Hitomi; a mother to the people in evacuation centre


Hitomi Asano bows, smiles and says in Japanese: “I am just a housewife and mother, just a woman.” She is also a hero.

When the Pacific Ocean surged into Ishinomaki City on Japan’s north east coast on the afternoon of March 11, Hitomi, 50, and her 11-year-old daughter, Yume, ran to higher ground. They and 1,700 others ended up at the evacuation centre in the Kazuma Primary School gym hall. Was her husband alive? Was their house still standing? She didn’t know. But her thoughts were of the grief-stricken people around her.

“We could not believe our eyes,” she said. “We could not believe this was really happening. People were in shock.”

Hitomi and a few others quickly organised themselves to run the evacuation centre and look after the people. She learned that her husband, an employee with the local government, was alive but that the major port city was one of the hardest hits areas. Some 5,775 of the city’s 160,000 people were dead or missing, about a quarter of the national toll, and more than 25,000 people were in evacuation centres.

“It was difficult. Life in the evacuation centre was very hard,” Hitomi said. “There were so many people, many elderly people and also children.”

Japanese Red Cross, with more than 55,000 staff and two million volunteers across Japan, was one of the first organisations to respond to the natural disaster emergency. It provided the evacuation centre with a water tank for hand washing to help maintain hygiene and prevent the spread of infectious diseases. The tank is refilled every five days.

“We were very happy to see Red Cross,” Hitomi said. “It was a big boost.”

Hitomi and her family could have moved back into their home. The tsunami cleaned out the ground floor of their house but the second floor was “liveable”. But she and her husband are putting the community first. He, working day and night at the local municipal offices, is sleeping in his office. Hitomi, with her daughter, will stay at the evacuation centre until the last person leaves. She has seen her husband just five times in the past two months.

“I am like a mother of the evacuees,” she said. “Everybody follows what I say.”

The number of people at the centre has dropped to 276, mainly due to people moving in with relatives or friends or renting accommodation in other parts of Japan. The remaining people have nowhere else to go. They are waiting for the local government lottery to select their name for the next available purpose-built temporary house. It could be a long wait. More than 20,000 prefabricated temporary homes are to be built in Ishinomaki City. So far 200 have been built and are being used. But the pace of construction is picking up and another 1,193 homes are expected to be ready by early June.

The students have returned to the school and are sharing the site with the people living in the gym. It is not an ideal situation but Hitomi said “everyone is becoming more accustomed to it, living this way”.

“At least here, in the evacuation centre, the people are together. We have each other,” she said.

I ask: “How are the people feeling? How are they?”

“If we think about the year ahead we think there are too many problems. We don’t know what will happen. So we try to just think about today and try to be happy today,” Hitomi said.

Photo: Hitomi Asano tells Naoki Kokawa of Japanese Red Cross about life in the evacuation centre over the past two months.