x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Guilt threatens to drag down survivor of Japan's Black Wave

Pensioner Yoshihro Takahashi lost his home, his wife and his mother in the tsunami's terrible path on March 11, 2011. Alone with pain and memories, he tells Daniel Bardsley of the guilt he feels at surviving.

Yoshihiro Takahashi, 65, stands outside his temporary house in Onagawa in Miyagi prefecture. Takahashi lost his wife, Hisako, and mother Satoko as well as his house by the massive tsunami hit the northern Japan on March 11, 2011. Photos by Kuni Takahashi for The National
Yoshihiro Takahashi, 65, stands outside his temporary house in Onagawa in Miyagi prefecture. Takahashi lost his wife, Hisako, and mother Satoko as well as his house by the massive tsunami hit the northern Japan on March 11, 2011. Photos by Kuni Takahashi for The National

ONAGAWA, Japan // It is a year now since the tsunami swept away Yoshihiro Takahashi's wife and mother, but the pain and the memories of that day will not leave him.

Sitting on the floor of his prefabricated apartment in Onagawa, a small town in north-east Japan that lost nearly one in 10 to the earthquake and giant wave, he scans the local newspaper for news of fresh memorial services.

"It's my friend from the same grade," he says softly, spotting one entry. He knows there will be many more.

On a shelf behind the 67-year-old pensioner stands a framed portrait of his wife of 33 years. Hisako, the mother of his son and daughter, was lost on March 11 and her body has never been found. In the family shrine in the living room there is now a black and gold memorial tablet to her.

For Mr Takahashi, grief is compounded by guilt. Moments after feeling the first tremor from the off shore earthquake that preceded the wave, he returned home to find Hisako trying to clear up the mess. He recalls urging his wife to head up the hill to safety, but then left her to check on his neighbours. As a community warden he felt it was his duty to ensure that those living alone were safe.

Replaying the next moments, he recalls first warning his wife that a tsunami was coming. "'You have to run away'. That was the last thing I said to her," he says.

By the time he saw the tsunami approach it was too late to return to check that his wife had fled their home. The little community of more than 100 houses for which Mr Takahashi was responsible was "washed away, all gone". His wife was one of them. Her body has never been recovered.

Perhaps most painful of all was the accusation from his daughter, Fumi, 29, that he should have first led Hisako to safety. The decision still haunts him, and his eyes well up with tears when he talks of it.

"I was a leader of the community. I had a duty to look around after the old people living alone. While I was doing my duty my wife was at the house and was washed away," he said.

Days after the tsunami hit, Mr Takahashi returned to the district where his home once stood and learnt that the Japan Self Defence Forces had found a body. It was that of his 90-year-old mother.

Before the wave, Onagama, in Miyagi Prefecture, was a picturesque fishing settlement of 10,000 people. A year on, nearly 1,000 of its residents are dead or missing after the tsunami, triggered by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, the largest recorded in Japanese history.

On March 11 2011, the surrounding hills that gave the town its picturesque beauty turned it into a death trap, funnelling the "black wave" into a wall of water more than 20 metres high. It ripped through the centre of Onagawa, obliterating almost everything.

Those that had time made it to a gymnasium overlooking the town that became a makeshift rescue centre. At first there were not even blankets to keep out the bitter cold, and as days turned into weeks, the suffering intensified. "I couldn't stand it. There was no privacy. It was tough … living in a stadium with cardboard walls," Mr Takahashi says.

The story of Onagawa was repeated along the east coast of Japan. Currently the national death toll exceeds 19,000, with more than 300,000 people still in temporary housing because their homes were swept away or evacuated following the explosions and radiation leaks from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Estimates for the cost of rebuilding the tsunami-affected areas already stretches to tens of billions of dollars.

Onagawa today shows the scale of the task of reconstruction. While piles of tangled debris have now been carted away and heaped into vast embankments behind the town, what is left behind is a sense of desolation. There has been little reconstruction so far and much of the town resembles a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Beside the harbour, whose fishing boats were once the economic engine of the town, there is bare ground with only the outline of foundations to indicate where a thriving port once stood.

Elsewhere, a handful of buildings survive, some now lying on their sides, with dark pools of cold water accumulating in the crevices left when they were ripped from the earth and flipped like children's toys.

For the survivors, returning to normal has proved as challenging as clearing up the town. In June, Mr Takahashi moved into one of dozens of prefabricated temporary housing apartments built on a hill over the town, safely above the devastation.

