KESENNUMA, Miyagi Prefecture–Tatsuki Kumagai has vivid memories of the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami and the things he did wrong on that fateful day but still survived.
Kumagai, now 19, was a second grade student in primary school and was returning home along the coast here instead of fleeing. Luckily, his family had just left their home when he ran into them.
Today it works with his younger siblings to pass the baton to future generations as a storyteller of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in eastern Japan.
His sister and brother remember little or nothing of the devastation, but the Kumagai are determined to preserve the memories of the calamity for posterity.
Last fall, Tatsuki addressed visitors on the roof of the Great East Japan Earthquake Ruins Memorial Museum in Kesennuma.
The tremor hit while he was playing at a friend’s house, and Tatsuki frantically walked towards his house along a coastal sidewalk.
Although he knew the word “tsunami,” he didn’t realize how horrific walls of fast-moving water could be.
Near his home, Tatsuki found his grandfather and his mother, Naomi, walking towards him while holding hands with his younger sister Misao. Her mother held Akira, her newborn brother, in her arms.
Although her face was strained, Naomi, now 48, who is a municipal official responsible for supporting the lives of the elderly, showed relief when she saw her eldest son. Saying that an “earthquake is happening,” Tatsuki waved at his little sister.
While the tremor reminded his grandfather of the tsunami generated by the Valdivia earthquake in 1960, the Kumagais did not attempt to flee to the heights by car, aware of the possible traffic jams.
Whenever the ground shook during the aftershocks, all the family members crouched down to wait for the shaking to subside.
Located 200 meters from the sea, their house was swept away and only the foundations of the building remain. More than 1,300 people were killed in Kesennuma.
Looking back, Tatsuki told museum visitors that he “wouldn’t be here talking today if I hadn’t met my family before I got home.”
He then asked the visitors questions: “Among the things I did at that time, what was wrong?” and “What do you think I should have done?”
Today, Tatsuki is a first-year student in the auto mechanics course offered at Kesennuma Vocational School in Miyagi Prefecture.
When he was in his second year at Kesennuma Koyo High School, he traveled to Kobe for a disaster response themed training program.
He listened to personal accounts of the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, which claimed the lives of more than 6,400 people around Kobe, including high school students on the neighboring island of Awajishima.
What was particularly memorable for Tatsuki was that the program helped visitors learn about various topics regarding the disaster through a quiz.
“The experience made me realize the importance of holding a dialogue, not just one-sided storytelling, to get listeners to relate to the issues being discussed,” he said.
Currently, Tatsuki is testing the teaching method on his own in his quest to share his memories of the 2011 disaster with others.
The memorial museum is housed in the former building of Kesennuma Koyo High School, which was destroyed by the tsunami. While the signs of the destruction remain as they were left that day after the waters receded, visitors can quickly realize the power of the mighty tsunami.
Junior and senior high school students share their experiences at the school, and children often show up on school trips. Tatsuki has told his story on dozens of occasions at the museum.
Although most visitors listen earnestly to the stories, some keep talking to each other in low tones even when the speakers warn of the “risk of death that could occur if one does not run as soon as an earthquake strikes “.
Tatsuki once heard a young visitor say something offensive, saying, “Preserving this ruined building won’t benefit anyone.”
There are storytellers at the museum who participate only to achieve “good academic performance to pass college entrance exams under the admissions system.”
But all share the goal of “protecting lives in the future” since a natural disaster can strike at any time and they hope that more people will listen to their stories.
At some point, Tatsuki realized that he had to educate his loved ones first. Talking with his parents and others about the possibility of “how he could have been swept away” by the tsunami during the March 11 disaster, Tatsuki saw his sister and brother staring blankly at him.
He was amazed at the large memory lapse with his siblings. Thinking that a tsunami in the future might strike at some point, Tatsuki wondered if it was “acceptable” for them to know so little simply because they were too young at the time.
It took Tatsuki back to when he was in the third year of high school and played special “karuta” game cards with elementary school students about disaster preparedness. Tatsuki tried to count those who “remember the 3/11 disaster” and found that only half raised their hands.
Following this, Tatsuki began to have his sister and brother present when he spoke at the Kesennuma Museum. It also organizes conferences for college and high school students to train young storytellers.
Tatsuki expects his siblings, as well as other young people, to learn from the tragedy through his stories of “that day”, so that they will protect themselves and their families by case of a new natural disaster.
