Picture-based Storytelling That Was Started to Bring Joy to Evacuees.  Communicating Learnings from the Disaster Through Words and Pictures.

The Survival of All People at the Ukedo Elementary School Despite a Huge Tsunami.
Communicating this Miracle Using Picture-based Storytelling to Ensure It Never Fades.

During the disaster, the Ukedo area in Namie Town suffered huge quakes and was devastated by an ensuing 15-meter-high tsunami. Later, residents of the area were forced to evacuate for a prolonged period due to impacts from the nuclear accident. Not far from the coast are the ruins of the Namie Town Ukedo Elementary School. These are the only school ruins within Fukushima Prefecture from the Great East Japan Earthquake, and have remained largely untouched to ensure that memories of the disaster are not lost and to encourage as many people as possible to think about the disaster themselves. The most striking element of the building is a sign on the outer wall of the second-floor balcony showing how high the tsunami reached. The sign tells the story of how lives would have been in danger if people had stayed. The ceiling pipes are exposed and with many of the walls gone, in some parts only the framework remains. Twelve years later, the ruins continue to convey the terrifying power of the tsunami. Despite the extent of the damage, every single person from Ukedo Elementary School managed to evacuate safely. The Namie Town Storytelling Association uses picture cards and other means to tell the story of this miracle, memories of the disaster, and local folktales. While it is predominantly active in Namie Town, the association also works inside and outside the prefecture.

Inside the Ukedo Elementary School. In this classroom, only the framework of the ceiling and walls remain.

A Heightened Sense of Isolation Among Evacuees.
Picture-based Stories of Old Tales to Bring Them Joy.

In charge of the association is Hisai Yashima. “I started storytelling when I lived in temporary housing and a volunteer group from Hiroshima Prefecture made me some picture cards,” says Yashima. An evacuation order was placed through the whole of Namie Town due to the nuclear accident, and so for a long time local residents were forced to live as evacuees. As a result, the sense of community that comes with town life disappeared, and many residents began to feel isolated and lonely. Hoping to bring even a little joy and happiness to these people, the volunteer group from Hiroshima Prefecture began to tell them old tales from Namie Town. Yashima was in the process of creating some picture-based stories with an old storyteller living in the temporary housing, but she passed away suddenly. Yashima says, “I wanted to continue creating these stories for the old lady. Before the disaster, I worked in a library and an after-school care center, and so I was already used to reading stories out loud.” It was then that Yashima set up the Namie Town Storytelling Association with then-chairman of the local government Yoshihiro Ozawa, who became the association’s director.

Yashima talking about her life as an evacuee after the nuclear accident and the formation of the Namie Town Storytelling Association.

Communicating Experiences from the Disaster as Requests Increase.
Working with her Colleagues to Carry the Memories Forward.

And so, the Namie Town Storytelling Association was initially set up to tell locals from Namie Town who were living in temporary housing old tales about their hometown. The association’s activities garnered attention and requests for talks increased. In response, Yashima created various stories relating to the disaster including the popular Regret, about the thoughts and feelings of the fire brigade; Under Invisible Clouds, which describes life in temporary housing; and The Miracle of Ukedo Elementary School, an actual story about the school. Moreover, with the addition of students from a storytelling training course and members of a folk tale association from Koori Town, at one point the association grew to around 20 members. However, the lifting of the evacuation order in Namie Town saw members return to their homes in different areas, and so today only around five active members remain. Regardless, the storylines and pictures remain, and both the storytellers and listeners can share their experiences of the disaster without restraint. With 12 years passing since the disaster and concerns that its memories will fade, the roles of these storytellers will no doubt become increasingly important moving forward. Yashima says, “Working with other association members gives me an incentive to keep going. We will continue with our activities while working to improve each other’s skills.”

Yashima communicating the miracle of Ukedo Elementary School through a picture-based story. It was regular preparedness, teachers’ judgements, and the quick wits of the children that ensured every single person survived.

Remains of the Earthquake Namie Town Ukedo Elementary School

56 Motsutaira, Ukedo, Namie-machi, Futaba-gun, Fukushima Prefecture