Surviving a Natural Disaster in Japan: An ALT’s Story
By Alex Sturmey
On November 15, 2016
It’s a very strange experience to see your city mentioned in the news, and even stranger still to see your name plastered across articles from around the world. However, late last year this is exactly what happened to me when my city, Joso, was flooded after the Kinugawa river (which, appropriately, translates to “Demon’s Anger” river) burst its banks.
Following a night of torrential rain, and warnings from the local government, my school had been cancelled. I was pretty excited for the day off, and had already picked out a host of appropriate films to watch on Netflix; 2012, Noah and 50 First Dates, but my excitement was quickly cut short when an evacuation order was given for my area.
I made sure that I packed all the essentials: my iPad for Netflix and a pointy hat in case society fell apart and I needed to convince people I was a wizard to survive. I could hear a loudspeaker outside warning people to, “Take preparations to save their life”. I looked down at my pointy hat and knew I was ready. A friend and I then quickly made our way to a local elementary school.
Arriving at the evacuation center
We reached the evacuation center – set up in the gym of the elementary school – and were processed with a finesse and grace that only the Japanese are capable of. We were given blankets, some food and a few bottles of water to make it through the day. Medical staff were constantly patrolling the room, three meals a day were provided, morning papers were delivered, and high fives given if we asked kindly enough.
Most of the time was spent studying Japanese, walking around the hall to see if anything had changed, sleeping and making small talk: what our favorite name for a large body of water in an urban area was: “flood”; what we had planned for the weekend: “flood”; what we did today: “flood”; and, what our favorite natural disaster was: “volcanic eruption”.
We had soon managed to find a large extension lead and placed it near our little corner. After a few perilous trips back home, we returned with some additional leads, allowing several people to use it at once. We soon had a monopoly on electricity. All we charged people was a conversation to help study Japanese (I wouldn’t recommend this as an approach to language learning).
Running water had been shut off a few hours into the disaster. None of us were quite prepared to venture into the pandora’s box that the toilets had become. Lacking a hazmat suit, we decided that the best approach was to throw a friend through the door and hope for the best. We all agreed that if we didn’t see him again in five minutes, he had been lost forever, and we’d have to make do with the woods next to the school. Or, he was just trying to figure out the Japanese-style toilet.
Throughout our week there, several local and international groups came along to the center to lend a hand. This ranged from well-known restaurants, who provided a hot meal on one day, to a national phone company setting up internet for the whole hall. We were even approached by a national cult. They were nice enough to provide us with prepackaged food that informed us that the only way for the world to achieve peace was for everyone to become vegan. We didn’t have any non-vegan food in the hall, and no wars had broken out while we were there, so I couldn’t fault their logic.
Becoming a flood celebrity
Something you don’t expect is the amount of interviews you’re asked to give. Reporters from all over Japan were flocking to the city, and many wanted to speak to us.
A few of us accidentally gave an interview to an adult magazine. None of us realized what type of magazine it was until a few weeks later, when a copy of it appeared in my letterbox. I eagerly opened it to see what was written, only to find a picture of me and our interview tightly nestled between two scantily-clad, bored-looking women – I hoped it wasn’t a metaphor.
A few days after I had returned home, a group of soldiers knocked on my door. They asked me several rapid fire questions in Japanese, to which I nodded, smiled and said yes to them all, assuming they were simply asking me if everything was okay. They all looked a little worried, placed a sticker on my door, and quickly left. I later found out they were checking if anyone had died. It’s comforting to know that I could have gotten away with it by just smiling and saying yes.
In all seriousness, I was very lucky; my apartment avoided the flooding and the only problem I had to contend with was the lack of running water. Many people lost their belongings, others their homes, and some lost much worse. Although it wasn’t long before things returned to normal, the event wasn’t something that the city could ever forget.
On the positive side, during my time in the evacuation center I was moved to see how people kept their spirits high – people were smiling and talking to one another, kids were running around and playing. After the floods, it was amazing to see the whole community come together with multiple groups starting up to help and put everything back together. That being said, it’s all certainly not an experience I would want to go through again.