Survivor Narratives: 1960

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Janet Kinoshita Fujimoto

A Dramatic Story of Life on Piopio Street in Hilo

Piopio Street is now a little street that takes you from Pauahi Street to the Hawaii Visitor’s Center (now Wailoa Center). It once stretched from Kamehameha Avenue to Kilauea Avenue, teeming with businesses and homes that were washed away during the 1960 tsunami.

Janet Kinoshita Fujimoto

Janet Kinoshita Fujimoto’s story is riveting. These are her wise words: “I treasure every bit of my life now. Every day I try to live to the fullest and appreciate life in itself.” Here is her story: 

Janet was four years old when her family moved to 156B Piopio Street. Just two blocks from the ocean, she said growing up on Piopio Street with her family constituted the best years of her life. “We were rich in love — our family togetherness and our neighbors were really nice. We all played together — we got along really well.” Everything the Kinoshita family needed was right there on Piopio Street. There were all kinds of businesses and a doctor’s office. Janet has vivid memories of both the 1946 tsunami, when she was 8 years old, and the 1960 tsunami, when she was 23 years old. 

On April 1st, 1946, Janet followed her mother, sister and older brother down to see the flooding of the canal, where they saw 50-gallon drums floating and sampans that had crashed into the bridge. They thought it was just a high tide and excitedly watched until someone yelled “Wave coming!” They joined the people as a wave approached, with Janet’s brother pulling her by the hand so she felt like she was flying. The worst memory of 1946 was to see the bodies of those who had died, especially the little children.

After the 1946 tsunami, a warning system and sirens were installed. At first people evacuated with every warning, but there were so many so-called “false alarms” that after awhile evacuating became a nuisance, and people started to ignore the warnings. Janet’s mother was one of them.

On the evening of May 22, 1960, a tsunami warning was issued. Janet’s mom insisted on staying home, noting the many alarms and only small waves. So the family stayed and listened to the radio. All at once, Janet heard a vhooooo sound. It became louder, crackling with all the short circuiting on Kamehameha Avenue. For a moment, it was just like daylight. She could see the wave going right over I. Kitagawa Co. In that split second, she ran to get her sleeping parents from their room.

Janet’s action was based on several dreams that she had had prior to the tsunami; in each “tsunami” dream she would bring her parents to her room that was in the middle of the house. Now in real life, her immediate response saved their lives, since her parents’ bedroom toppled over and equipment from under the house came right through it. The house tipped to about a 45 degree angle. “Everything was crashing and flooding from the bottom and the house started to spin and then all of a sudden we anchored on a stone wall that was several houses above our house. And the water kept coming in.” Janet told everyone “Just pray for your life. The only thing that is going to help us now is our prayers.” Their prayers were answered. The water just came up to their chest, and all of a sudden it receded and everything was sucked out like a vacuum. They hung onto the wall that saved them from being carried out, and they made a chain link with each other. It was pitch black.

In the dark, Janet walked on broken glass in the house to light a candle. After several shivery tries, the candle was lit. They opened their windows so that the neighbors from the adjacent crashed house were able to crawl into the Kinoshita house. With no way to get out, they spent the night and were rescued in the morning.

About a week later, Janet returned to work. It was a rough time to learn of the folks who passed away, especially children. As a nurse, Janet put herself aside and took care of others. She treasures every bit of life now and says, “There’s always tomorrow, but you don’t know if you’re going to be there. Be happy you’re still breathing when you wake up the next morning. And another thing, don’t forget — when there’s a tsunami warning, be sure you take precautions and get out of that area, because otherwise you will be in a predicament you will never forget.”