by Lily Shinde
In 1993 Lily Shinde travelled to Kobe Japan to teach an English course with feminist content, called Feminist English, at a private Woman’s school. In January 1995, she was caught up in the Kobe earthquake that devastated part of Japan. The following contains excerpts from letters to friends written two weeks after the earthquake. Following that are Lily’s response to the recent earthquake and tsunami in Northern Japan.
On January 17, 5:46 a.m. I had a rude awakening, something that shook me to the core. I am still feeling trembling in my body, even though most of the real aftershock seemed to have subsided. It was a real strange phenomena . . . all of a sudden I felt like my body levitated about three feet then I came down with a thud on the two futons I was sleeping on. I curled into a fetal position to protect myself and I was literally bouncing off the walls. Then my whole apartment started shaking from side-to-side, at the same time there was a thunderous rattle like a thousand machine guns firing. A woman ran up the stairs, I live on the second floor, screaming, “Please help me!” She was out-of-control, so I had to shake her to get her into some sense of reality. I brought her into my apartment in the doorway, wrapped my arms around her telling her, “Gambatte.” She was delivering the early morning paper and had left her children alone at home. Then when the shaking stopped, we went outside, it was pitch black. My neighbour’s door was jammed and she was banging on her door and yelling, “Save Me.” I tried to kick her door down to open it but could not so I ran down the stairs and saw a man downstairs and he came up with me and we managed to get her out.
By this time a group of people in the neighbourhood gathered at the parking lot. A nervous man was just about to light a cigarette, when another man who took charge yelled at him to put it out. A few seconds later, a gas main burst about one hundred feet away and the smell of gas was unbearable. We all ran to the closest elementary school. No one was there, and it was all chained off until the school children come to school in the morning. The leader of the group gathered us to another place he considered safe, we were across from a seven story building and I was worried it would topple over. It seemed like eternity but was only about two or three hours we stood in the freezing cold, deciding what to do. We all returned home to our respective homes. My apartment was in shambles, walls cracked, dishes and precious pottery pieces smashed and books all strewn all over the place, a scary, scary sight! I shut off my gas and water main, and then my phone rang. A friend phoned me to come to her house by bicycle. I couldn’t find my bike key or my bicycle. I was a bit stunned so I just grabbed the first pair of pants and a quilted night jacket and ran frantically to her house. My friend’s house is about 10 minutes by bicycle but it seem like forever running there on a lonely country road.
The road starts to shake, it’s aftershocks, and I ran past a rice paddy that was bubbling. With tears streaming down my face, I kept praying that I will make it alive to my friend’s place. When I arrived at my friend’s home they were cleaning all the dishes off the floor, her house was in relatively good shape compared to the ones in my neighbourhood. Then we returned back to clean my place up, what a mess! My Japanese squat toilet was broken and leaking, walls cracked, tatami floor flooded with water and warped and everything was topsy turvy. I didn’t know where to start.
The only thing that seemed to be intact, strangely enough, was my TV, stereo and laptop computer. Because my apartment was not liveable, I went to stay with my friend, daughter and grandmother. For the first week, we had no gas, water and sometimes no phone connection. The following week, I didn’t sleep much because there were so many aftershocks, it was countless. Then I moved to Toyonaka, not far from Osaka, where I had the good fortune to stay with a student and her family. Here we had water, gas and all the amenities. The following week there was a 4.2 magnitude aftershock which unnerved me but bit by bit they were getting fewer.
My poor body and mind is still recovering from the big one, 7.6, and sometimes it seems so surreal. After a few weeks the trains were up and running again and whenever I ride the train to work and see the destruction and blue tarps covering the houses in ruin my eyes swell up with tears but I cannot cry. The first two to three weeks, I am sleeping with my clothes on every night and my body and mind is on “automatic pilot,” ready to run out of the house if there is another earthquake.
I was able to go back to teaching English classes in Osaka but on the weekends I volunteered on a few rescue missions in Kobe trying to find mentally/physically challenged persons in the aftermath of the earthquake, also tried to support foreigners and Japanese women by counselling them, delivered relief aids in Takarazuka and Toyonaka, and donated and collected monies for the evacuees and homeless.
