Vol.3 Teiichi Sato


Interview Series, “Talk for Recovery” (Session 3)

Mr Teiichi Sato, a seed shop owner and the author of “The Seed of Hope in the Heart”

(Date: Beg. of July, 2012)



Komori : Good morning. Thank you for taking your time on Sunday morning despite your busy schedule. Purpose of this interview series is to talk to those who are acting to restore the areas hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake and to publish the interview articles. We started this from this April and this is the 3rd session.

Sato: Thank you for inviting me.

Komori : Since you have been participating “Komo’s English Speaking Class” since last December, and I have been reading your writing during the process of editing English paper on earthquake experiences, called “The Seed of Hope in the Heart”, I understand to some extent as to “what actually happened”. Now, I’d like to take this opportunity to know what you experienced in more focused way and in Japanese.

Sato: OK. How shall I start? 

Komori : I would like to divide the topic in three. First question is; your thoughts and feelings at this moment after 1 year and 4 months from the earthquake. Second one is; the story of “Sato Taneya” recovery. The detailed story is in “The Seed of Hope in the Heart”, but I wonder if you can summarize it….? And lastly; your message to the public. No need to follow this order, but I just would like to cover these kinds of topics during this interview.



Never cried this much….

Sato : Well, my thoughts and feelings at this moment…?

Komori : Yes. I imagine reflecting on it is tough to you, though. 

Sato : Yes. In one sentence, “I never cried this much”.Komori : “I never cried this much”…

Sato : When the earthquake occurred, I never thought my shop would be hit by tsunami. I was just worried about the stone wall of my parents’ house and went there with my wife, as it had been damaged by an earthquake a few days before.

Komori : You were not intending to run away from tsunami but just went to your parents’ house for the stone wall…

Sato : Yes. It was about 10 km away from the beach, in the mountain. I was worried because my mother lived there.

Komori : But tsunami actually damaged everything…

Sato : I went to my shop a few days after the earthquake. Since the road was blocked by rubble, I crossed a mountain on foot, went to the highland, then saw the area where my shop was supposed to be. What I saw was nothing, not only my shop, but also houses, factories, cherry trees, dogwood avenue, everything that I used to see was all gone.

Komori : All gone…

Sato : I also lost many things. My shop, house, vinyl greenhouse, fence, warehouse etc. Everything which I built throughout my entire life was disappeared as if it was boiled away. I collapsed on my knees and just looking at the scene.

Komori : I don’t know what to say.

Sato : I did not cry at that time. Men in my country, Kesen, are not supposed to cry in public. But when I was alone, I just cried every day, from morning till night. Many friends died. My uncle and aunt were swept up by tsunami. I could even cry more when I saw many persons looking for lost families or acquaintance in the damaged area…I never cried this much in the past.

Komori : I imagine it was quite difficult to recover your feelings. 

Sato : But I thought, while crying every day…Well, I am still alive. There are many of those who died, but I am still alive. It is a like a living hell but there are many who are suffering more than me. Let’s live strongly and do the best I can. If I try hard, I can make things happen. Our ancestors must have gone through more difficult experiences. Let’s recover from here. I thought like that.

Komori : It’s a never-give-up spirit.

Sato : I think this is the origin of Japanese mindset, not to give up.


Recovery of “Sato Taneya”

Komori : Please share the recovery story of “Sato Taneya” after the earthquake. To be precise, the name of the shop was renamed as “Sato Taneya” after the earthquake, while it used to be “Sato Shubyo”. Am I correct? 

Sato : This is true. For the recovery of my shop, the first practical barrier was earthquake insurance. 

Komori : It would make a lot of differences if it is insured or not. 

Sato : In fact, it was not insured. 

Komori : …

Sato : When the earthquake hit us, it was the time of preparation for planting. I had just purchased a lot of seeds and nursery plants, meaning the level of account payable was at the highest in a year. Such products were all gone with the shop but the account payable remained, with no insurance. 

Komori : It was a start from minus, not even zero. 

Sato : This is why I thought I had to work really hard. If I was insured, I might have thought differently. The tough situation forced me to be strong.

Komori : Then, how did you restart your shop?

Sato : First, I opened the mobile shop, using the pickup truck left at my parents’ house and painting it with red ink, saying “The Seed of Hope in the Heart”. It was early April.

Komori : So you already restarted in early April. We can still see this message in the truck today, though it’s getting a bit difficult to read.


