The Great East Japan Earthquake: what happened in a school gymnasium used as an emergency refuge



As a result of the Great East Japan Earthquake, some 21,000 lives were lost or declared missing. I was affected by this earthquake, and for two months I lived in and helped to manage an emergency refuge located in the gymnasium of Yonezaki Primary School, in the city of Rikuzen-takata, Iwate prefecture.

It was a time of living on the help and support of other people. Allow me first to thank everyone who gave us support.

Normally, it would be enough for me to express my appreciation, along with giving some examples of how the emergency refuge was managed. But for the future reference, I would like to point out some things which can be improved in the management, as well as commenting on some aspects of the support received.



The moment of the earthquake


There are seven of us in my family: my parents, my wife, my son and two daughters. My parents are both from Yonezaki City, and they survived the Valdavia earthquake of 1960. My wife is from Iwate prefecture but from the interior, and until she was married she received no specific education on disaster prevention against a tsunami.


At the time of the earthquake my daughters were in primary school and kindergarten, my year-and-a-half-old son with my wife at home. My father was at the nearby city hall for a meeting. My mother was in bed at home, not feeling well. Earthquakes can happen at any time, and it didn’t wait for a moment when all the family could be together.

11 March, at 14:46 – In the moments before the earthquake, I had departed from Wakinosawa Port in Hirota Bay for my work (oyster farming) and was sailing towards the oyster rafts.


A quake went through the sea, and shook my boat. I fought to control the shaking boat, not knowing what was going on. It was as though I had a rope tangled in the propeller. But the shaking didn’t stop even when the boat moved forward. I shut down the engine, and what came to my ear from my mobile phone was the emergency alarm for an earthquake.


I looked around and saw multiple landslides. I memorized their locations and tried to call 911. The quake didn’t stop. I knew this was real.


Earthquakes originating offshore of Miyagi prefecture had happened before, and it had been said that an earthquake of magnitude 7 could come at any moment. Since the previous Miyagi earthquake (June 1978) it had been 32 years and 9 months, and people living on the coast had acknowledged the accumulation of energy. My instinct told me that a tsunami was to come.


I had only just departed from the shore. I decided to return to port instead of evacuating to somewhere offshore. It took me about five minutes to return, and I tied up my boat and went up onto the land. My five employees were not at the workshop. They were staring at me from the seawall. I asked them if they were OK, and dismissed them for the day, reminding them to avoid traffic on the way. I immediately returned home, too.

Since the moment of the earthquake, I had been worried about my wife and son. In her life she had never encountered a tsunami, meaning she lacked any knowledge of how to react.


Since our wedding, I had told her, “Don’t go back home if there is an earthquake. Go to our uncle’s, up on the hill, and meet me there”, but I wasn’t sure how seriously she had taken my advice, not knowing the reality of a tsunami. I rushed home and found her on the second floor. She said, “We have an appointment at the dermatologist at 4 p.m.” I was right; my words hadn’t got through.


I told her to go get our daughter from school and go to my uncle’s up on the hill, reminding her never to come back home in such a situation. I went to kindergarten to get my second daughter and did the same.



Run! A tsunami is coming!


When I thought the safety of my family was secured, I did something no one should have done. I went back to my neighbourhood, knowing it was where the tsunami could hit.

I was a member of the volunteer fire department, so I was supposed to check up on the elderly, making sure of their evacuation upon the sounding of the tsunami alarm. I went around houses for a good 30 minutes after the earthquake, not knowing when the tsunami might come.

I arrived at one elderly person’s house. I went over to the entrance and found a card which said, “Evacuated already”. I believe that card saved me. Had I not seen it, I would have walked around to make sure no one was there. It was only 50m away from the seawalls, but the seawalls were not visible from her house as it was surrounded by buildings. Now that I think of it, it was a matter of a minute, a second. It could have been too late to escape if there had not been that card.

