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Reason to live

This is a story that Shibata told the Japanese blog manager. The conversational tone is due to this.

When the earthquake happened, I was in the Ishinomaki Cultural Center about 5 minutes’ walk from home. I was making cloisonné (decorated metalwork) there. I was making badges to use in the art classroom. That day, I had class in Watanoha, and from four o’clock on there was class so I had made cloisonné all morning, and I planned to do it until three.

Then, 2:50pm. Earthquake.

It was shaking so much. The thousand degree kiln I was using for the cloisonné fell halfway over, and as soon as I thought “That could start a fire! I have to turn off the power!” it came unplugged by itself. Various things fell down by themselves.

Then when I looked outside, the Kitakami river was ebbing before my eyes. “This is bad, this is bad,” I thought and my older sister said, “We should run, we should run,” and for the time being we met up at the Shibata house.

My mom was in the house, she was still standing around. I left my mom with my sister, and she walked her to the Kadonowaki Elementary School. Because we had decided that our evacuation site was Kadonowaki Elementary School.

I got in the car and drove around warning people in the area. Then, an oncoming car flashed me. The tsunami was surging forward behind the car.

At that moment I was driving towards the river. I quickly made a U-turn, and yelling “Ruuuuun!!” I got away. I hurried to take shelter in Kadonowaki Elementary School. The tsunami was coming right behind me.

There were still a ton of cars behind me, and there were a ton of cars that had evacuated to the Kadonowaki Elementary School stopped in the yard. The tsunami was coming from the direction of the schoolyard. While I was yelling, “Run! Run!” to the people in that area, I ran faster than I’ve ever run in my life. It was more like houses and rubble were coming towards us, rather than water was coming.

Nearly one hundred cars were caught between the rubble and the school building. There were explosions everywhere from gasoline leaking from smashed cars catching fire. I ran up the stairs on the side of the school. The water, or rather, the rubble had risen to somewhere between the first and second floors of the building. We could no longer pass through the entryway of the school because of the cars and rubble.

Actually the children in Kadonowaki Elementary School had already escaped to Mount Hiyori. But I thought my family was still in the school, so I decided to save the other people trapped inside too.

Nobody could get through the entryway because of the cars and the rubble, the cars were smashed and the gasoline caught fire and burned. The school caught fire too. But nobody could get out of the entryway. The hill behind the Kadonowaki School turns into a cliff, and there is one meter of space between the second floor of the building and the cliff. Young people were jumping across to the top of the cliff.

But this wasn’t possible for senior citizens with weaker bodies. I brought boards from inside the school to make bridges across. And I pulled those people out from the cliff.

The hill behind the school turns into a graveyard, but when you exit the graveyard path, it connects to the stairs I sprinted to in the beginning. I exited the graveyard and managed to make it to the stairs.  About 40-50 steps.

There were about 50 people trapped in the school. I called out to the young people, “Help me rescue them!” and we would rescue them from the back of Kadonowaki Elementary School, but it was hard for the old people just to cross the bridge.  The old people can’t walk, you know?  “Walk! You’ll live!”, I yelled.

The fire rapidly spread and smoke poured out of the school. This was the first time I’d spoken this way to someone older.

But because the old people can’t walk they were blocking the way for everyone behind them. If the people in front didn’t hurry up and get out, didn’t keep moving, the people in back wouldn’t get out! Because there were some people who couldn’t do the trip on their own like old women who can’t walk, I brought them along by carrying them on my back up the stairs.

At the top of the stairs, the road continued to a hill. I asked other people who were at the top to continue to carry them and I returned to the bottom to carry more people. I repeated this many times.

I carried a person who’s leg was ripped off when it became pinned between a car swept up in the wave and the school building. On the top of the mountain there is a kindergarten, and I carried them until there. Since an ambulance wouldn’t come, I asked someone there to call a car. At that time we could still use our cellphones.

I guess I helped at least 10 people by carrying them on my back, one by one. At that time, it was snowing in Ishinomaki… We got everyone left behind at the Kadonowaki Elementary School out of the building. After that, we heard a voice calling out from the school court yard screaming to be saved.

I climbed the pile of rubble and yelled out “where are you?!” A voice called back “This way!” I didn’t want to go but it couldn’t be helped so I just went… The fires were rapidly growing. I didn’t know when this area would explode, but I went to go save the person. In the middle of all this is an old woman, “My blanket…” she starts to ask, “Shut up” I told her. Lifting up the soaking wet woman, I carried her to safety.

There weren’t any students in the school. Because I didn’t find my family either, I thought that they were all too late to run away. It was hopeless…

At that time I thought I was completely alone… I have no family. They couldn’t replace my family but I was thinking I would save everyone in that area.

I climbed the stairs and as I approach the kindergarten at the top of the hill, I hear a scream. Below the cliff, there was a person on the roof of a house pushed in amongst the other crushed houses and rubble. Flames are rising up from below. I heard the voice cry out pleading to be saved. I couldn’t do anything alone.