The birth six months ago of his first grandchild, a boy called Haruma, should have been a rare moment of joy, but the retired refrigeration engineer says the arrival of his son Toshihiro's little boy was a bittersweet moment; a reminder that his wife had been making plans to care for their first grandchild three days a week.

His daughter, who lives in Sendai, an hour-and-a-half away, visits at weekends, while Toshihiro, 30, brings lunch each weekday. But even the regular company of his children cannot make up for his wife's absence.

"I feel so lonely at night time. I used to quarrel with my wife, but I miss her. I wish I could live as I used to live, but it's not going to happen," he said.

Still, both Mr Takahashi and Onagawa are planning a new future. Proposals have been unveiled to recreate residential areas after four metres of earth have been added to the land along with protective screens of trees - enough, it is hoped, to guard against future tsunamis. Mr Takahashi hopes eventually to build a new home where his old house once stood.

Others have found it easier to get back on their feet. Makoto Oka and his wife managed to escape from the wave, although his fish shop, a prosperous business once run by his father, was washed away along with one of his processing plants. The father of four and grandfather of five was one of the lucky ones. All the family members survived.

A year later, Mr Oka is back in business, employing more than 20 people, even if this is less than half the number from before the tsunami. His second processing plant, only slightly further from the water than the one destroyed, survived against the odds and in this Mr Oka, 67, has created a small restaurant and a little shop.

"Everything was washed away, but everyone had a trust in each other. I knew many people. People from other companies or customers cheered me up," he says.

Questions remain. Can the town - its industry devasted and most of its buildings rased - ever return to what it once was? Many have answered that question already: almost half the population has left. Only a handful of the once dozens of fishing boats that put to sea each day still ply their trade.

Shopkeepers complain that the fish they land sometimes smell of oil, a result of the pollution caused by the tsunami dragging vast amounts of material back into the ocean.

A few stores have reopened in prefabricated buildings, with a non-governmental organisation, Peace Boat, supplying volunteer carpenters to create a mini-arcade in an effort to make the shops more appealing, while giving the store owners a little more space.

Yet with the town's population so drastically reduced, business is inevitably slack. Many of the former residents now live in Ishinomaki, 20 minutes away.

It "is going to be difficult" for Onagawa to become the town it once was, admits Kiriko Takahashi, 35, who runs a small clothes and accessories store from a mobile home. Her parents-in-law Mitsuyoshi, 62, and Jinko, 57, died in the tsunami.

"Some people are already building houses in Ishinomaki. If it continues, it will be a problem. There is no land and no housing in Onagawa," she said.

Even Ishinomaki bears the scars of the trauma it suffered when the tsunami overwhelmed its feeble defences and engulfed much of the city. Here, out of a population of 164,000, 5,000 are dead or missing and 17,000 homeless.

Thousands of wrecked cars are stacked like bricks beside a main road. A school building lies empty, with neatly stacked rows of children's training shoes, now covered with mud, reminders of better times. Months of mud clearance work has given the town back its dignity and the streets are no longer littered with debris, but many ruined buildings remain.

Temporary housing started going up within weeks and the last makeshift evacuation centres in the city closed in October. So far, 7,200 temporary housing apartments have been created across Ishinomaki.

Peace Boat volunteers, mostly students, distribute weekly newsletters to more than 4,000 households, offering information on everything from recipes to how to write memorials for those who have died.

The group also creates shared spaces to help prevent "kodokushi", or isolated death, a problem that arose among elderly people housed in temporary accommodation after the 1995 earthquake at Kobe, south-west of Tokyo.

"We know from experience … that the community is broken by an earthquake or tsunami. People [in temporary housing] don't know their neighbours. Some people living alone will die alone. To prevent this, we help to create a community," said Yasuhiro Ueshima, a Peace Boat programme officer.

The authorities have also built community centres beside the temporary housing units where residents can meet for karaoke and other activities.

Residents are expected to move out of the rent-free temporary housing within two years, but it will take much longer for the city to return to its former self. Swathes of Ishinomaki's industrial belt were ravaged and today wrecked factories and processing plants sit forlornly across the road from deserted, windswept houses. For every high street shop that has reopened, two or three remain shuttered.

Peace Boat believes it could still be providing assistance in the town a decade from now. They say the small businesses in the city centre will need help in areas like marketing if new life is to be breathed into the city centre.

Kenji Masaoka, whose two shoe shops were ruined, reopened one last year and the second earlier this month. Despite tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage, the 63-year-old was always determined to get back on his feet.

"One reason I decided to work again was because I heard the stories of the people who experienced the Second World War. I heard that people started businesses from scratch, so I thought, 'I can too'," he said.