A Warning to Hawaii Residents from a Japan Tsunami Survivor

In Hawaii, even if you're in a higher place, please don't think that a tsunami will never come.


Photo: Christine Hitt



We are on the coast of Minamisanriku, in a place where there are only one lane roads, lots of damage and local residents rebuilding what they can. The boys are sitting together under a tent on a long driveway that ends at the only road in and out of this community, next to the ocean. Tetsuo Hatakeyama, fondly known as Iron Man (Tetsuo literally translates to iron man), has been a wakame sea-farmer for the past 30 years and was home when the earthquake happened on March 11, 2011. We are gathered around quietly as he is about to share his story.


“When the earthquake occurred on March 11, nothing big happened at first. I had experienced another big tsunami in 1960,” he says. He is referring to the same tsunami that destroyed downtown Hilo in what was Hawaii’s last big tsunami, too. “So, at first I expected that this one would generate a tsunami that was the same level as the Chilean one,” and points to the ground before him about 25 feet away from the shore. But, he soon learned that this one was different.


The photo shows the same view when the tsunami hit. The island seen is centered in both pictures. The house was his neighbors’, floating out to sea. Photo: Christine Hitt



The time from when the seabed was exposed to the time that the tsunami came was 10 minutes, so he grabbed his family and made it up to an elevated area that was a little higher than his house. “The second wave came before the first wave had finished, ” he says. He realized that he was not on high enough ground, so they climbed up the mountain behind his house, and kept going. The tsunami traveled as far as 2 1/2 miles inland. They continued walking along the mountain ridge until they were safely on the other side, where they stayed with a family member who was out of harm’s way. It wasn’t until ten days after the tsunami that they made the trek back and found that “everything was washed away. There was no trash.”


SEE ALSO: Japan-Honolulu Earthquake Journal


Many of the coastal residents in this area survived the tsunami because they could see the ocean and the signs that a tsunami was coming– the exposed seabed being one of them. “That’s why many people inland had died,” he further explained, “cause they couldn’t see the ocean.”


“What I really wanted to say to you, cause Hawaii might have a tsunami, is that when it comes, just go up and up. In Hawaii, even if you’re in a higher place, please don’t think that a tsunami will never come,” he says. “Also, when evacuating from the tsunami, it is okay to use cars immediately after. But, after that, just give up the cars and run. Run to high buildings.” He goes on to tell us about Kesennuma City and how 250 people died in one intersection, because they were in their cars when the tsunami arrived. “It’s very important for us senior people to tell you boys and girls to not use your cars. Just run away,” he adds, making his point very clear. He also says that it’s important that you “save your life and not others. Once your life is saved, then you can care about others.” These are hard words to stomach, but very honest words on how to survive. Many people died trying to save others.


Boiling konbu inside their studio-sized house. Photo: Christine Hitt



Iron Man and his family was one of the first families to live in temporary housing after the tsunami and received one million yen (10,000 dollars) from the government for assistance. There’s been no assistance since then. They are now living back on their property, in a studio-sized room with a bed, small kitchen and sitting area and are trying to restart their wakame family business. “The business is one-third of what we had before, and we will need five to seven years more to get back to where we were.”