I called out to the evacuated people nearby for assistance. With everyone’s help we descended on a rope but because the entry hall was collapsing, there wasn’t any where to enter from there. We dropped down from the cliff, crossed over the rubble, and saved the person from the second floor. There were about 10 people left stranded like this.

Eventually from what we could see, everyone was saved. We even carried, with two people, a heavy old woman. Unknown to me, blood was dripping from my hand. It seemed like I was hurt somewhere, yet I didn’t feel any pain. But there was no mistaking that this was my blood.

There were explosions all over the place, fires igniting, and all this was rapidly expanding. Houses we just saved people from went up in flames.

At least I’m glad we didn’t let anyone die who’s voice we heard from there.  But I was sure there were people inside the rubble too. Definitely.

But it was impossible to do anything. I tried to ignore them. Just helping the people in front of me. On the other side of the fire, inside the rubble, if my family was inside there maybe I would go. But, I couldn’t go to save people I didn’t know. After 2-3 hours, it became a sea of fire there.

I settle on just saving the people I could in this area. But, I know there were certainly people out there. There were definitely many.

After the rescue efforts, after about 3 hours had passed, it had become dark, and at last a fire fighter had arrived. I was so relieved that I could change my role in the situation. You simply cannot cross over rubble in a sea of fire and save people.

Now that I think of it, while I was helping battle the fires, a person jumped out from the rubble within the sea of fire. That person had climbed onto a rooftop and avoided the tsunami, then climbed the mountain of rubble and come over to where we were. I took him to the Ishinomaki Girls’ High School.

At the reception desk, I could gather some information, and I asked where the children of Kadonowaki Elementary were. I learned they had somehow escaped to Mount Hiyori. Just hearing that I relaxed a ton.  ‘Cause I’d been thinking they’d been swallowed by the tsunami.

But I didn’t know where my family was.

While I was walking to where there was less damage, there were people yelling, “Come help!” It sounded like someone had taken refuge on a rooftop and been left stranded, but that wasn’t the case.

There was a wall around the building and after being overwhelmed by the tsunami, the water caught behind the wall had left the body on the roof. They were already dead.

It was my family eye doctor.

We lowered the body down by rope, then carried it. It took 6 adults. The body was really heavy. I carried my doctor to an inconspicuous place on the side of the highway.

Doctor, I’m sorry it’s in a place like this. I’m sorry for covering you with this dirty blanket. I’m sorry you are soaking wet. Snow was lightly falling.

After that I joined a couple of volunteer firefighters and the three of us made the rounds providing support. Later, relief arrived and we were allowed a short break at the firehouse.

The three of us had been working as a team but I couldn’t stand it anymore. I didn’t want to be obstructing the professional firemen during our breaks. Outside it’s really cold and snowing. The firemen are looking after us, letting us sit next to the stove and take all the warmth. They must be absolutely freezing cold and we are just getting in the way. They even shared what little water they had.

I told the volunteer leader how I felt. “I can’t stand this”, I said, “wouldn’t it be better if we got out of the way and returned to the shelter?” He didn’t agree.

I had planned to quit right there, but endured for the rest of the night. Early next morning I headed for Mount Hiyori where I knew my friend Daichan was. We met up and he let me rest in his car.

From Daichan I found out my family was at an acquaintance’s house in nearby Akebono. I was immediately overcome with relief.

Right away I tried to leave Mount Hiyori to go see my family but discovered it was entirely surrounded by water. It must have been neck deep, maybe waist deep in places. Like a flooded castle, and it was full of cars. Cellphones had stopped working so I couldn’t contact anyone in Tokyo either. I was completely cut off.

I was heading back up the Mount Hiyori when suddenly, right in front of me I spot my sister walking along with my niece and nephew! I was screaming “Akari!, Yuki!” as I jumped out of the car.

Our entire family managed to reunite later that morning. We felt sorry about taking refuge at our acquaintance’s house so we headed to the shelter at Ishinomaki High School.

When we arrived at the shelter, there was no food or water, at least they had heat. What food do you think was distributed that first day? One rice cracker each. There might have been bottled water.

But at least it was warm there, so that was enough to make me happy. We didn’t have blankets or anything, so we just lay down and slept on the floor. We spent the night of the 12th in the high school.

On the 13th, we got some instant curry. We didn’t have any way to cook it, though. We received only 10 curries and shared them among 200 people! Our family shared a curry. We also got some snacks and candies, but we gave them to the kids first.

My family had prepared a bag with some stuff for emergencies and there were some cookies and chocolates in it, so we decided not to accept the snacks or candies that were being distributed. At that time in Ishinomaki, all means of communication and transportation were completely knocked out. Nobody could leave. People working at city hall had collected emergency information, but I think they’re just incompetent to begin with. They can’t do anything unless someone gives them directions.

The people working for the city were completely useless, and everyone thought I was communicating with them. Food and other things were divided and distributed to the people there. The people working at the city hall tried to ration the food excessively equally, which resulted in some weird instructions. One was that each person was to receive three slices of tofu. We divided them up while trying to avoid quarrels.

