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Sunday, March 27, 2011

News photo
Where to start?: Isamu Higuchi and his wife, Rie, pick through the remains of their home in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, that was smashed to bits by the March 11 tsunami. ROB GILHOOLY PHOTO

Survivors strive to start picking up the pieces


By ROB GILHOOLY
Special to The Japan Times

RIKUZENTAKATA IWATE, Pref. — A teenage boy is walking along the muddy road holding a rusty shovel, on which is perched what appears to be a notebook.

School tie slightly askew, the fringe of his thick shock of hair partly covering his eyes, he tells me it is, in fact, a bankbook, owner indeterminate.

He found it near his flattened home, he says matter-of-factly, but there is something in his gait, shoulders slumped like the buildings around him and left hand tightly clutching a box of tissues, that tells me he has been looking among the ruins of the Hakata district of Rikuzentakata for something quite different.

Then from behind there's a shout: "Hey, Ito-kun! Where've you been? We were worried about you."

I look round and see a middle-aged couple and their teenage son — former neighbors of the boy, it transpires — hurrying toward him, before an animated reunion ensues.

They ask about his parents, and a shadow momentarily crosses 15-year-old Masaya Ito's already ashen face. "They're gone," he says, eyes and head suddenly bowed, adding that his father's cremation had taken place earlier in the day. And his younger brother? "I'm still looking," he says.

The conversation takes on a decidedly somber tone, punctuated with weighty silences during which he glances over at me and, through reddened, sleep-deprived eyes, summons the bravest smile I have ever seen.

All the while he clutches the shovel holding the bankbook of someone he has never met as though to let go would be to part with a limb, or a spadeful of hope.

It is not hard to be deeply touched by such stoicism and grace, which seems to prevail in this former seaside beauty spot despite the shortages of supplies and sluggish return of lifeline services following the March 11 , magnitude 9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

There are signs of it everywhere.

Down the coast in Yoriisohama, a small fishing community on Miyagi Prefecture's Oshika Peninsula, I visit an evacuation center to talk with a nurse who is charged with managing the health — physical, and, increasingly she says, mental — of around 150 people who are quite literally marooned there with nowhere to go even if they had any means of transport.

After I enter the school gymnasium-cum-refuge, the wooden floorboards barely visible through a mass of blankets, Michiko Sasaki — a member of this ad hoc community thrown together almost as rapidly as the 15-meter wave wiped out the evacuees' village — kneels and rearranges my shoes, toes pointing toward the door in the time-honored Japanese way.

"We are short of some supplies, and more people arrive each day," she says. "But we will persevere. Everyone is making extra efforts to pull together, to look forward."

As I leave, a youngster now also living in the refuge runs over with a basket of rice crackers and cookies — gold dust for many of the 500,000 people made homeless by the twin catastrophes. "Help yourself," says 11-year-old Haruna Suzuki, smiling broadly, her manners intact despite the shattered state of her young life. She, too, I hear later, has lost loved ones.

Earlier, I had seen this community from a vantage point high above the peninsula. The washed-out coves where small towns and villages had once stood looked like pieces missing from a scenic jigsaw puzzle.

Self-Defense Force helicopters searching for bodies hovered above the scattered wreckage of some of those formerly vibrant little places, others could be seen delivering medical and other supplies.

As I survey the dreadful panorama, a middle-age man approaches me, asking where I am from and what it is I do. He turns out to be a local Miyagi Prefecture assemblyman embarking on a trip to find family and friends among the devastation below whom he has been unable to contact since the events of March 11.

The scale of the disaster is overwhelming, he says, with some fearing the death toll in Miyagi alone may reach 15,000."We have been through this before after World War II, when a much broader area of the country was completely destroyed," says Kazuhiro Nitta as he glances out over the destruction below.

"Then it was that unique Japanese mentality, the battling character, stoicism and industriousness, that carried us through. I have no doubt it will be the same this time around," he declares.

But the cost, he admits, will be high — as much as ¥50 trillion, he says. "The International Monetary Fund has said we have the financial means to recover, and I believe we can do that without being a burden on the global community," he says. "But in some areas like this, that recovery could take 50 years, maybe more."

Indeed, in many of the communities affected by the disasters, it is difficult to see where recovery teams will start.

Take Ofunato in southeastern Iwate Prefecture: The broad industrial area next to the city's docks is a mass of skeletal ruins, with even the few buildings left standing simply beyond repair. Not only were they battered by the force of the tsunami wave, but it carried with it many of the thousands of logs stacked on the docks awaiting export on that dreadful day.

Almost a quarter of the 15,138 homes there have been destroyed.

"The scale of the devastation is horrific and far greater than I first imagined," says Aki Nagaiwa, 42, as she sorts through the rubble that was her home about 1 km inland just beyond the industrial belt. "I have no idea how we will raise the funds to rebuild."

According to city official Yoshihisa Sasaki, who I met on Monday, March 21, the tsunami waves that swept through the narrow gully of Ofunato's port area reached as far as 3 km inland, carrying with them homes, cars and other remnants of people's lives.

"The recovery effort has begun, but right now we are concentrating on searching for the missing," he says, adding that Japan Coast Guard boats had just begun scouring the bay in search of any of the hundreds of bodies that were washed out to sea as the tsunami waves retreated.

Sasaki also points to another problem hindering progress: The city, he says, has heard reports of looting of smashed cars and properties and of fraudsters posing as bank officials offering to help distressed locals "manage their funds and lost credit cards." Ofunato is not alone; around ¥40 million was reportedly stolen from a bank in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.

Meanwhile, Shuichi Kawarada, an official at nearby Ishinomaki, says there have been rumors of lootings, stabbings and even a rape in the city. "It cannot be condoned, but people are desperate and frustrated," he says.

On one visit there, I see some of those desperate individuals clearing out a supermarket. "This stuff will only go to waste, and my family needs food," says one man as he searched through the store's mud-laden shelves.

Others, such as young Masaya Ito, however, have their hands full with a much more personal search. He will find the owner of the bankbook, he assures me — and somehow I know he will.

As I watch him carry his shovel among the ruins of his flattened community in search of his younger brother, it suddenly strikes me that along the length of the coastal area that was hit hardest by the tsunami there must be thousands of similar quests taking place — thousands of beachcombers searching not for mementos or trinkets of a past life, but for diamonds of the heart.

Rob Gilhooly's website is at www.japanphotojournalist.com; his photo archive is at www.photoshelter.com/c/robgilhooly


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