Vol.2 Takiko Araki, Gassan Shrine


Talk for Recovery 2nd talk Gassan Shrine ( Rikuzentakata )

The chief priest of the Shinto shrine Ms Araki Takiko

( Talk day: Late June 2012 )


Komori (K): Thank you for taking time in your busy schedule to meet with me. This talk series has started this April for transmitting the message from people who are active in the field of recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake to the world. It becomes the second in today .

Araki (A): Thank you.

K:  I was first introduced to your work from the book “Kazuyo Kawamura, Hikari ni mukatte – 3.11 de kanjita Shinto no kokoro ’Toward the light – The heart of Shinto on 3.11′ “:Shobunsha. I would love to spread the story about your experiences, and what you thought about our chance meeting at the Rainbow Library. I would also like to hear about your situation during the massive earthquake, from the start. Would you please share your story?


Many people acted autonomously

K: I heard that the Gassan Shrine, your own home, and the Dojo were used as shelters for tsunami-affected people from immediately after the earthquake.

A: Shrines are to be where the local people lean on when they need help. To me, it’s natural for them to come and for us to help them in hard time . I believe it is the same in other disaster-hit areas. Approximately 400 people temporary stayed at the Gassan Shrine. They began gathering here almost immediately after the earthquake struck.

K: So this shrine literally became the place where for many to “lean on (yoridokoro in Japanese)”?

A: Besides the people from Minato, Kamiosabe, the harbor located below this shrine, others from both Kesen-machi and Imaizumi evacuated here. Almost everything was swept away in these areas because they are adjacent to Kesen River. Some were soaking wet from the Tsunami, and all of them walked through the mountains to get to this shrine. The number of refgees increaesed even during the night.

K: In the cold snowing night, crossing the mountains.. surviving the tusnami…..

A: The Shrine and Dojo soon became overcrowded. Then, some of the people who first evacuated to the shrine from near towns voluntarily offered their space to those came later who were soaked and crossed the mountains all the way. Even though they knew the schools or community centers they moved to were less comfortable to stay at.

K: That would be a altruistic decision in such a situation.

A: People who still had their houses delivered more than 2,000 rice balls each day to the evacuation centers. They supported the evacuees for a few days until we received supplies from Self Defense Forces. Route 45  was severed, so many people were stuck in their cars on the road. They delivered food and mountain spring water for those people, too.

K: They even helped those people stuck in cars…

A: After the Tsunami, they prepared for dinner daily around 4:30pm. We tried to handle things as calmly and routinely as possible given the circumstances. We got ready for bed at 6:30pm and went to bed at 7:30pm. Aftershocks occurred constantly for several days afterwards.

K: So for the most part things went calm and smooth despite the crisis?

A: Since we couldn’t get any information, we anticpated that terrible things were happening or no one would help for a while. We lost electricity and water supply due to the earthquake, so we tried to avoid exhaustion and save our strength.

K: How did everyone manage to act calmly under such severe conditions, and with all communications cut off?

A: It was a result of a sense of communal dedication to one another. This area has been a fishing village, and typically many fishermen are away from home for months during deep-sea fishing trips. The families naturally learned to partner up, help each other in times of emergency, and work things out together


K: They must also be well educated for disasters.

A: The neighborhood mothers and grandmothers have always had a very prominent role. They are affectionate, decisive and brave.

K: They definitely are.

A: It’s not uncommon to lose a family member in a fishing accident in the area. Many families have experienced emergent situations such as this, so they know the importance of remaining calm during a crisis. Some of they expressed their feelings when they watched houses being swept away by the tsunami: “We lived in luxury, we knew something like this would happen”.

K: People said this as they watched their houses being swept away….

A: Neighborhood moms cooked rice and boiled water with Kamado (a Japanese traditional stove or oven). The boiled water was useful for many things. These people were able to adapt to the moment and deal with terrible circumstances. They were such dependable people.

K: Their wisdom remedied many difficulties.

A: For a while we didn’t have restrooms. We then dug holes, covered them with plastic sheets, and buried them with dirt when they got full, and then dug another hole in different spots. We later sprinkled boiled water on the old spots to accelerate decomposition of feces.

K: There was no need to put anyone in charge to organize. Everyone just did everything willingly after the first earthquake struck. These people fostered a care for their community because they had gone through suffering and sadness before. Growing up in that type of environment enabled everyone to act autonomously. tfr02-03


■The most fulfilling moments in my life

A: Now that I look back, and as hard as it is to explain, during that period of time I experienced the most fulfilling moments in my life.

K: The most fulfilling moments in your life…

A: No one wants to experience an earthquake or tsunami. I can’t describe with words how horrible things were. But I think the word “fulfilled” is the most appropriate way to express the days our small community helped each other to survive each day.

K: I see, that’s what you mean “fulfilled”.

A: These people lost their houses, household belongings, everything. Some lost family members in the tsunami. I admire how great the human spirit can be even after suffering such trauma. Everyone, including children, cheer them up.

K: Even under such circumstances, they remained cheerful and full of spirit…

A: Surviving fire fighters assumed multiple roles including those normally done by police officers, medical personnel, and city officials, since everything was in disarray. They worked virtually around the clock every day for about a month searching for and transporting bodies without even a change of clothes, and full sleep. People took care of each other, cheerfully greeting one another every day. Although we were close to losing our minds, we did our best to hold on to some sort of daily routine.

K: Everyone focused on what they should do everyday… And in these hard days, there was a light of cheer.

A: Children grew up quickly. They thought of things they could do to help, such as gathering firewood or picking bog rhubarb in the mountain.

