Photo/IllutrationYoshi Tabata tells her experience using "kamishibai" in March 2014. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

"Kamishibai," a form of traditional Japanese storytelling involving a live narrator and illustrated panels, was what Yoshi Tabata, who died on Feb. 28 at age 93, chose as the vehicle to recount her encounter with a devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck the Sanriku coast of the Tohoku region in 1933.

She was 8 at the time, affectionately called Yotchan, and living in the Taro district of Miyako, Iwate Prefecture.

"It was the night of 'Hinamatsuri' (Doll Festival)--March 3," her kamishibai begins. "Yotchan was sleeping with her grandmother when a huge earthquake rattled them."

Clad in red kimono, Yotchan stumbled and fell as she ran to higher ground behind her home. She narrowly escaped death, thanks to what she had learned from her grandfather--a survivor of the Sanriku Tsunami of 1896, which wiped out his entire family.

He had taught young Tabata the concept of "inochi tendenko," which means that life is a precious gift given to each person, and that it is up to each person to save their own life. He also warned her, over and over, that another tsunami was bound to strike some day.

Tabata created her kamishibai in her 50s, when her grandchildren, born and raised inland, moved to her coastal neighborhood. She resolved to follow her grandfather's example and teach tsunami survival skills to her grandchildren.

And a killer tsunami did strike, triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011. The 86-year-old Tabata knew to flee to higher ground. Her home was washed away but the foundation remained, and someone else's home drifted onto it.

Tabata's kamishibai engagement calendar became more filled in the aftermath of the disaster. If requested, she traveled outside her home prefecture.

Her performance style was quite unique. She narrated haltingly in a low voice.

"Her monotonous drone really drew you in," explained Tomoko Yamazaki, an Iwate University professor who was close to Tabata. "It had a strange impact."

Yamazaki went on to suggest that Tabata kept her narrative carefully dispassionate probably because it was too painful for her to remember her mother perishing in the tsunami.

Tabata continued her one-woman performance into her final years, committed to recounting the tragedies that befell her grandfather and mother to youngsters of her grandchildren's, great-grandchildren's and great-great-grandchildren's generations.

Her message of "inochi tendenko," conveyed through simple illustrations and folksy language, must have become engraved in countless hearts.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 2

* * *

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.