Book review, from Tokyo – Ten years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake on 11 March 2011. In the Japanese central government’s last official ceremony in memory of the disaster’s victims, the Emperor clearly expressed a sentiment that echoed – the disaster continues today. While international news outlets continue to cover the anniversary, there is also a growing amount of literature – naturally, when survivors, people who have lived through the event become ready to talk, then will there be light shone on its many facets.
One such publication is 『16歳の語り部』(Juurokusai no kataribe; lit. 16 year-old speakers group). Released five years ago, the words of three students from Omagari Elementary School in Higashi-matsushima City, Miyagi prefecture, trace their thoughts of how they came to terms with reality and what they hoped to achieve through sharing their stories under the Kids Now Japan project (Kids Now). Former Miyagi prefecture middle school teacher Toshiro Sato started the project after reading a newspaper article on Nayuta Ganbe, one of the three children, speaking about his experience.
Structured as three separate accounts, Nayuta Ganbe, Honoka Tsuda, and Akane Aizawa share their journey of overcoming loss, facing reality among friends and adults, and finding a way forward through speaking up. P5 in 2011, they may have gone to the same school just 2.3km from the sea but their stories of that day and the five years that followed differ not only because of what they saw, but also because of their very different characters.
When the earthquake struck, Tsuda was excited at the intensity of the initial quake as she took cover under a grand piano while a strange calmness came over Aizawa as she soothed panicked friends a few rooms away. When the tsunami came, Ganbe froze as the outstretched hand of a middle-aged man drifted into the murky waves that battered the school building he was taking refuge in from two sides, and in the aftermath, bodies that once breathed life strewn across the land. Whatever was left of Tsuda’s early excitement vanished when her father showed her what was left of their home – nothing. Its second floor laid some 50 metres away by a river. As for Aizawa, despite her disbelief at her hiraya one-floor home gone, she had clung onto the hope that her beloved dog had somehow survived because it was never found. But soon, she had to come to terms with the death of a dear childhood friend.
The three of them all knew that one unnamed person, but it was especially excruciating for Aizawa because the two had quarreled over something she could not recall the previous day and could no longer apologize. For Tsuda, this same person, who knew Aizawa took time to befriend someone, had once said “ano ko no koto, yoroshiku ne” to her about Aizawa, and that now took on a different meaning.
Recovery took time; the three of them eventually each found their own way. When school resumed about a month later, students were instructed not to talk about the tsunami. In middle school, inlanders, who did not suffer much damage, outnumbered those who came from the coast, and so the differences in how they behaved, what they spoke about became more pronounced, increasingly marginalized. Ganbe gradually came to understand the gag order, but he was shocked when he heard someone else, about the same age, speaking out at an event – it’s okay to talk about it! – and he soon found meaning in speaking and sharing his story with others. Especially when memories were gradually changing as time passed. Talking made him feel better but he also saw how he could help others learn about the disaster in this way. He saw how natural disasters could strike Japan at anytime, anywhere – that others were mi-saisha (people who may one day be afflicted by a natural disaster). And he saw how his work could help save lives in the next big one.
On the other hand, Tsuda’s frustration exploded in class one day when she flung a table at a boy who was making fun of how his mother panicked during the quake. Reacting in that way allowed Tsuda, and some of the boys in her class, to keep their heads, she reflected. She also saw how some adults, being humans themselves, pushed children aside in the queue for rations. Tsuda had a father, and teacher, who trusted her to find herself, her own way in life as a person, which was liberating. Inspired by Ganbe’s actions, she also too took to sharing her experience with her peers. Near the end of her account, she reflected how not everything since 3.11 had been bad, and also on the importance of human interaction, because despite all our records of the past, when those cease to exist, what remains would be the depth of one’s memories.
Aizawa, however, was one to bottle things inside. Like others traversing childhood and adulthood, she didn’t find it easy to open up to an adult, and so she didn’t. Instead, she found respite in venting to Tsuda her complaints and troubles during their walks home from school, but the emotions and tension kept churning within. She confessed to having lost her old positive self as she fell deeper and deeper into negativity with each harsh uttering of her stressed friends. But she was not suicidal. Just lost. Not necessarily searching for any particular direction in life. But when she was given the chance to speak, she found that the freedom to speak without restraint to her peers allowed her to slowly find her cheerful self again. In retrospect, she wished that adults had simply watched over them quietly instead of probing from time to time. And, she still loves the sea.
The book encapsulates in time, fixing in print the words of these three 16 year-old survivors who were 11 at that time. It also includes an entry by Miyu Yamashiro, a Tokyo high schooler who heard them speak, along with Sato’s entry that rounds up the book. Sato himself lost his daughter who was raring to go on to middle school. But Ganbe’s, Tsuda’s, and Aizawa’s words gave him another perspective, that of children that day. Their voices drive the hope and strength enclosed in these pages that make this title one not just for their stories but also a reminder of other children who have suffered more. As we remember the lives lost and the missing, we must remind ourselves to be ready for the next disaster and the recovery in its aftermath.
Title: 『16歳の語り部』(Juurokusai no kataribe; lit. 16 year-old speakers group) by Nayuta Ganbe, Honoka Tsuda, and Akane Aizawa, supervised by Toshiro Sato
Publisher: POPLAR Publishing, 2016
Nayuta Ganbe appears in this recent article.
Japan’s children of the tsunami shaped by tragedy, Jakarta Post, 4 March 2021
(Updated on 14 March to include Tsuda’s opinions on non-negative things post-3.11 and revise ending)