Sato : I borrowed some space at the parking lot of MAIYA (main supermarket in this neighborhood) and opened my small shop with pickup truck. Since it was on the truck bed, we could not open the shop when it rained. Probably it was also not the right timing, I could not sell any.

Komori : You started under rough conditions.

Sato : Next, I decided to use the barn of my parents’ house. But it was in the mountain and had a leaking roof. What’s worse was there was not enough space for a car. I gave up soon.

Komori : You had to give up there, as well.

Sato : Then next, I thought about how to utilize the land for rice paddy. I had a rice paddy in Yokota cho approx.. 8 km away from the beach. However, I found out that the land was in a designated area for agriculture promotion and I was not allowed to use the land for other purposes. They were not flexible even in the affected area and I still had to keep paying property tax.

Komori : Even in the emergency situation, it was difficult to change the usage of areas.

Sato : Well, government office was also damaged by the earthquake and I imagine they were also in a difficult situation.

Komori : What’s next?

Sato : After consideration of rice paddy land, I thought about using business subsidy program of government office, as I learned that we may receive land & building support if we file an application partnering with other business owners. It was June last year. So I partnered with a car shop owner and filed an application. However, we had to give up because their process was too slow. I thought we should not rely on government office but need to be more proactive and be on our own.

Komori : I heard approx. one third of government office personnel lost their lives in Rikuzen Takata. I suppose it was chaotic situation right after the incident.

Sato : Yes. It was just not realistic to expect something from government office right after such a huge incident. I should act on my own.

Komori : Then, finally you came back to the place where the shop used to be.

Sato : I decided to come back to this place. It was last July.

Komori : But the place was all wet with tons of rubbles, wasn’t it?

Sato : At the beginning, I had no idea where to start. But I decided to start from what I can do, one by one. First, I started from setting of windscreen. Because there was no Takada Pine Forest any more, the place was directly exposed to salty wind. I made the windscreen with iron pipes given by my friend and also what was left at my parents’ house.

Komori : So you used all available things you could get.

Sato : Then, I thought about planting something green. Since the place became a deserted landscape all covered by rubbles, I needed green. I planted tomato because I had some confidence in this as my main expertise was tomato and eggplant. It was successfully grown. This green plant gave me energy. One person, who lost his family and devastated, smiled a bit when he ate this tomato grown in the land affected by tsunami. Green of the plant, red of the fruit….all of these gave power to people.

Komori : New life in a land affected by tsunami.

Sato : Next task was to work on building. I looked for second hand prefab. But there were not enough stock for this type of building materials in the market after the incident and it was difficult to find them

Komori : I understand the shortage of building materials continued for a several months.

Sato : During such period, I was lucky enough to find and buy second hand prefab from Tottori recycling manufacture through Yahoo auction. It was no more than luck. I could buy it thanks to the support from members in the same business, former customers of mail order services, and volunteer groups.

Komori : This is now the central part of this shop.

Sato : Yes. But it had a leaking roof at the beginning since it was second hand. So I started with fixing crack, ceiling, roof and putting door and so on…I just worked hard though I’m not a carpenter, then it became to look like a makeshift shop.

Komori : You did it all by yourself. I’m impressed. I also do DIY myself but it is already tough for the half of this size, even by using electric tool.

Sato : I had no other choices. No excuses were allowed by saying no experiences, no tools, no row materials etc. I just had to do it. Everyone would be like this. You may have to do this if you are hit by such an incidence. It will not be the story of someone else.

Komori : Then, what you did next was…

Sato : Digging a well. This area was the most front line of tsunami. There was no running water even after 1 year and 4 months, but water was critical as we grow the nursery plant. I asked myself what I should do. The answer was let’s dig a well.

Komori : I believe you were not an expert of well digging, right?

Sato : First time!

Komori : And no tools…

Sato : First, I dug with a ladle for cooking.

Komori : Do you mean that ladle?

Sato : Yes. I had no other choices. Then, I used an empty can. It did not work out, either. After that, I thought about putting a tube shaped bamboo with a valve to release dirt in the land.

Komori : It was a desperate effort.

Sato : Every day, I did nothing but digging, sweaty all over. It often collapsed even though I dug, so there was sometimes no major progress in a day. Then I started to insert the pipe to the space made after digging. It began to progress gradually. After digging about 5 meters or so, the water began to flow.

Komori : You dug as much as 5 meters with your own tools by yourself without knowing if you would be successful or not…. But you continued and finally found the water.

