Lessons from Ishinomaki

Bukit Brown Cemetery

The Disaster one year ago


You live in Ishinomaki, an idyllic coastal city. You own the home you live in and you run your business from it. You make a comfortable living with the wages you earn from the Japan’s high standard of living. City infrastructure is more than adequate thanks to a well designed city layout. Then one afternoon the blissful life you that know is shattered in an instant.

The Earth itself trembles; it is a magnitude nine earthquake. Buildings sway, roads crack but for the most part, except for a few structures in town, everything else holds. Thanks again to excellent design by the city’s architects. You breathe a sigh of relief, comforted to know that you have survived one of the biggest earthquakes in history and are relatively unscathed but for a few broken dishes and fallen bookshelves within your household.

Then, the alarms sound, everyone is told to evacuate to higher ground. Time is short. Something is coming. Even the crows have fallen silent. You exit your home; you turn around and run for Hiyori-yama, the highest point in town. The street is full of people. Strong communal ties mean that your neighbors know exactly who needs help for the evacuation and provisions are made accordingly. No one is left behind but for a few brave souls who remain to aid stragglers. You will not be seeing some of them again.

At the peak of Hiyori-yama, you partake of the view, noting that the roads closest to the river mouth are still jammed with cars. You pray that the drivers make it to higher ground. Then it comes, an all encompassing wall of water sweeping onto the land from the sea (link).

The unstoppable wave engulfs everything in its path as it races inland. Town fixtures, homes, businesses, are all swept away by nature’s fury. The cars that were on the roads earlier are gone. You even catch glimpses of ships being deposited on land. Fires break out as cars crash into one another and then explode, igniting any flammable debris around them. Then as the waters recede, it starts to snow. All this unfolds as you and the survivors watch from Hiyori-yama. The entire scene of fire, water and ice feels surreal.

Then it hits you: This is a disaster of biblical proportions.

Lessons from Ishinomaki

It is hard to imagine the enormity of the reality facing the survivors of the Tohoku tsunami in Ishinomaki on March 11th 2011. But where does one go from here after having literally lost everything: Your home, your place of work, the town you live in, your most treasured possessions…even your loved ones. Where do you go from here?

The people of Ishinomaki have shown the world how. They started by picking up the pieces of their lives. They put aside the petty little things that divided them as a people; they came together as a community. They volunteered to help their people to clean up and rebuild just as hundreds of other Japanese have traveled across the country to Ishinomaki to lend a hand. They did not wait for a government paralyzed by bureaucracy to provide leadership. They decided to rely on themselves for the rebuilding. They took the initiative. They took action. And they continue to take things one day at a time.

It was easy to feel discouraged, helpless…even despair at the hand that fate has dealt the Tohoku region. But the people of Ishinomaki chose not do so. They chose to be optimistic, to move on and continue with their lives. For some Ishinomaki residents it was a sense of giri that drove them to rebuild.

Take the example of Mr Tanaka, the eighty seven year old bicycle store owner. He reopened his bike business within 6 months after the disaster and was the first business owner in Ishinomaki to do so. Tanaka reopended because of the sense of obligation he has to his community: Tanaka said that without his shop, the town of Ishinomaki would lose its only bicycle store. This would deprive many townsfolk of their only access to proper bicycle maintenance. Many Ishinomaki residents still do not yet have the means to replace the vehicles they lost, and so they have come to depend on the bicycle and Mr Tanaka as their only transportation lifeline. Tanaka’s exemplary act gave many other business owners in town the courage and inspiration to reopen their doors.

Another example is Dr Suda, a dentist, who lost his wife and practice during the disaster. Dr Suda is seventy years old and he took out a loan to purchase the dental equipment he needed to restart his practice. Instead of retiring, Dr Suda felt that it was more important for him to serve the community who needed his services. Dr Suda would feel satisfied if he is able to repay the loan he took to restart his practice. For him what matters is that his community’s needs are met.

It is a sobering experience, to be at the scene of the tsunami disaster recovery in Ishinomaki. To see the full extent of the destruction that was wrought last year. But what is even more moving is the sight of the Japanese people refusing to give up on their lives, opting instead for self-reliance over despondently waiting for their government to provide leadership. The people of Ishinomaki chose to resume their lives and rebuild their home, in a city by the sea. The people of Ishinomaki deserve nothing but respect for their resiliency. These are lessons that every Singaporean can learn from and emulate to make their home a much better place.

Click on the pictures below for a larger view of the photographs.


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