers information in English and Portuguese on how to react in the event of a flood. It includes a list of locations people should evacuate to and offers a phone number they can call to receive updates.
A week on, many non-Japanese still appear stuck in limbo due to a lack of information from the city.
“There are a lot of questions that residents desperately want answered,” said Yoshihiro Yokota, head of Ibaraki NPO Center Commons, a local group that supports foreign residents. Yokota’s house has also been inundated, he said by phone on Tuesday.
“Many of us have been living without running water and electricity, trying to find information such as where to take debris and how to disinfect homes. The situation is more severe for foreigners, since there is no information on those things in languages other than Japanese,” he said.
Meanwhile, Escola Opcao, one of four Brazilian schools in the city with more than 100 students, escaped flood damage. It has been indefinitely closed, however, as many of its students have been rendered homeless by the disaster, said Asako Tsurui, who works as a volunteer staffer at the school.
A host of local residents and volunteers from outside the city are now spearheading relief efforts in makeshift tents in front of Mitsukaido Station. They are distributing daily necessities and clothes donated from all over Japan to all disaster victims.
One of them, 51-year-old Japanese-Brazilian Jorge Fujise, said a semblance of normalcy was beginning to take hold as basic utilities such as electricity and water had slowly been activated. His biggest concern for now, Fujise said, was the possible spread of infectious diseases among children.
“Many foreign residents are not used to life in evacuation centers, so as soon as the water subsided, they headed back to their homes — even though they are not necessarily aware of possible risks of infection,” he said.
“So you see many children playing around in a pool of dirty water, for example,” he said, noting little information comes from the city in foreign languages on how residents can sterilize buildings and avoid diseases.
On Wednesday, Shibata, the former construction worker, was helping his welder friend Alexandre Nakabayashi Moriya clean up his house, which was built only a year ago.
Moriya saw all of his brand-new belongings, including a TV, camera, laptop and other electronic devices, destroyed in the flood.
His three cars and a motorcycle, which cost about ¥4.5 million in total, were also beyond repair. Shibata’s own house had been flooded as well.
Although devastated, the two men appeared to be taking the situation in their stride.
“Okay, things got broken. That’s rough. But there is nothing we can do about that. It just means we need to work harder to get new ones,” Shibata said.
“But what hurts me more is how the city didn’t, and still doesn’t, take us seriously.
“We pay taxes just as Japanese people do. That’s unacceptable.”
Update, Sept. 18, 2015:
The story has been updated to reflect the fact that the city of Joso provides disaster-related information in foreign languages on its website.