Sato : I was worried if it was salt water but it was fresh water. In addition, it is cool in summer and never frozen in winter as it was ground water, Very convenient it was.

Komori : 5 meters…



Sato : After water, my next focus was vinyl greenhouse. Rikuzen Takata is relatively warm in Tohoku area and is often called the Mediterranean of Sanriku. But still it is not warm enough to grow the nursery plant outside in winter. Therefore, vinyl greenhouse was critical. Just a greenhouse is not enough and we needed to keep it warm. Normally, we use electrically-heated wire. We needed to make it happen in this place even though there was nothing.

Komori : I do field work myself on a part time basis so I can see what it is like. If you want to grow the nursery plant in early spring, it needs to come out during the very cold winter time. And you had to make it happen where there was nothing. How? 

Sato : I hand made the greenhouse by collecting various spare parts and materials. I tried to improve the adiabatic effectiveness by placing Styrofoam and blanket scrap on the floor.

I made an arch tunnel by bending the bamboo material over the fire and put the blanket on top to make it warm at night.

Komori : This is the greenhouse we are in right now. This is all hand made. Ummm, I can’t help but sigh…

Sato : But I did not do it all by myself. I was supported by volunteers who often visited me when building the shop and greenhouse. Basically I do it on my own. But at the same time I was open to any support offered by others and gratefully collaborated. Well, people do not leave the person alone who is working really hard. In that way, I built the shop, well, and greenhouse by the end of last year. 

Komori : So it was recovered!

Sato : Not a full recovery…but the sales volume gradually started to come back while working on recovery. It is slowly getting back. This year, government office finally started to pay the subsidy for shop recovery. It is not financially stable, but I feel more positive to work harder this year. It was not easy but I think my decision to start doing it on my own was correct.

Komori : The first driver of your journey for recovery was the situation of no insurance with account payable. You had no choices but to work hard for recovery and make it happen. Your message of “I think my decision was correct” means a lot with reality.

Sato : I really think that way. If I did not move at that moment, I am not sure if I could recover any one of them now.

Komori : This message is powerful enough not only to those in the affected area but also in the entire modern Japanese society.



Importance of learning history as a fact, not a sentimentalism

Komori : Now, let me slightly change the subject. Referring to your English paper on earthquake, “The Seed of Hope in the Heart”, you stated that you wanted to “correctly keep the record” as one of reasons of writing it. Can you explain a bit more about this as I think keeping the record is also important from the perspective of future disaster prevention?

Sato : It is very important. The damage of tsunami could have been lighter if we all understand the history in more correct way.

Komori : Are you saying the history of past tsunami incidents was not correctly understood?

Sato : I think it is unlikely. Because I was so devastated by this tsunami incident with regret, I looked for various sources and learned a lot during the past one year.

Komori : For example?

Sato : First of all, there were not so many records of tsunami left in Rikuzen Takata. Though participating disaster drills, no one thought about the possibility of being affected by such a huge tsunami. At least, there were no such records as far as we were aware of.

Komori : This is why the town was established in this area of Rikuzen Takata, in this waterfront area.

Sato : However, there was a record of Keicho Sanriku Tsunami, kept by a Spanish, Sebastian Vizcaino, who happened to be in this area in 1611. After a while, Japan closed the country. There was no such record in this area. The irony is that there was in Spain. According to that, this area, up to Imaizumi, was swallowed by tsunami. It looks like the whole village was disappeared.

Komori : It means there were a huge tsunami in about 400 years ago….

Sato : This level of tsunami was said to be once in 1000 years. People say this by referring to Teikan Sanriku Tsunami in 869. In reality, there was a huge tsunami much later than that in this area.

Komori : People would have different image if it is 400 year cycle as opposed to 1000 year cycle.

Sato : After that, 19 people were affected by Meiji Sanriku Tsunami in 1896, 3 by Showa Sanriku Tsunami in 1933, and 8 by Chile Earthquake Tsunami in 1960. Although there were affected people from such incidents, the magnitude of damage was not as high as other areas. I think this, in the end, made people careless, thinking that “this area would not be affected by huge tsunami”. If we clearly remembered the experience of great tsunami of 400 years ago, our town building of Rikuzen Takata would be different.

Komori : Detailed records of past tsunami incidents are not necessarily existing by region… If this is true, the question is what clue we have to know the history of past tsunami and disasters. I understand you, as an expert of plants, focus on the age of trees.

