Even the darkest night ends: An interview with Akihiro Nikaido, Postmaster of Ishinomaki Post Office, about the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami

To highlight World Tsunami Day and the Universal Postal Union’s own work in disaster risk reduction, the UN specialized agency for postal matters talked to Akihiro Nikaido, Postmaster of Ishinomaki Post Office about his experience on that tragic day.

Question 1: You were the Postmaster at the Ishinomaki Post Office at the time of the 2011 earthquake and its tsunami. Please tell me about your experience.
The March 11, 2011 earthquake, and the subsequent tsunami, brought enormous damage to Ishinomaki. I saw a boat, swept up by the tsunami that settled on top of a building. It was a sight I never would have thought possible. In the Tohoku region, March is still very cold. After the earthquake, it snowed in Ishinomaki. With repeated aftershocks, and the town wrecked by the earthquake and tsunami, the residents were in a state of confusion, while trying to find refuge and dealing with the winter cold. At that time, I was working at the Ishinomaki Post Office. Together with other employees, I was serving customers at the financial services counter. The earthquake struck at 14:46 (Japanese Standard Time), shaking the building with tremendous force. I had never experienced such a furious tremor. My colleagues were thrown from one end of the room to the other. That is no exaggeration. The violence of the earthquake literally sent us flying. Firmly fixed lockers fell over, and small fires broke out, although fortunately they were extinguished right away. Part of the building’s ceiling collapsed so I had the employees take refuge in the inner courtyard. I also directed those sales reps outside to return to the post office. At around 15:30, since there was really no point in working and the staff was worried about their families and homes, I decided to let them leave early. It was when I stepped out of the post office that I saw the inky-looking tsunami surging in. It was 15:26 when the tsunami arrived in Ishinomaki. I ran for my life, taking refuge in the nearby Nakasato Elementary School. A 1.5-meter tsunami had deluged the post office area, and with the flooding, we could no longer approach the post office.

Question 2: Ishinomaki City lost close to 4,000 people. In addition, according to the report from Ishinomaki City, the tsunami caused a flood of about one meter in the area around the post office. Many employees and customers suffered injury, and we can presume that the post office building and vehicles were also hit. Given all that, I think that restoring services must have been an incredibly difficult job. As postmaster, what kind of challenges did you face?
It was on the sixth day following the earthquake that the water around the post office receded. We had to wait for the water to be drained by a drainage pump vehicle. The first floor of the post office was flooded, and the vehicles parked there were totally ruined. I was also unable to approach to the post office, and for some time took shelter in the elementary school. Then, on March 17, I was finally able to go to the Tohoku regional office in Sendai. I borrowed a car from the regional office, and returned to Ishinomaki. After returning to Ishinomaki, the regional office supported our efforts to resume services. From March 19th we were able to partially begin deliveries using bicycles and motorbikes that had not been damaged in the tsunami. On the 22nd, 12 days after the earthquake, we were able to begin special handling and emergency payments at the Ishinomaki Post Office counters, for which we had numerous requests from customers. In restoring services, we were able to receive the assistance of the Japan Post Group, which pulled together as a team. Also, by taking advantage of the logistical strength of Japan Post, we were able to install a portable power generator since electricity was not yet back online. Toilets were another big problem. I think it was a major inconvenience placed on employees in a situation where there was neither electricity nor water. Everyone was grateful when we installed portable toilets.

Question 3: What kind of changes did the disaster bring to the local community and the operation of Japan Post?
The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami demonstrated the overwhelming power of nature. So many people lost their loved ones, properties and jobs. I think there were many people whose spirits were broken. In the middle of this, somehow, we made our way to what we have today, and that, I think, is because people were encouraged to help one another. The employees of Japan Post, having been spurred on by this disaster, have, I think, been able to gain a new appreciation of the importance of their own jobs. 2011 was just a few years after privatization. It seems that many employees were seriously reconsidering the ability of Japan Post to still serve the public as it did before the privatization. However, I think that, due to this disaster, people gained an  understanding of the important role played by Japan in the social infrastructure; namely, the postal, financial, and insurance areas. The resumption of service counters made news coverage on NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) and commercial broadcasters throughout the nation. It was good news for people anticipating the post office’s restart of operations. With financial services in particular, the residents of Ishinomaki were very happy with the news because the branches of other financial institutions were closed for three months after the earthquake.

Question 4: For postal employees outside Japan, please let us know if you have any advice about what kind of preparations should be made to handle a big natural disaster.
As someone who has experience with a disaster, what I would like to convey to postal employees around the world is to place foremost importance on your own life. People tend to think that it cannot happen to me, but that is not true. With this tsunami as well, there were many people who lost their lives. They had once taken shelter, but went home out of concern for their property and were never seen again. It is certain that, when we face natural disasters, we find that we are powerless. However, even though we are powerless, we have the power to rebuild communities and society, provided that we are alive. Each of us is priceless. If you get caught up in a disaster all you should do is survive. Do not bring anything, just run away immediately. Always be prepared for natural disasters. Simulations and training are important. Just making an emergency plan is not enough. Verify and improve the plan regularly. Please take care of your family. Your family will ultimately be the ones who become your support. Discuss with your family to determine how to contact each other and fix locations to meet in times of disaster. Finally, do not give up. People tend to despair at the time of big natural disasters because they feel that they are powerless and anything they do is meaningless against the overwhelming power of Nature. But if you don’t give up, you will recover. I am sure of that. Things that are lost never come back, but I hope people will get over the tragedy and move forward with recovering. Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.

More information in "A Record of the Great East Japan Earthquake" issued by Japan Post Group in 2012.