Kobe was like a war zone and still is! Unfortunately, it was the fires that cause more devastation because the city didn’t have time to turn off the gas that resulted in more casualties. When I went there, the Self-Defense Army was all over the place, relief camps sprung up instantaneously, but all the old wooden houses completed destroyed and the new concrete ones slanted like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
In apartments, people on the first floor, totally gone, 3rd or 4th floor sandwiched and crushed by the ones above. The upper ones were at an angle. What made me cry was to see small vases with a few flowers in front of houses which were in rubble or total ruin. Homeless people wandering around aimlessly in a daze or huddled outside around small campfires living in army tents. The whole city stunk, blackened with soot and ashes and the smell of the pollution is overpowering! What really amazed me was at about 7:00 one morning – a salaryman in a business suit is coming out of a tent going to work after an enormous earthquake. It is true, they are married to their jobs, company soldiers!!! Life goes on! Another strange scene was a man walking around with a surfboard, I guess amongst the rubble and devastation that is what was precious to him.
I left Japan in May 1995 because I had finished my contract and also because I didn’t want to take a home away from people in Japan who had lost their homes. I thought that I would be taking away a space that could go to many of the homeless after the earthquake . . .
Looking back, what was heart-warming to me was the Japanese community spirit and how quickly and efficiently the people got into action so quickly and helped each other. People seem so calm in crises here. I really think it would be different in North America. Other gaijins remarked the same as me, about the caring and sharing of the Japanese people during and after the earthquake. My friends and students have been so generous and took care of me even though they were going through challenging times themselves. The City of Takarazuka gave me $2,000 because I lost my apartment, which I promptly gave it back to the local shelter where I lived. This experience has changed my life!
However, I did lose faith in the non-action of the government. I don’t know if they did not want to accept outside help right away because they did not want to lose face in the eyes of the world that they could not handle the situation themselves or they did not want the people of the country to panic. I know that they quarantined rescue dogs from Switzerland for fourteen days because they thought they might bring in disease and as a consequence people died in the rubble and ruin. Two big military ships were offered by the US which would have housed a lot of homeless people and they also refused trauma counsellors.
After I came back to Vancouver, I had my own aftershock to deal with emotionally. I felt glad to be so privileged to get out of a country that was so devastated but suffered a lot of guilt for abandoning my friends and felt hopeless, helpless and lost. I had trouble focussing and felt disoriented for a long time and so isolated because I felt that no one could relate to my experience. It took me a long time to find a counsellor that had PTSD counselling skills and I was having lots of nightmares and flashbacks for years. When I went to visit a friend in San Francisco, I met a friend that was in the Northridge earthquake and we shared our experiences and then I felt such a relief to have met a kindred spirit, a large burden lift off my shoulders.
Now it is 2011, and Japan has been devastated with another natural and nuclear disaster. On March 11th I saw on the news the tsunami and earthquake that hit Japan with a force greater than the one I was in. And I was overwhelmed and numbed by the news. The people living in Japan didn’t have time to catch their breath from the tsunami/earthquake and then the nuclear disaster happened and days afterwards they still have to worry about more earthquakes, aftershocks, nuclear fallout and lack of food and water. The following days I was glued to the television but had to stop watching because I started to get PTSD symptoms. I felt dizzy, disoriented, lost my appetite, had trouble being alone, felt angry, hyper-vigilant and restless. I couldn’t concentrate on anything and was afraid of sleeping and darkness.
Because I had some counselling in the past, I knew what I needed to do to calm myself down. I had a few good friends who said I could call them anytime and they would support me, I had relatives where I could go and eat without invitation and I even allowed myself to cry when I needed to. I sat down to meditate two to three times a day, even if I couldn’t sit for a long time. I made a point of walking along the beach and picking up the negative ions from the ocean, and tried to eat nutritious food. What helped me the most was to go to Tonari Gumi to work with the BC Japan Earthquake Relief fund where I joined in with a community that is working tirelessly to help the country of their ancestry. I heard stories from friends and people that I met at Tonari Gumi who have lost people and family they love. For me, being proactive and helping is a healing experience and I am grateful for the chance to do this. Now, I know how my family and friends must have felt when I was in the Kobe earthquake and how they must have been so relieved when I came home.
I would like everyone to send healing energy and prayers to all the people in Japan, those who have lost loved ones, those who are still missing and those who are still living there and suffering. I am amazed at the courage and generous spirit of the people who are still living there. May we all open our hearts and wallets and give generously to a nation that has suffered such devastation and knowing recovery will take a long time.