Sato : Yes. Let take the example of tenjin osugi under Imaizumi Shrine, which was swallowed by this tsunami. The age of this tree was generally said to be 550 years or so. Estimating from the diameter of tree, I personally think it could be a bit younger, 350 to 400 years old or so…. In any case, the important point is there are different opinions in terms of tree age Do you know what it means from disaster prevention perspective?

Komori : It means it is difficult to guess how many years without tsunami as there are big gap in this?

Sato : Correct. Due to this tsunami, this tree is almost dying with salt water penetrated in the root. Hope it will survive, but as a plant, it would most probably not make it, realistically speaking. Other cedars covered by tsunami water died at the foot of the mountain. Cedars often die if their roots were covered by tsunami water. Therefore, we can guess how many years this place was safe, to some extent, if we can guess the age of cedar.

Komori : I see. Even if we cannot correctly specify the year of past huge tsunami, we can imagine at least how many years the area was safe.

Sato : In any case, on one hand, people say 1000 years and on the other hand people say several hundreds of years. If you just enjoy history with sentimentalism, it is ok to say 1000 years. But if the implication becomes to be no tsunami in the past 1000 years, its impact of disaster prevention is so big.

Komori : Sure.

Sato : Expert of plant seeds are extraordinarily concerned about the timing of seeding and nursery planting. Therefore, we are also very concerned about the age of trees. I cannot stop thinking “I want to know in what year, month, and date, this tree was planted”…

Komori : You were also studying about “the Solo Pine Tree of Hope” left in Takada Pine Forest.

Sato : You can estimate various things if you investigate pipe trees in Takada Pine Forest, not only that tree. First of all, that Pine Forest was born in about 400 years ago.

Komori : 400 years ago. It means it started right after Keicho Sanriku Tsunami. It could be made for tsunami protection.

Sato : Maybe so. But this tsunami damaged all the pine trees. Only one left, called “the Solo Pine Tree of Hope” is said to be approx.. 270 years old. Though I cannot see the annual ring of this tree, the age can be less than that, 180 to 200 years old, by estimating from the diameter of other trees around this one. This tree was bigger than other ones so is considered to be the oldest one in this forest. The point is even this tree is not 400 years old.

Komori : So the oldest tree was about 200 years old or so at the time of 2011, in the forest which is considered to be 400 years old.

Sato : What happened during 200 years? There are various possibilities, but it could be possible that there was tsunami which was big enough to destroy the pine trees in this forest in about 200 years ago. This waterfront town was built about 30 years ago. This could be why there was no record; the damage was just the pipe tree forest but not houses where people live.

Komori : By estimating that way, there is a possibility of tsunami with much more frequency than once in 1000 years, as one hypothetical scenario based on the age of trees.

Sato : Historic building can also be the base of such estimation. Therefore it is very important to record the year of establishment etc. from the perspective of disaster prevention. I also enjoy history with sentimentalism, but I feel it is very critical to develop and keep the correct record to prevent from disaster.


Recovery from now on

Komori : In the end, please share your vision and thoughts about recovery.

Sato : Being realistic, I think it is difficult to continue the business in this shop.

Komori : Why? After all the efforts of recovery?

Sato : I will need to leave this place as the land will be inflated in the recovery plan. I have no idea if it is 3 years or 5 years from now. I will just need to keep an eye on the latest status in government office.

Komori : It is so unclear.

Sato : Government office must have its own reasons. But I do not feel concerned even it is unclear. While I appreciate all the supports, my strong driver has been the belief of “I have to do it on my own”.

Komori : Your stance will not change going forward.

Sato : You must drive yourself. It does not mean we do not collaborate with each other, or reject support from others. It is to establish your very basic stance toward recovery, while gratefully accepting support by volunteers and government office, and collaborating with each other. You move first, instead of being prompted to move by others.

Komori : The success of various support largely depends on the stance of those who are supported.

Sato : Right. There still need a lot of time and efforts to achieve major recovery from such a huge disaster. If all of us who were affected from this become proactive enough with the mind set of “let’s make it happen”, the recovery will be accelerated. I think it is a key in this entire affected area. I hope to be like this.

Komori : Now our time is up. Oh, you have another guest coming here. Sato san, thank you very much for sharing your precious story today. I personally got once again very impressed and will continue doing what I can do here. I hope your message means a lot to all people in the affected area as well as in Japan.




English translation from the original Japanese version are supported by Asuka Furukawa (Tokyo, Japan)




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