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Destroyed by nature, saved by nature: my home in earthquake-ravaged Japan

Photo by Kozue Matsumoto

It took five days to get in touch with my loved ones in my hometown, Matsuyama, a small town in Northeast Japan with a population about under 7,000, which was shaken by the awful earthquake.

I could sense that it would take a while to get in contact with people there. Apparently, there was no phone line working. There are not many in town who can make use of online tools, such as Google people finder. They may even not have access to the Internet. The media wouldn’t cover the story of my town. It's too small to get their attention.

The region where I am from, Tohoku (the Northeast), consists of small villages isolated in the middle of vast nature with little communication technology. 

Historically, and maybe even today to some extent, Tohoku is considered by central and western Japan to be an exotic place. We are "the other" within Japan.

To many Japanese, Tohoku is simply “somewhere there in the north.” If you know a bit more than that, you may say Tohoku is a place where you can find traditional Japanese matsuri (festivals). Many people visit Tohoku in the summer to enjoy matsuri and feel a nostalgic, pure, good old Japan that is not “polluted” by Westernization.

I grew up in this environment. In my town, most of my classmates’ families produced rice, vegetables, cows or hens. I always saw my neighbour’s hens walking on the street in front of my house. Vegetables and some fruits were always fresh, and it was only a three-minute trip from the garden to my mouth. We exchanged produce among neighbours to have a bit of variety on our dining tables. My relatives by the coast used to bring us fresh seafood when they visited. A mysterious woman who seemed to be my grandmother’s friend visited occasionally to sell mushrooms and wild vegetables from mountains. I grew up on what you might call a 100-mile diet.

Yes it’s Mother Nature. But "the great outdoors" is not always something we can enjoy and appreciate. Nature is also a scary presence, bringing heavy snow (it’s still snowing in March), cold winters, and typhoons, not to mention earthquakes and tsunamis. Nature will come in and invade our life if we forget to shut the door tight.

We have to learn to accept how to live with nature's two faces. Nature is not something we can control, destroy, save, or protect. Nature controls, destroys, saves, and protects us. In front of nature's rage, we can do nothing, even with our technology. We simply accept it and pray because still, we cannot live without nature. We nurture our sense of awe.

We supported each other. We knew how vulnerable we were. People are always ready to help each other in Tohoku. Relatives and neighbours get together for big and small events, or just for the sake of getting together. I grew up in an environment in which it was impossible not to know what was going on with relatives and neighbours. It was a daily routine for some neighbours to visit my place for a tea in the morning or the afternoon.

This strong awareness, caring, and connection among local people really worked out to save my friends in this earthquake situation.

On Monday night, I got a message sent from my friend’s cell phone, saying that she was with her family, isolated and unable to move due to the lack of gas and communication tools. They had been in such a situation for four days with snowy weather. It was clear that she needed some help.

I went online and found my city’s website was down. There was no information on my town, even though there was information about neighbouring towns. Well, it was no surprise. Ever since I was a child, it had been difficult to gather information about my town except by word of mouth.

I went onto Twitter where I found some local hashtags (#save_miyagi #miyagi_oosaki), so I asked information about my town, hoping somebody could even pick up my friends’ family. Luckily, four people knew about my town and shared  information about gas, evacuation areas, etc. One of them even offered to go pick my friends up. After checking Google Maps, we figured out that my friend’s place was too far away. I sent my friend the information collected so they could try to make the situation better for themselves. It was already 4 a.m. Vancouver time, and I had to sleep.

The next day, I got up in the morning and found another friend had emailed me via her cell phone. She was in a city area where water and electricity was back. She said she would contact the police, fire department, or City Hall about my friend who was stuck. Now, I had to find my friend's latest contact somehow.

I remembered that the email I received the first time was also sent to some other friends of hers. I knew none of them, but I sent them an email anyway, asking to let me know her latest contact. Surprisingly, it took only five minutes for me to collect the information. So I sent it out, and my friend in the city told me that the police would be going to check things out within a day. I was so relieved.

I was moved by how generous people can be, even when they themselves are in tough situations with limited resources. I didn’t know any of them on Twitter or email except my friend in the city, but they all tried their best to share resources to help my friend’s family, who they didn't know at all. This one day search-and-rescue via the Internet made me think with pride, “Yes, this is where I am from.”

In the afternoon, I got a message that my friend and her family were safe.

I am still checking Twitter for updates on my town. It is amazing how my people find the strength to survive and not lose hope in such a desperate situation. They share information, such as when and where local volunteers are providing soup at the corner of X street and Y Avenue.

I also see people getting water from a spring near a mountain. Even when nature destroys their life, they know that nature can also save them.

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