Photo/IllutrationA fishery processing plant-cum-dormitory, center, where trainees live and work, stands facing a harbor in Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture. In the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the area was swallowed by tsunami higher than the roof of the building. (Yusuke Yamada)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

MINAMI-SANRIKU, Miyagi Prefecture--Young women eat and sleep under the same roof of a building standing all by its lonesome in the middle of a quiet harbor here.

When the sun rises, they go downstairs to a fishery processing plant and work all day sorting out ocean-fresh "wakame" seaweed and shucking scallops.

In the pitch black of night, they go out using their mobile phones as flashlights to illuminate the steps of their dormitory.

It could be a normal daily scene from any rural fishing village.

However, the women were technical trainees from the Philippines and Vietnam, and the land they lived and worked on was engulfed by a towering tsunami eight years ago.

Ever since then, the area has been designated a “disaster hazard area,” restricting people from residing there.

Nevertheless, a local fishery processing company housed the trainees in the two-story building built barely 1 meter above sea level, without informing them of the risk.

“I knew that the Great East Japan Earthquake generated a tsunami and it hit around here,” said Gloria, one of the Filipino trainees, who lived in the dormitory. “But I didn’t know that this is a designated disaster hazard zone.”

Gloria came to Japan in 2016 under the central government’s Technical Intern Training Program. Her employer, a local fishery processing company, assigned her to a small room in the plant-cum-dormitory standing on the edge of a fishery harbor in the Utatsu Tomarihama district of Minami-Sanriku.

“It was very dark at night,” Gloria recalled. “I immediately asked the company, ‘Is it safe to live here?’ ”

Gloria experienced the potential danger posed by tsunami on Nov. 22, 2016, right after 6 a.m., when her company-provided mobile phone rang. The call was from her Japanese senior colleague at work.

Her co-worker told Gloria that an earthquake had hit off Fukushima Prefecture and a tsunami advisory--later becoming a warning--was issued in Miyagi Prefecture.

“Grab your valuables,” her colleague said. “And run! Right now!”

Gloria took the mobile phone, her passport and some food, then ran up a steep hill to a company plant located on higher ground. She spent a few hours there.

“It was a long time ago. I don’t remember anything else,” Gloria said.

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9.0 quake hit the region, spawning a towering tsunami as high as 14.1 meters that engulfed the district, resulting in the loss of lives and the complete destruction of 56 households.

In October 2012, the area was designated a disaster hazard area based on the Building Standards Law. The town's ordinance puts a ban on construction of residential and lodging facilities, restricting human habitation.

Despite the ordinance, the fishery processing company rebuilt its plant, which was severely damaged by the tsunami, on the edge of the harbor in 2013 and made the upper floor a dormitory for foreign trainees.

Gloria shared a 10-tatami-mat room stuffed with bunk beds with four other trainees. There was another room the same size where five other trainees lived.

They endured the hard work, picking over and hauling wakame seaweed and shucking scallops.

“Work sometimes started before dawn,” Gloria recalled. “We were told at 9 a.m. that we would not be allowed to take a break until we finished shucking all the scallops in the plant. We kept working until 4 p.m. without having a lunch break.”

There are a few homes dotted toward higher ground, but Gloria said she did not remember talking with any local residents. The closest convenience store was 40 minutes on foot, forcing her to sometimes hitchhike there.

According to her payslip, she was paid 140,000 yen ($1,260) a month without overtime hours. From the salary, however, 15,000 yen in rent, 8,000 yen for the electricity bill, other expenses and taxes were deducted. Gloria took home about 80,000 yen afterward.

“But I am happy that I was able to come to Japan,” said Gloria, who is the youngest of five children. Her monthly income in the Philippines was equivalent to 20,000 yen.

In Minami-Sanriku, she only kept living expenses and sent the rest to her family, who had taken out a loan for home renovations.

Gloria returned to the Philippines at the end of her three-year training program period in early February.

She could have extended her stay for two more years, but she did not.

“There are trainees in the Kanto region who earn twice the money we made here,” Gloria said. “I want to work in Japan, but not here.”

She hopes to become an interpreter or a Japanese language teacher.

From the training program, Gloria acquired a skill to shuck scallops “fast and cleanly.” Will she ever put that to use in her homeland? Probably not.

The president of the fishery processing company denied in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun that he knew the trainees were living in an area at risk of tsunami.

“I was not aware that it was a disaster hazard area,” he said.

According to the president, his company recently took in five trainees from Vietnam after Filipino trainees returned home, and the dormitory is currently occupied by 10 trainees.

“If I receive formal guidance from the government, I will follow it,” he said.

The town, however, doubts the president’s claim of ignorance.

According to an official of the town’s construction division, which is in charge of ordinances related to zoning issues, the president formerly resided in the area where the dormitory now stands.

After the disaster, he moved to land developed by the town on higher ground as part of the “collective relocation projects for disaster prevention,” which is not far from the dormitory.

The town has held numerous meetings to explain the relocation projects to affected local residents, which include the president himself.

“It is practically guaranteed that every single one of the residents knew about the designation of a disaster hazard area,” the official said.

Nonetheless, the presence of trainees in the restricted area has slipped through many layers in the administrative system.

A town division has handled residential registration of the trainees and sent tax documents to the dormitory’s address. Yet, officials did not notice a problem.

A supervisory organization in Tokyo that took in the trainees has sent staff to the dormitory’s location, but, “the staff didn’t notice anything odd about it.”

The Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau issued a residence card to the trainees that lists the dormitory’s address. No intervention was done by the government.

Multiple administrative agencies have been involved in the process, and they all overlooked and neglected the trainees who have been unknowingly placed in a dangerous living situation over the years.

The town of Minami-Sanriku said it plans to order the company to improve the situation because the presence of the dormitory in the disaster hazard area is at odds with the law’s intent.

“It is troubling that the company has let trainees live in the disaster hazard area without informing them (of the risk),” a city official said.

(This article was written by Yusuke Yamada and Eiji Shimura.)