SISTER WITH MEMORY LOSS
During the fall session, Misao, 15, a ninth-grader, listened to the story of her older brother by her side.
While a growing number of younger generation children don’t remember the devastation of 11 years ago, Misao, four years younger than Tatsuki, watched his older brother’s efforts to learn up close.
Despite this, Misao said she was embarrassed by some events during the calamity “that escaped my memory” of her elementary school years. She can only remember fragments related to the disaster.
Only 4 years old at the time, Misao planned to pick up a kindergarten uniform that she had to register the following month. The moment she put on her shoes on the veranda of her house, the thrill hit.
His grandfather, who was watching television, quickly shouted that they “should run”. Previously, Misao had never heard the words “tsunami” or “earthquake”.
They left for an evacuation center and saw Tatsuki coming towards them. Misao waved at her brother and Tatsuki replied.
Those are the only things Misao remembers from the day. She does not remember how she got out of her home or where her car mechanic father, Takashi, now 49, met his family after leaving his workplace at the time of the earthquake.
She does not remember any details of her days spent in a school shelter, such as her clothes, her meals or her bath. Misao also doesn’t remember if she knew her life was in danger during the approaching tsunami emergency.
During her freshman year at Hashikami High School, run by the city of Kesennuma, Misao learned that her school recruited students who wanted to tell their stories at the Kesennuma Museum as part of disaster management education.
“Those who can remember all the details could serve as storytellers, but I cannot participate due to my fragmented memories,” Misao recalls.
A year later, Misao learned that her classmates who offered their accounts to the public also lacked memories. Inspired by their message that “it doesn’t matter whether one has a living memory”, Misao boldly decided to serve as a storyteller.
Misao first started taking advice from her older brother. She memorized the scenario developed by the museum operator for the guides to explain how the students of Kesennuma Koyo High School fled the tsunami and how the teachers who stayed at the school survived.
She was instructed to “provide explanations bearing in mind your own memories of that day”. But Misao couldn’t remember clear details, so she first read the text in a monotonous manner, making her stories unattractive.
So, Misao decided to listen carefully to Tatsuki speak to put what he is talking about in his mind. She listened intently to her parents and loved ones discussing the disaster.
Misao also leafed through files and diaries about the disaster that were kept in her family’s living room. Hearing museum visitors from outside Miyagi Prefecture explain their experiences on March 11, 2011, allowed Misao to learn little-known facts across the country about the 9.0 magnitude earthquake.
She is very careful not to mix her memories with those of her older brother, separating other people’s stories from her episodes. Asked about “the details of the shelter”, Misao answers honestly: “I don’t remember”.
If Misao finds it impossible to explain certain topics based on her own experiences alone, she borrows words from Tatsuki to tell visitors the stories of “my big brother”.
The more she learned about what was going on in the scenes she can’t remember, the less often she didn’t know what to say. Misao can now provide accounts very similar to those of Tatsuki.
Misao said she no longer believes that people “without vivid memories shouldn’t say anything.”
She decided to convey to Akira “by herself” the facts related to their hometown destroyed by the tsunami; all the lives of the Kumagais put in danger; and the possibility of a tsunami being generated by long-awaited massive earthquakes along the Nankai Trench as well as the Japan and Kuril Trenches.
YOUNGEST BROTHER READY TO FOLLOW
During her summer vacation last year, Misao worked as a guide at the museum for five consecutive days.
On the evening of the fifth day, his younger brother, Akira, a fifth-grade student at Kesennuma City-run Hashikami Elementary School, suddenly raised both hands to his bedroom desk and shouted that he “will serve storyteller like my big brother and sister.”
Latterly, Misao interprets news stories about the 2011 disaster for 11-year-old Akira, who casually listens to other family members talk about the fateful day like Misao did when she was younger.
Akira doesn’t remember anything about the earthquake and tsunami. For this reason, he initially could not understand what his family meant by describing “our house as being washed away”.
Akira said he grew more interested after seeing his brother and sister recount the incident. He now more easily notices the signs indicating the height reached by the tsunami 11 years ago when he is outdoors.
To Akira, Tatsuki and Misao seemed cool while working as guides.
As passing on the experiences to much younger children will lead them to share the memories in turn with the next generation, Akira hopes to become a storyteller with his friends after entering middle school. However, he admits that he doesn’t like public speaking.