The 2011 Japan Tsunami​—Survivors Tell Their Stories

Read first-person accounts about those who survived the earthquake in Japan and the tsunami that followed.

ON Friday, March 11, 2011, at 2:46 p.m., the fourth-strongest earthquake ever recorded anywhere in the world struck Japan. It triggered a massive tsunami and powerful aftershocks that continued to strike fear into people in the area for weeks. Some 20,000 people were killed or are missing. Thousands, however, survived. Here are some of the survivors’ stories.

Tadayuki and his wife, Harumi, were at home in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, when they heard a rumbling and their house started shaking violently. “We rushed outside and were shocked to see fissures in the ground,” said Tadayuki. “We watched as our house swung back and forth and dust gushed from the walls like smoke.”

The quake’s epicenter was 80 miles (129 km) off the coast of Miyagi. The tsunami created havoc for 420 miles (670 km) along the Pacific Coast of Japan. In some places the waves were 45 feet  (15 m) high at the shoreline, crushing breakwaters and riverbanks and surging up to 25 miles (40 km) inland.

Sources of electricity, gas, and clean water were totally destroyed. Some 160,000 houses, shops, and factories were damaged or washed away. At one point, as many as 440,000 victims were living in some 2,500 temporary shelters, such as schools and local community centers. Many others were accommodated in the homes of family or friends. There were tens of thousands of casualties, but thousands of bodies have not been found.

Loss and Heartache

The tsunami killed far more people than did the earthquake. Yoichi, who lived in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, immediately suspected that a tsunami would follow the quake, so he took his parents to a nearby shelter. Then he went to check on neighbors. Still concerned about his parents, Yoichi along with his wife, Tatsuko, wanted to go back to see them but received news that a tsunami was approaching.

They rushed to another shelter but could not enter the building because the entrance was blocked by debris. Then they saw the pitch-black building of the neighboring sawmill rushing toward them. “Run!” Tatsuko cried.

They finally reached a schoolyard, which was on higher ground. From there they saw the tsunami swallow up the whole neighborhood. “My house is being washed away,” someone said. Almost three quarters of Rikuzentakata was devastated, and Yoichi’s parents were swept away. His father’s body was never recovered; his mother’s body was eventually found.

Toru was working at a factory near the coast in Ishinomaki. When the first tremor subsided, he rushed to his car to escape. He shouted for others to flee from the tsunami that he suspected would follow.

“First I headed toward my home, which was on high ground, but I was soon caught in a traffic jam,” Toru explained. “I heard on the car radio that the tsunami had already reached a nearby city. I opened my car window so that I could escape if it hit my area. Soon a huge wall of black water over six feet (2 m) high came rushing toward me. The cars in front of me were hurled  back into mine, and we were all washed far inland.

“I barely got out through the window, but then I was swept away by the oily, smelly torrent. I was thrown into an auto repair shop, where I grabbed hold of a staircase and climbed onto the second floor. With great effort, I was able to pull three people to safety. A few of us survived the rising water and the cold, snowy night. But we were unable to save others who were calling for help.”

Before the quake, Midori in Kamaishi, Iwate, had spent some pleasant moments with her grandparents. She had just graduated from high school and had taken her diploma to show to her grandfather, who had been incapacitated for some time. He read the diploma aloud and commended Midori for all her effort. Five days after that happy occasion, the earthquake hit.

Midori and her mother, Yuko, urged the grandparents to take refuge, believing that a tsunami would follow. But the grandfather said: “No, I am not going. Tsunamis have never reached this far inland.” They tried to carry him out of the house, but they were not able to lift him, so they went to find help. By then, however, the tsunami had already reached the shore. “Hurry! Run!” shouted the men on a nearby hill. The tsunami was swallowing up one house after another. Midori’s frantic cries, “Grandpa! Grandma!” reverberated loudly. Her grandfather’s body was later found, but her grandmother was never located.

Efforts to Provide Help

The Japanese government immediately dispatched firefighters, policemen, and self-defense forces from all over Japan. In a short time, over 130,000 people were engaged in rescue-and-relief work. In time, help also came from foreign countries and international organizations. Dozens of rescue teams soon arrived as did medical staff. They searched for survivors, provided medical aid, and cleared debris.

Various organizations helped their members. Jehovah’s Witnesses were among them. Immediately after the Friday afternoon quake and tsunami, Witnesses checked on the safety of those with whom they regularly meet together for worship. Roads, however, were impassable in many places, and electricity and telephone services were cut off. Locating people over the huge affected area was very difficult.

Takayuki, one of the elders in the congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, could contact only a few families that horrible Friday afternoon. “I decided to look for others the next day,” he said. “As dawn broke, I started out by car and then went on foot to find them and continued until evening. I went to 20 locations, including shelters, to search for congregation members. When I found them, I read  scriptures and prayed with them.”

Shunji in Ishinomaki explains: “We set up teams to find fellow believers. When we entered the disaster area, words failed us. Cars were hanging off electric poles, houses were piled one on top of the other, and the debris was piled up even higher than the houses. On the roof of a car, we saw a dead body, probably a person who was unable to survive the cold night. Another car was upside down and hanging between houses. There was a body inside it.”

Shunji was relieved to find fellow worshippers in shelters. “When I met up with them,” he says, “I realized just how dear they are to me.”

“You Came So Quickly!”

