Hiroshima’s foreign residents detail rain disaster, call for support in multiple languages

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Miho Ariadny Izumi, 19, risked her life to help save a couple whose house was destroyed by a massive landslide on July 6 just outside the city of Hiroshima.

Izumi is a member of a large Brazilian community in the area and one of many foreign people in disaster-hit Hiroshima trying to bounce back from calamity.

She lives in the town of Kaita, adjacent to Aki Ward and just steps away from a house that was wrecked by a landslide triggered by the torrential rains earlier this month. Izumi said she was scared but didn’t hesitate to rush up the hill when she heard calls for help from a man trapped in the house, which was slowly being pushed down the mountainside by mud.

“I thought I could save him,” the mother of 2-year-old twin daughters recalled.

She ignored a male neighbor’s call to run and rushed to save the screaming man. The man was bleeding severely from a head wound when she brought him to her house, she said, pointing to a large bloodstain at the entrance.

Izumi had moved in just about a week before, but her bravery stunned the local residents.

“I couldn’t think about running away after I saw the Brazilian’s courageous act,” said Minoru Imoto, 41, who rushed to help her.

Fellow Brazilian Lili Tomita and her husband had planned to stay with his family in Aki Ward for a short time before embarking on a new career as farmers in Shimane. The deadly rains wrecked their plans.

“We were planning to move to Shimane Prefecture to work in agriculture but because of this . . . we can’t,” she said, adding that they had left the more severely hit town of Kaita — within walking distance of Aki Ward — just two weeks before the disaster and had stored all their belongings in the garage of a house rented by her husband’s family. The two had just left their jobs as well.

“We just saved like clothes and documents cause (sic) was easy to carry, but our refrigerator and washing machine was floating in the water. . . . We couldn’t save everything,” she said.

As of last Saturday, the Tomitas were still waiting on insurance experts for damage estimates.

Lili Tomita explained that every year around the same time the community receives an advisory on landslides and floods when the water level of the nearby river climbs after heavy rain.

But this time the nearby river suddenly overflowed and entered the garage in just 10 minutes, rising rapidly to her chest, she said.

Days later, the odor of decaying wood and soaked belongings lingers in the narrow lanes and roads of the neighborhood, while rail services linking the area to the city of Hiroshima remain suspended.

Tomita said she was worried about her compatriots, including one who is pregnant woman and remained in Kaita.

“The place I lived, is still standing, but you can’t go there as the entrance has been covered with mud,” she said. Kazuhiro Yamamoto, 69, who lives in a hamlet with about 130 dwellings in Akitakata, high up in the mountains about 50 km from Hiroshima, helps foreign residents in the neighborhood prepare for emergencies and encourages others to offer assistance as well.

“Almost every year, I’ve been organizing emergency drills for people in this area to prepare them to run away” in case of a disaster and seek shelter at a nearby evacuation center, he said in an interview at his home.

Yamamoto explained that he has served as a go-between for the owner of a local company that hires Chinese people enrolled in the state-run technical training program. He has been telling the trainees who to contact and where to go in an emergency.

“But this year we didn’t do the drill as I wasn’t aware there was one Chinese worker still in the dorm until I got a phone call from the employer,” he said with regret.

“Japanese people who have just moved don’t know this area either, so both foreign and Japanese newcomers need help equally,” he added.

According to Kazuyoshi Meiki, a resident of Akitakata who supports foreign residents, the city is home to about 600 non-Japanese, including 400 vocational trainees mainly from Vietnam, China and Cambodia.

English teachers at a YMCA school in the center of Hiroshima emphasize that foreign residents who are not fluent in Japanese should get more information in English in times of emergency, although they praised authorities’ response to the disaster.

Teacher Stephanie Punko, an American who has lived in Japan for about 11 years, witnessed similar chaos four years ago when torrential rain triggered flooding and landslides in parts of the city.

“You can see that they’ve learned from that and they are very proactive and trying to avoid a repeat,” Punko, 38, said.

Cooper Howland, 35, also from the United States, couldn’t return to his home on the side of a mountain in Hiroshima’s Higashi Ward on the night of July 6 because of the landslide risk.

“It was like 27 messages over the weekend,” Howland said of the emergency notifications he and his colleagues received earlier this month.

“Just English would have been nice,” he said of the notifications and information on school cancellations. “We have a daughter in a public school and all the information is in Japanese.”

Punko was house-sitting and taking care of two dogs when she received text messages advising residents to evacuate on July 6. She said she had trouble finding information on evacuation centers that would allow pets.

“What do I do with the two dogs?” she asked. She said an evacuation center across the street from the house did not allow pets.

“When I’m getting messages, I can translate it on my phone but it doesn’t give me the information that I need regarding my situation,” she said.

The teachers suggested that local communities offer more advice in multiple languages on what to do in emergencies.

The Hiroshima International Center, which cooperates with prefectural authorities and provides support including translation services for the foreign community, has received requests to translate certificates for flood victims into Chinese and other languages.

“So far, we’ve received such requests from the cities of Kure and Hiroshima,” said Ryohei Kumamoto, the center’s general director. The center offered similar assistance to other communities as well, he said.