Stories of Survival

photos & text: Ry Beville

Someone tugged on my arm as I passed. I crouched down in the narrow walking space between the blankets covering most of the floor. Flurries of snow whirled outside the window. Dusk was coming, and with it, deeper cold. Deadly cold.

The old woman began to speak, though whether because of her age, the hygiene mask covering her mouth, or her thick northern accent, I couldn’t understand her—only some scattered words. And I was supposed to be an interpreter.

The pitch in her voice grew higher. She broke into tears but kept speaking frantically. Lastly, she said “Thank everyone outside for helping us.” That was the only sentence I had understood completely. She seemed to calm after that. She bowed in thanks from her sitting position as I promised I would.

I had come from ‘outside’ the evacuation center in Kessenuma, along with several boxes of much-wanted vegetables and, perhaps, a less-wanted media team of two. But this Danish pair was thankfully not so interested in sensational headlines, embellished or otherwise. They had come first to listen, then report.

Firsthand accounts of survival were not scarce. Recording the narratives unbroken, however, would be more difficult than finding them. The newscaster, Svenning Dalgaard, offered some veteran advice, “Instead of specific questions to which people can answer ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ ask open-ended questions and simply let them speak.” Not, ‘were you scared,’ but ‘how did you feel?’ Not, ‘are you worried about your child’s future,’ but, ‘what are your greatest worries now?’ His advice proved invaluable, not only for that immediate work, but also after most of the TV teams left the disaster area.

I stayed behind in Tohoku to assist with the coordination and ferrying of relief supplies, recording when I could survivors’ stories before time and memory colored them differently. I had a camera, a writing background and an interest in these stories that went beyond the personal. I had—so I thought—a duty to listen and record.

My own grandfather, now 93, only started talking in detail about his two years in the Pacific War in his late 80s. My other grandfather, on his deathbed, narrated to my father a letter to me with details about his time in France at the end of WWII. Ten years ago, when I was a teacher in Fukuoka, an elderly colleague told me about being in Nagasaki as a child when the atomic bomb went off, about his house blowing away like so much paper, about searching the wreckage for his sister. I used to talk frequently with people who remembered WWII.

Those were different accounts of destruction and survival, of course. But with American and Japanese forces now working together, with over 20,000 still unaccounted for after the tsunami, and an entire coastal region destroyed, these new stories would no doubt be meaningful at some later time. Talking, I discovered, also seemed therapeutic for many.

Toward the southern end of Rikuzentakata, a woman searching through the rubble for photographs and mementos told me of her escape and, through sudden tears, of leaving her father behind at the house.

“I was going to stay in the building where I worked, but decided to go get my son. That decision saved my life.”

Her son’s school was at elevation. The building where she had worked was washed away, as were many of her colleagues who had tried to evacuate to higher floors. There was no opportunity to go back and get her father by the time she reached her son.

“I feel lucky that we at least found his body. We just had his memorial service. I wish now we had more pictures.”

Such stories are not uncommon, but no less powerful for being so. Very few people seemed reluctant to share them.

Media, Japanese and foreign alike, noted the amazing fortitude of survivors. But to what extent is steely stoicism helpful? How long must someone endure (gaman)? How long shall we fight on (ganbarô)?

Personal suffering is not generally shared in Japan as openly as in many other countries, ironic because of Japan’s more communal society. Mental health care lags behind most developed countries. Periodic destruction, to many Japanese, seems like a fact of life.

Humans are social creatures and depend on one another in many fundamental ways. This goes deeper than any culture. Talking, listening—this is an incredibly important part of our social fabric and wellbeing. It is key to cultural transmission. It is at the heart of a compelling news story. It keeps us stimulated and sane. It keeps us together.

People frequently ask me what they can do for survivors in Tohoku. Talking, listening—that’s a good place to start.


















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