Two young Witness women, Yui and Mizuki, lived near each other in Minamisanriku, Miyagi. When the first tremor subsided, they rushed outside and saw each other. Together they ran to higher ground. Less than ten  minutes later, they watched as the whole town, including their homes, was washed away by one wave after another.

When Yui and Mizuki found Witness friends at a shelter, they prayed together. The next morning, members of their own congregation as well as neighboring ones crossed the mountain, bringing them food and supplies. Yui and Mizuki exclaimed, “We knew you would come, but you came so quickly!”

Hideharu, one of the Witness overseers from the Tome Congregation, visited the shelter. He explains: “All night long I tried to locate our friends living along the coast. Finally, at 4:00 a.m., I received information about a school where some had taken refuge. At 7:00 a.m., about ten of us gathered to prepare rice balls, and three of us set out by car with the food. Most roads were impassable. After much effort, we got through to the school. Even those who had lost their homes helped us give support to others.”

Filling the Spiritual Need

Jehovah’s Witnesses meet regularly to study the Bible, and some congregations do so on Friday nights. This was the case in Rikuzentakata; however, the Kingdom Hall​—the Witnesses’ place of worship—​had just been washed away by the tsunami. “Let’s have a meeting anyway,” a Witness suggested. So a home that had not been badly damaged was selected, and members of the congregation were informed.

Although the electricity had been cut off, an electric generator was available to provide light. Sixteen people were present. “We shed tears of joy,” recalls young Yasuyuki, who had lost his apartment in the tsunami. “It was the best refuge for us.” Hideko noted: “Strong aftershocks often disturbed the meeting, but while we were together, I forgot the fears and anxieties that had been upsetting me.”

Since then, the congregation has never missed holding one of its regular meetings. Two days later, on Sunday, the subject of the discourse chosen for the occasion was “A Worldwide Brotherhood Saved From Calamity.”

Organized Relief Work

Various government agencies soon began relief work, as did the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses, located in Ebina, near Tokyo. By Saturday, the day after the earthquake, the branch had divided the vast area affected by the quake into three sections. On Monday, three days after the quake, representatives from the branch visited these areas.

Relief efforts continued in the weeks and months that followed. Many tons of supplies provided by the Witnesses have been distributed. At one time, 3 relief centers and 21 warehouses and relay stations were actively delivering relief supplies. During the first two months, hundreds of volunteers distributed over 250 tons of food, clothing, and other necessities. Many Witnesses have shared such supplies with their neighbors.

Members of the Rikuzentakata and the neighboring Ofunato congregations of  Jehovah’s Witnesses are using their reconstructed Kingdom Hall to strengthen people spiritually. This will help the local people to cope with the hardships they face in rebuilding their lives and recovering from the trauma caused by the devastating earthquake and tsunami. Of the more than 14,000 Witnesses in the disaster area, 12 are confirmed dead and 2 are still missing.

Many among Jehovah’s Witnesses who were victims of this horrific disaster made expressions similar to what one family said: “When we fled, we had one bag each. But all our needs were met by our fellow believers.” How grand it is that servants of the true God, Jehovah, can now enjoy the worldwide brotherhood of which Jesus and his apostles spoke! This bond cannot be washed away by tsunamis or any other natural disasters.​—John 13:34, 35; Hebrews 10:24, 25; 1 Peter 5:9.

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Tsunami damage to reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant made headlines worldwide. Radioactive emissions spread over Japan and other countries. Thousands were evacuated because of possible lethal radiation.

“Our house was near the nuclear plant,” explains Megumi. “The day after the quake, we heard about the damage to the power plant and were told to flee.” Her sister Natsumi recalls, “Helicopters were hovering, sirens were wailing, and an announcer kept shouting that we must evacuate.” In the following weeks, they moved to nine different locations. Eventually, the two girls were allowed to return home for just two hours to pick up a few possessions.

Chikako, in her 60’s, was in Namie, Fukushima. “When the quake occurred, I went to a designated shelter nearby. There, my two children and I spent a sleepless night because of the strong aftershocks. At 7:00 a.m. the next day, we were told to move immediately to a shelter in another city.

“The roads were jammed with traffic, so it was about three o’clock in the afternoon when we got to the destination. There we learned of the explosion at the nuclear power plant. I thought that we would soon be returning home, so we had taken nothing with us.” She and her family moved from one place to another until they finally found an apartment far from their home.

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Photo by DigitalGlobe via Getty Images

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Yoichi, from Rikuzentakata, who was mentioned earlier and who lost most of his material possessions, said, “I really can testify that material things do not bring security.” Such sentiments have long been expressed by servants of God, especially by those who have learned the lesson taught by Jesus. He explained the relative unimportance of material possessions when compared with having God’s favor and blessing.​—Matthew 6:19, 20, 33, 34.

Another lesson is to take action when warnings are given. Doing so can make the difference between surviving and becoming a victim. Those in Japan who hurried to higher ground without hesitation often escaped.

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Fukushima nuclear power plant


Branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses


Rikuzentakata, Iwate

Soma, Fukushima

Ishinomaki, Miyagi

Kamaishi, Iwate

Minamisanriku, Miyagi

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Harumi and Tadayuki

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Yoichi and Tatsuko

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Yuko and Midori

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The vehicle Toru was driving

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Mizuki and Yui

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Relief workers in action

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Rikuzentakata Kingdom Hall after the tsunami

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Rebuilding work three months later

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Completed Kingdom Hall

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JIJI PRESS/​AFP/​Getty Images