I checked the neighbourhood, then returned to my house. I went upstairs and looked around. A window was open. My wife probably left it open to avoid being trapped inside. The seawalls were visible from the window. I saw a ship above the seawalls. The tsunami was coming up over the seawalls.


For a moment I couldn’t comprehend it. The next moment I ran downstairs and jumped into my car. Right beside the parking space my father and neighbour were talking. “Run, now! The tsunami is here!” I shouted from the car window.

Later my father told me that he would have been dead if I didn’t shout at that moment. It was that close.

As my father and I arrived at my uncle’s house, we heard someone shout “the tsunami is here!” We were up on the hill, but just in case we ran up to the higher hill behind his house.

When we reached the top, we saw what the tsunami had already swallowed. It was around the tourist district, the pinefield of Takata. The cities of Takata and Yonezaki, the rice fields, the shopping streets, all were covered in black smoke.

Huge aftershocks attacked us repeatedly.

I kept repeating, “It’s ok, it’s ok,” holding my daughters, who were shivering from fear, as though I was trying to convince myself.

I don’t know how long we were there, but the tsunami movement had stopped and the tide was drawing back to the sea. I thought we should go to where everyone else was in order to gather information, and I decided to go downhill towards Yonezaki Junior High School.


Many people had evacuated to Yonezaki Junior High School. It was still light outside. There were probably over 200 people.

A senior member of the volunteer fire department ran up to me and we hugged. “I didn’t see you around and was really worried you could have been taken by the tide. How great to see you!”

From the school yard, I could see where my house, and Wakinosawa Station of the JR Ofunato Line were. That’s right, where they “were”. I saw the condition of the area and knew that my house was gone.



After the earthquake


Right after the earthquake, people began to gather at local cultural centres.

Unfortunately, the tsunami had taken some of the cultural centres. Luckily, some people had evacuated, led by the volunteer fire department, and had come to the school ground of Yonezaki Junior High. Video was filmed during the evacuation by one of the volunteers and can be watched on Youtube anytime.





Students were waiting for their family to pick them up. Some went home with parents, and those whose family didn’t come joined the evacuated group of people and, under the school principal’s command, we acquired water and started cooking.


Students took out some pots and pans from the school for cooking. Adults went around the neighbourhood asking for some rice or water. Dry pieces of wood were collected, rice was cooked, rice balls were served for kids and seniors first. There was not enough rice, and adults shared some burned rice from the pots and tried to overcome hunger.


March in Iwate is winter. It was shivering cold in the gymnasium. Blankets were borrowed from neighbours, and we sat close to one another, putting arms around knees, spreading blankets around. Aftershocks repeated in the middle of the night, but we escaped to some higher hills using flashlight from mobile phones.


When the morning came, we realized that the gymnasium and the main buildings of the school had cracks in the walls. The school principal judged it too dangerous for people to stay, and apologized.


A few people checked around the area and confirmed that the Yonezaki Primary School gymnasium was not in use, so we all moved. With the principal’s permission, we brought with us mattresses for gym, tatami for judo, and heating stoves (with gas; no electricity required).

This is how our long days of refuge began in the Yonezaki Primary School gymnasium.



Early days in the gymnasium of Yonezaki Primary School, the emergency refuge (4 days)


On March 12th, there were probably over 200 people who moved from the junior high. We were in shelter but we lived with shoes on, so that we could evacuate from any exit if needed.

The first thing we checked upon moving was the water and bathrooms. The gymnasium bathrooms were connected to a septic tank for combined treatment of wastewater, and it could have broken down had we flushed toilets without electricity.

When we contacted a local plumber, he told us to flush with water, and that he’d check on us regularly. We decided to keep water in buckets and use it only in cases of defecation. We took turns to bring in water from the river to use in the toilets.

On the other hand, we couldn’t provide drinking water from the river. I searched and found two spring-water fountains which were about five minutes away by car. The owners of these lands connected hoses to the fountains. We were able to borrow 500 litre tanks from local apple farmers for carrying water. We put these tanks on a pick-up truck, and took turns twice a day to obtain water for drinking and cooking.


