Project: Young Women’s Stories–Fostering Leadership
Surviving Disaster with Empathy
Hanae Chiba, Higashi Matsushima-shi, Japan
On March 11, 2011, at 2:46 p.m., the Great East Japan Earthquake hit my town in the region of Tohoku. It was the largest earthquake ever recorded in the country. I was 14 years old at the time, making plans for a school trip with my classmates, when my teacher shouted, “Get under the desk!” After the shaking stopped, my mother picked up my brother and me from school early and brought us to the civic center where she worked. Thankfully, the civic center was undamaged, so it was able to serve as an evacuation center for those affected by the disaster.
Our cell phones, TV, and radio were not working at all, leaving us anxiously waiting with no information on what was happening outside. As night fell, people covered in mud started arriving. That was when we finally learned that the earthquake had also triggered a tsunami that hit the city. A total of 800 people evacuated to the civic center that night.
Throughout the following days, my mother and father were extremely busy receiving evacuees, and ensuring that people received care. As people continued to arrive looking for shelter from the disaster, I decided to help at the evacuation center’s reception desk. Part of my duties were to reconnect incoming evacuees with their family members at the center, but not all of them had family to find. I saw them collapse in tears when they learned their family was not there, and every time, my fear of the earthquake’s devastation grew. I also witnessed people fighting over relief supplies, shouting furiously without a care for others. At only 14 years old, it made me so afraid and anxious.
My own family suffered also. Our home had to be rebuilt due to the earthquake, and we had to live in temporary housing under harsh conditions. The stress from it all caused recurring eczema so painful that I couldn’t sleep. All the while, I was facing typical teenage issues, like high school entrance exams and problems with friends. Thankfully I had support from my parents and my community, which gave me great courage and hope. People saw me working at the evacuation center’s reception desk, and many encouraged me with kind words. All of these experiences, good and bad, prepared me for my current career caring for people with physical, intellectual, and mental disabilities.
I began working as a caretaker in a day care a little over two years ago. Staff members in this field are expected to perform numerous types of tasks because Japan is facing a chronic shortage of care workers. It is very demanding, both physically and mentally. Early in my career, my colleagues demanded many unreasonable things from me and said hurtful, thoughtless things. Every day I went home crying. I tried to resign twice, but I remembered advice from my former junior college professor—that I should only ever quit after I’ve made myself indispensable at work. This advice served me well; a personnel employee eventually noticed how unhappy I was and offered to transfer me to a different facility. He said they would be happy to have me, as I was an “asset to the company.” The atmosphere at my new office is much more positive and kind compared to my previous one. Now, I am able to work without any worries.
As I have gained more experience as a caretaker, my boss and colleagues have entrusted me with many opportunities to demonstrate leadership. In addition to my day-to-day role interacting with clients, I also coordinate discussions with the caregivers to plan our daily activities. I have also started a dance club for the clients. I was unsure of myself at first, as this had never been done before at our facility. It was hard in the beginning, but seeing everyone dancing happily encouraged me to do my best. The club has now grown from five to 20 members, and we even give a recital at our Christmas party.
What I have ultimately learned from my life experiences up to now is that there is beauty in caring for others, even when it’s hard. I’ve seen how people can be empowered by taking action for others and discovered that a real leader is someone who not only delegates but also tries to feel others’ hearts, no matter how hard the situation. Even when I am confronted with enormous difficulties, I have decided to always move forward with a smile. It’s the biggest reason why I have been able to overcome the challenges I have faced.
When I think back to the day when that devastating earthquake and tsunami hit my town, I could never have known what an impact it would have on me. But now I realize that watching the people here in Tohoku overcome their hardships and survive the disaster inspired me and helped me find my calling helping others as a caretaker. No matter where my future takes me, I know I will use my experiences to continue to grow as a leader, putting others first with empathy and kindness.