print logo

Japanese street paper: “I grit my teeth in helplessness”

 The Big Issue Japan 11 April 2019

During the first days after the earthquake, The Big Issue Japan collected reports from several people on the ground in different areas of the country. This diary was written by Tamami Sawaguchi, an essayist and children's books writer, who lives in the inland area of the Tohoku district. (1106 Words) - By Tamami Sawaguchi


When the earthquake hit Japan, I was in the city of Morioka, 30 kilometers from my house in Shiwa town, both of which are in the Iwate Prefecture. The quake continued in the kind of strength and length that I have never experienced before. I felt my life was in danger. The power soon went out around me and the sirens of fire brigades started to ring in the streets.

Were my family alright? I must get home in any case, I thought, while holding the steering wheel of my car. The traffic lights had gone out and the roads were jammed. Aftershock comes one after another, shaking the power lines violently. It was hard to readily believe that what was unveiling before me is actually real. But it is the unreal feeling itself that proves better than anything that I was in the midst of a unprecedented disaster.

The local radio soon switched to special broadcasting and started to report on the situation in various places. Before 4PM, when I was still on my way home, tsunami had swarmed in on seaside towns.

My parents back in the house were fine, and my two sons had also returned from the school. They were standing by the window, anxiously waiting for me to come home. Shortly after the earthquake, the lady from the neighbouring house had come over to make sure my parents were alright. We immediately started preparing for basic necessities such as flashlights, candles and radio. Shelves had fallen in the house, and books and documents were lying scattered. The power was out, so we couldn't use the heater or our kotatsu. Gas was turned off for safety reasons. Only water was piped for our use as always.

We finally found some candles - those were colorful ones used for Christmas. Dinner was leftover rice from the cooker together with canned food. It was nice to have plenty of rice, and the candle light was warm. My younger son who had experienced the earthquake at school kept quietly murmuring, "Ah, I'm still alive..."

My parents and my elder son returned to their own rooms, but my younger son who was more timid, was afraid of aftershocks. He slept with me in the living room wearing winter clothes. We kept the candles lighted and radio on for the whole night, for uneasiness attacks when it gets dark. I felt the power of words just from the accustomed voice of the broadcast announcer saying "let's hold on". On the other hand, when I heard news about the giant destruction of coastal places, such as "the city of Rikuzentakata is almost in ruins"[i] , I could not accept the description like "ruins", and became overwhelmed by unreal feelings, thinking, "could that really have happened?"

March 12

The night was over and yet, strong aftershocks kept coming. News from the radio became more and more tragic. At 9AM, Iwate Prefecture had found 93 dead, and by 11Am, it became 202. The numbers were rocketing up. Listening to the reports of the situation in each place, I could hear the announcer's voice trembling.

We have no clue how long would the blackout last. The candle we lit last night had barely much left. At least we have to get some candles, I said, and headed to the streets with my children.

There were long queues at the big stores and markets. The shops placed tables outside its entrance and sold only cup noodles and drinking water from there. Some shops have even closed the line from newcomers. Candles, flashlights and batteries were sold out in all stores.

In the end we counted on the Agriculture Cooperative nearby and a familiar convenience store. The convenience store opens its doors with no limitations on entrance, so customers were swarming into the store. They were running the business at the risk of shoplifters. All staff was out calculating fares with pocket calculators. I bowed and said, "You really helped us." To which they showed me their spirit by replying, "At this kind of time we have to do our best." The Agriculture Cooperative nearby was operating out of their own power generator. I got candles and matches from these two shops.

This evening, power came back on at around 7PM. I immediately turned on the TV and what I saw was breath-stopping. As an inland person, I always longed for the seaside towns. I had also frequently taken my children to visit those places. Seeing the fish market in their beloved town being torn down and swallowed up by the tides, the children let out a groan.

March 13

The last time the northeastern region had been attacked by big tsunamis was March 3, 2019. At the time, Tarou district of Miyako city, Iwate Perfecture had suffered great loss[ii] . The district as well as other coastal towns later put up signboards here and there, telling people that "the 1933 tsunami had reached this point". The visitors from inland were shocked of how far the waves had reached.

The tsunami this time even surpassed that line. An old lady who experienced the last one told the interviewer on TV, "Well, this one is so fast, so big… I am speechless."

I watched her tiny shoulders and wrinkle-covered hands and thought: "This lady had experienced two of such horrible tsunamis in her life…" Tears came down as I waited for safety reports from the TV and radio, with nothing else that can be done.

The powerlessness made me grit my teeth.

Should I say I was fortunate? The second day after the earthquake was a sunny day. The Amur adonis in the yard bloomed like nothing ever happened. While I was shaken by the fear for nature, I also found my eyes watering because of nature's beauty.

From my house, one can see the whole view of the hillside to the north. Over the hills are the towns by the seaside. Looking up while we were walking the dog, I and my younger son saw the sky over there were a bit misty. There must be many souls returning to the heavens over there. We put our hands together without knowing it.

That night, the internet came back to normal.

Please credit article as follows:

Originally published by The Big Issue Japan ©

SNS logo
  • Website Design