Volunteering after Japan’s Earthquake & Tsunami (Part A)

New York, N.Y. I volunteered in the Great Northeastern Japan Earthquake disaster area through April 2011. The area was far more devastated than what could be seen on TV. Although I had volunteered in other disasters, nothing prepared me for the enormity of this: it seemed as if Japan was reliving World War II.

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Whenever I have strong feeling and compassionate heart, I take action the very next day. Always. The Great Northeast Japan Earthquake was no exception. The moment it occurred I immediately flew to Japan from New York.

There, I waited for the first bus from Tokyo to the nearest big city to the disaster, Sendai.

It was hard to find a hhotel in Sendai so we started driving to the nearest to the nearest evacuation center whoch was about two housrs away,. As we drove, there were two larege earthqiakes. The Cell Phone warning sounded – plese do not fo near the noutnatin by go ear the esea. I wa lick y to be with osoeme one who knwe whte local geography,. Finally we arrived at the Cneter.

Many people asked me, “Why are you going alone? They will probably not allow you access – only authorized people are allowed to do anything.”

Some people always find an excuse, but I always jump into difficult situations – never doubting myself. I am always there to meet and help people – and do what needs to be done.

As was the case with Hurricane Katrina when I went everywhere by myself without prior authorization. I did whatever I had to do without worrying too much. Even when most volunteers are rejected, a few with true compassion and unconditional desire to serve without expecting anything in return are allowed to assist.

The emergency evacuation spot had about 250 people and was not bad. I treated a number of people. This facility was much better than places I later encountered. Later on that night I founded a hotel room in Sendai. At 6 o’clock I left for the city of Ishinomaki that was hit very hard by the Tsunami.

I was fortunate enough to find a hotel room in Sendai late at night with a woman who showed me around this city. The next morning, we went to the nearest bus stop and found a bus bound for Ishinomaki, a smaller city most affected by the tsunami.

I met a young woman on the bus who told me about her elderly parents in a house badly damaged by the tsunami. She had not been able to find them in any shelter and thought they might have died. Three weeks later, she discovered her parents were in their damaged home. They had gone to the shelter but had been turned away as it was full.

Every day since she had returned from Sendai carrying everything she could, including water and food. Her parents were not in a shelter and had no access to food or water. As they had returned home, nobody knew. They were barely alive.

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When we arrived at their house, her mother, a proud and strong woman, scolded her daughter, saying, “Well, you could have brought a guest to a place like this?!”

Her mother was extremely stressed and her father was limping badly, stuck on the second floor, not able to move. They had miraculously survived, clinging to the railings of the stairs. They said the muddy water had entered his nose and mouth and she almost drowned.

The tsunami took everything away, but her parents were somehow not swallowed by its muddy currents. They went to the shelter afterwards, but it was already full – not a single spot t even sit. So they decided to go back to their house. They was not able to receive food or water there and we later found them there, still desperate, prepared for the worst. They expected to die. This is why they coud not be found.

As I talked to them, her mother finally opened her heart and allowed me to do far-infrared thermal treatment. She wept and thanked me many times, saying, “You are a like a god who has suddenly appeared in front of us when we despaired.” We shared the joy of life and cried together.

They had been a wealthy family with a nice home, but everything had been washed away. In a moment, all was gone. Their electricity returned two days later, but until then they had no electricity nor candles, huddling together in the dark. Their bodies were chilled and they lived like pigs covered in mud. Their clothes were covered in dried mud. Heavy mud was everywhere and they couldn’t even walk in their house. Theynwere preparing to die…

Normally, Japanese people don’t complain or talk much about negative things. When the mother’s heart warmed up, she opened up and shared with me their terrible story. But they never complained. They spoke indifferently about the facts that had transpired as if they were reporting the news. I gave them my Onnetsu mat so they could sleep in warmth. She cried and cried and cried. You are like a God, she said, appearing to us when we had lost hope.

I visited other shelters, heard many other horrible stories, and interacted with many people. I was sad I could only treat about twenty people, but each of them were filled with gratitude. They were saved mentally also by the warm kindness they received from a stranger.

Originally published as Vol. 112 in Weekly Biz, May 9, 2020; translated by Jim Luce.

See: Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura Column in Japan’s Weekly Biz



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About Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura

View all posts by Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura
Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura
Dr. Kazuko was born into a distinguished old family in Kyoto, Japan, and graduated from Toho conservatory of Music in Tokyo. In 1961 she came to U.S. as a pianist sponsored by the Boston Symphony. She studied at Boston University, New York University, and received her Ph.D. in Oriental Medicine from New York State University and the International Academy of Education in Tokyo. From 1968 to 1992, she promoted cultural exchanges from East to West and vice versa, and became a world famous impresario, producing 2,000 events each year all over the world encompassing over 140 countries. In this connection, in 1972, she went to Dharamsala to find the lost Tibetan Folk Opera, and met His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with whom she remains a lifelong friend. In 1973 and 1991 she arranged and funded personally the tours of the Folk Opera of Tibet to the West. She has received many medals and honors from different countries. Her tireless life long work in Philanthropic field is vast and well known ranging from Save the Beacon Theater, Save the Boat People, Help the Homeless, natural disasters of earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as relief to AIDS and HIV positive children in Africa. She has been a dedicated Board Member to both the J. Luce Foundation and Orphans International for years. Her work focuses on the Tibetan people; Tibetan children remain especially strong in her heart. She raised fund for the new academic building for Manjushree Orphanage in Tawang, India and supported many aspects of the school. See HuffPo pieces entitled Japanese Holistic Healer in NYC to Build School for Tibetan Orphans in India, A Japanese Dinner with Raul Castro’s Daughter, and NYC Gala in Support of Tibetan Orphans Set for January.

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