Kazuya Sato’s story as told to Natalie Yemenidjian
Kazuya Sato, 21, is a graduate student in geography at Tokyo University. Like many others in Japan, he changed his career path after the Great East Japan Earthquake to geography in an attempt to minimize damage of future natural disasters.
During the earthquake
I was going to Fukushima by train at Ta Gajo city. We were near Sendai City. I was in the train’s first passenger cell.
Before the earthquake, about 10 to 20 seconds before the earthquake hit in that area, suddenly, everyone’s phones start ringing – a lot. Passengers knew the sound is an announcement for a big earthquake. Then, the train to Ta Gajo stopped very suddenly half way into the station. After we stopped, the shaking happened. It was a very big, not long, wave; just a short wave for a very long time.
I think it was for thirty seconds. I felt it, for thirty seconds. One big wave – then a short break – no more than one second before the next earthquake. Passengers were in shock, especially the older women who were next to me.
Residents who live in Myagi prefecture know that tsunami comes after an earthquake. They know that every 400 years a tsunami would come. They know to escape to high ground. So, I decided to escape to higher ground.
At the station there is a convenient store. I bought two tea bottles and two snacks, then I went to an evacuation center at a public space in Ta Gajo city. I found the center on a map in front of the station.
I walked about ten minutes, a high school classmate was in the same train. I told him to evacuate with me, but he didn’t. He saw the tsunami from a bridge. After, he arrived at the same evacuation center. We stayed there for three days.
The evacuation center didn’t have enough food, so it was the elderly and women first. I didn’t eat. On the third day, my parents came and took us out by car to go home to Iishinomaki City.
I was confused I couldn’t believe that a big tsunami had come – I knew it, but I couldn’t believe it.
I think it came from the earth
We lived on the front of a hill – so my home and my parents survived. My parents took three days because our city had been washed up and the water surrounded the mountain our house was on for two days.
After we went back to my house, I was surprised because a lot of garbage in front of our terrace. That view was like a portrait out of a Japanese history textbook, like during WWII with bodies everywhere. The view was similar.
A lot of wood was still burning. Some propane gas was on fire just in front of my house.
The smell was a very bad smell, it’s hard to explain – I think it came from the earth. It was like dried earth frying.
The house survived, so we had food that survived.
I wanted to be a diplomat. I wanted to enter law school, but I didn’t pass the exam, so I decided to go to educational class. Social studies had geography. I realized that the study of tsunamis belonged to geography, then I decided on geography as sophomore. There weren’t enough classes about physical geography at Fukushima University. I joined an internship that focused on history, geography and politics.
I wanted to protect people from the next tsunami disaster. I want the school to teach about what to do about disaster preparedness. I feel Tago Jo city people kept their peace. I thought after returning to Iisha – people don’t keep the peace after a disaster situation.
I learned a lot of things. For instance, I did not have a clock. I had to watch the moon. It was like in ancient times, not civilization. I got to think a lot about the way humanity developed.
The people who didn’t have homes robbed stores and some fought, especially after the Japanese special forces came to hand out food – people fought over the food. The situation was never brought up in Japan; especially in Soma city. Japan says everyone was very nice and made a line.
There was no electricity, water or gas for about one month. The electricity came from where my father worked at Nehon Seishi making papers. It was oil-powered electricity not like TEPCO or an electricity company. But temporary equipment had about one or two hours per day that we could use.
After the disaster
I have a mental illness: anxiety disorder. It became worse after the earthquake. I didn’t have to take medicine before. I’m scared of trains. I have medicine, that is a big change. I also have PTSD.
I have to take the train every day to come to school. It’s easy to come by train, except for the disease.
In Japan, everyone uses a train. In Japan, the mental illness is the problem of your self, not a disease.