I had been taking care of people in the shelter for two or three days. After that, an older man with more experience than me came forward to be a leader, so I decided to leave it to him.

Maybe around a week after the earthquake, the water from the tsunami had receded a bit so we could walk around a little further than before. There was still no electricity at the shelter, we hadn’t brushed our teeth, and of course we hadn’t bathed either. Around 6pm, it was already dark. The only thing to do was sleep. Even after I fell asleep, I would wake up around 10 and wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep. Even if I got up there was nothing to do. It was so boring. When it was rainy, I couldn’t go out even during the daytime, and during the night there was nothing to do. All I did was just eat food and drink water. At least I had a place to sleep.

I went out to do a sketch of the devastated city, but while I was drawing I started feeling nauseous. I didn’t think I would be able to draw for a while. Then I thought, what I can do with my remaining life? What can I do even if I can’t draw?

What can I do?

I thought the only thing I could do might be drawing with the kids and providing psychological relief for them.

At that time I was finally able to use my cell phone again. I got through to my friend Tachibana, who lives in Tokyo, and asked him to help me and send me some drawing materials. But the roads weren’t repaired yet, so there was no way to transport them.

We had a meeting between the leaders of the shelter and I proposed my idea for the psychological relief for the kids. Takahashi, one of the leaders, said he liked that idea, so I decided to try it.

I went to the houses near the shelter that hadn’t been destroyed, explained what we were going to do, and asked for pens, paper, crayons, etc. I got Ryoko, Yuki, and Akari to help me and we collected as much as possible.

I actually wanted to draw with the kids I was teaching before, but I couldn’t. All I could do at the time was to draw with the kids in the shelter I was at.

Around that time the newspapers started circulating again and we got information about certain people’s safety. I found out that two of the kids that I had been teaching died and one of them was missing. I was sad. It was too sad. On the list of people who died, I also found the name of a friend who I used to do kendo with.

The good news was one of those kids tried to contact me after he heard from someone that I was alive. So, I decided to live for everyone who survived, including all of the people who evacuated. I may be able to motivate them to keep living.

That’s what I’ll spend my life doing. I decided to spend the rest of my life for that purpose. This led me to what I’m doing now.

My mission; I want the people from Ishinomaki who are alive now to live. I want them to live on for the people who died.


After he told me this story about how he wants to spend his life, we continued talking on the phone.


Currently in Ishinomaki, there are no jobs. No houses. No families. The future is dark. The city won’t say anything to us. There’s no ray of hope.

The average person is powerless. They end up constantly waiting for something. They think somebody, the government, will do something for them.

I told you on the phone earlier I was writing an angry message, right? So, someone I don’t really know asked me to paint a picture for him.

No way. I have no desire to paint and no intention to. None whatsoever.  “Paint for me, I’ll send you a number 100 canvas and materials.” Does he know what he’s asking? Where would I put it? Where am I going to paint? I don’t want to paint right now. I’ll paint when I feel like it. I don’t need his goodwill pushed on me.

We don’t know what condition the city of Ishinomaki is in. We’re suffering from the disaster, that’s all we know. Everyone’s thoughts are filled with anxiety. Something has to be done about that.

Right now, the city is the least useful. They are really awful. In a sense, I’m independent, so I’m doing OK. However, there are people around me who think the city is still going to do something for them. Something has to be done for them.

The employees at city hall have had jobs the whole time. They’ll keep getting paid, right? Yet they make stupid remarks like, “We don’t have the manpower!”

Now, supplies are starting to be delivered from all over Japan.  Unnecessary supplies, useless supplies. Give us jobs for recovery. We want to work but we can’t. Everyone wants to remain in Ishinomaki. We’re not asking for supplies. We want jobs helping with our recovery. That’s what I think.

And yet, the city just sent us a few volunteers. What in the world have they been doing I wonder. Still, we have to bow, show appreciation, and let them feel useful. I can’t stand it, we don’t have a choice.

It was 8 days after the big earthquake before I had a bath. Yeah, that was luxurious. I was able to go to my sister’s house in Akebono. That was the least hit part of Ishinomaki. They have running power and water. On the 9th day I brushed my teeth for the first time. My friend said he finally had a bath yesterday. That’s over 3 weeks!

The day after my bath it was immediately obvious. My friends at the shelter all noticed. I had thought shaving my beard would be obvious so I didn’t. I was exposed when everyone started asking me, “Hey, is your hair clean?!”

It was 2 weeks before I had a beer. I was glowing halfway through the first can. It tasted really good. I got really drunk.

The biggest inconvenience was my contacts. My glasses were washed away. Since my contacts are disposable, on the second day I realized they were getting risky. After that I managed without either. On the 10th day after the earthquake I was able to travel to the city of Sendai. There, I had new glasses made for me.

Written by Kodomo Hinanjo Club.

Translated by Paul Haugerud, Takako Kawamukai, Daniel Sunstrum, Aaron Packard, Motomi Fukuda, and Rebecca O’Neil on 7/23/2011.


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