K: They wanted to help and acted autonomously, too.

A: We had limited supplies and energy. We helped each other and shared what little we had with everyone. We stored food in Styrofoam boxes, lined up the boxes by date, and then distributed food from the earliest dated box to minimize spoilage. Although basic living necessities seemed like they were always in an out-of-stock condition, no one complained. In the situation where everyone understands severe deficiency of goods, no complaint occurs.

K: I see, even when there was nothing, there was no complaining.

A: If there’s nothing to steal, rob or loot, there’s nothing to fight over things or to complain about. When we had nothing, we took care of each other and share. By sharing with one another, we were able to have surplus for the goods which intially thought in short.

K: In other words, if we share, we can spare.

A: Unfortunately, after we start receiving more food and aid supplies, things changed a bit. Some people began accusing others of taking more than they needed.

K: This story tells me insight about human nature.

A: If you fight over supplies, we will end up with nothing.

K: By sharing, surplus. By taking, shortage. Indeed.

A: Another way to put it is that when there’s  nothing there’s no need for hoarding. But when there is an abundance of things certain people’s sincerity disappears, which is sad. It’s hard to maintain a well-balanced community when people start conceling their heart.

K: Concealing heart, I see.

A: the same thing can be said about “privacy”. Nowadays we hear a lot about protecting our privacy, but if you truly have nothing to hide, it shouldn’t be a problem. Post World War II, we learned to conceal things, which changed many people’s nature.

K: If there are people who take things away from other people, people learn to hide things and be secretive. This set off of a negative spiral. In any case, if the “caring others”, “sharing with everyone” mindset dilutes in our society, our human commuity may fray relationship .


■ Think about it again, our society of insensitivity

A: After experiencing so much during this disaster, I think it’s time to rethink about our current society.

K: Rethink civilization.

A: For example, houses. Houses made of timber have a higher probability to collapse. So when a tsunami strikes, as was the case in our situation, these homes will fall in pieces at once. To put it another way, clean up would be easier.

K: Yes, that’s true.

A: On the other hand, what about reinforced concrete homes? I’ve heard that it costs millions to demolish a collapsed building. Concrete debris removal is a difficult and expensive job.

K: I’ve heard it still remains a huge issue in RikuzenTakada; tons of incombustible debris still has yet to be disposed. In comparison, most if not all of the combustible debris has been removed.

A: We must now think about the true meaning of “ecology”. We should use things which are degradable and as easy as possible to recycle, and learn from what has happened with this disaster.

K: Many have speculated about this, but I wonder to what extent we live ecologically. When looking at my own life,  in a  substancial question.

A: The size of a community is directly related. If the population density was greater with more houses and buildings, the damage would be much greater and recovery would take  long time. Dispersed small communities with a small population scattered throughout the area would recover much faster from a natural disaster, I think.

K: Do you mean a balance between “convenience” by living at high population densities.

A: The degree of “convenience” is the key. Modern society’s high-density cities and concrete buildings became common in the past 60 to 70 years. We’ve been “convenience-eater”, lured into laziness and leading an easy life within a modernized society.

K: “Convenience-eater”Laziness…. The word struck me.

A: Or I could say it is a society which “left heart behind”. I believe it’s best to live with nature. We should reflect on our past and learn from our experiences to build a new civilization. God chose this Tohoku region to share the message to the world.

K: Many people live along the cost in Tohoku region are aware of  the natural disasters, so they conduct disaster drills on a regular basis. However, we can see how severe the damage was even in these rural areas with small populations. I wonder what it would be like in Tokyo.

A: It would be devastating.

K: It gives me the chills to think how the people in Tokyo are conscious of what was learned from the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923). The earthquake rose awareness of natural disaster, but for everyone outside the affected areas, daily life didn’t change much.

A: You can’t make natural bathrooms when all there is only asphalt or concrete land. There are no mountains to get spring water from. It would be devastating for sure.

K: Even with these realizations, there’s no easy way to change building structures in urban cities. Japan’s earthquake-resistant structure standards are the best in the world, but if the landscape turned into a sea of fire like in Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, most people would just give up.


■People are here to help each other

K: What we think and feel as human beings facing this disaster is important. Moreover, we should think what it means to be a human being; what it means to live; and what true happiness is. What happened gives everyone an opportunity to think about these questions. After living through this, I’ve changed my outlook on life, and now clearly understand what’s most important to me.

A: We all were born imperfect. Mr Haruo Saji, the astrophysicist, says that raising a child is beyond their ability for a couple alone; children are meant to be raised in a community. That is his fundamental belief about humanity.

K: We can’t live without help each other.

A: Children don’t belong to their parents. It is called “Karibara” – borrowed belly. We lend our stomach to god to have children.

K: Borrowed belly… It’s completely opposite to the view of competing to have things we want, burying sincerity, and obtaining material goods for ourselves.

A: We shold recognize the precisouness of our life. Even a string of hair cannot exist without receiving many lives. Never forget to appreciate to every life. We are only one of the water drops that God made. We are one of the many lives on the planet.

K: So we can come to the conclusion that we should reflect on our personal value system. Great East Japan earthquake (March 11, 2011)  is the perfect example of how much good comes from people helping each other. I wish people all over the world to listen to the message sent from Mother Nature.

I guess it is time to finish our interview. Thank you very much for taking the time to share your story, Ms. Araki.


(Interview in 2012, Translated in 2014)

Editors note:

The below photograph was taken around Gassan Shrine in March 2014. In order to uplift the land soaked by the tsunami and build houses, the mountains are converted into residential area.


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