The next task was to secure our food supply. There was a kitchen in the school, but the gas was connected behind walls which were cracked after the earthquake. The gas alarm wouldn’t have worked either, due to the lack of electricity, so we could not use the kitchen.


Fortunately, there was a kindergarten about 100m away that had a kitchen. It was an old building, but because of that the pipework was external and rubber hoses were used for connections. We mixed water with detergent to check for any leakage. We were able to start cooking from March 12th.






By the third day after the earthquake, water, rice, vegetables and blankets started arriving from individuals. Construction workers nearby brought us a big generator. Neighbours who had two rice cookers would lend us one. With a generator and rice cookers, we could cook rice, but there were only six rice cookers, each with a maximum capacity of five cups of rice, for 200 people. Even at maximum usage, by the time everyone received rice it was time for the next meal.


In the afternoon, a sushi restaurant from Ofunato delivered us sushi, because the stock would have otherwise spoiled due to lack of electricity. The local delicacy “Eggs of Seagulls” (sweet pastries) were brought, too. Sushi and sweets; it was more than luxury under the given circumstances. We enjoyed it with tears in our eyes.

On the fourth day, the first group of the Self Defence Army came to inquire about us. We were told to keep half the school yard empty for them to start activity as soon as they arrived. The Self Defence Army immediately set up facilities for bathing, cooking rice, and laundry. It took three more days for the bathing facility to function, but rice was immediately cooked.

We were all able to eat hot rice balls together, even those who were cooking. It was a moment of true happiness. We started to fancy miso soup and entrées.

In those four days, every refugee voluntarily cleaned, cooked, organized supplies, mended, or attended visitors. And as time passed, natural leaders emerged who arranged matters. I was in charge of general correspondence, so I picked management committee members individually according to their fields of expertise.



The Management Committee


We selected the following people to take charge of the Yonezaki Primary School emergency refuge:

General Leader: the main duty was to liaise with aid-providers, so this person had to be able to stay in the refuge 24 hours a day.

Sub Leader: An assistant, selected by the general leader.

PR: We selected a person who had contacts within local sports clubs and cultural centres.


Medical: There were three former nurses in the refuge, so one of them was selected.


Chef: We searched for someone who had experience in cooking for large numbers of people, but as there were not any we selected a nurse who was an expert in the prevention of lifestyle diseases.

Maintenance: We selected a carpenter, whose duty was to maintain the facilities.

Administrator: Duties included recording and releasing the meeting minutes, managing borrowed machinery, fuel, materials etc. I took the position.


We also asked other volunteers to man the reception, gather supplies, or compile orders of materials. Of course, all the refugees worked hard, not only the committee members. We started with installing more shoe shelves at the entrance, and by the end of our days in the refuge we had set up a kitchen next to the gymnasium.






What we intended in management


Here I would like to note what we intended to achieve by managing the refuge.

1. Supplies to be visible
In order for everyone to know if “there are” or “there isn’t any”, all the supplies were placed where everyone could see.


2. Committee members never take supplies first
In order to insure people’s cooperation with the things the committee decided, members should not behave for his/her own benefit. Therefore, we passed a resolution that members do not take supplies first, and announced this. No matter how great the ideas or decisions were, no one would listen if they thought members benefitted from those decisions.

3. Explanation of decisions are given when everyone was present
Most refugees had lost houses and/or family members, and they all went to clean up or search during the day. Distributing supplies as they arrived would have caused unfairness among the refugees. Therefore, all the materials were piled up on the stage or interior balconies. Supplies were divided by categories and distributed every day at a certain hour in the afternoon. As a result, refugees could have free time, except cooking or cleaning hours.

4. No hierarchy caused by possessions
First, we collected mobile chargers from everyone, and the administration charged everyone’s phone. We were able to gather all types of chargers for different carriers. (Back then chargers were not compatible among different carriers.) If people were forced to borrow things among themselves individually, that could have caused “stronger” and “weaker”, which we tried to avoid. [continue to next page]



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