Japan tsunami survivors struggle to find hope


RIKUZEN-TAKATA, Japan — With schoolchildren playing in front of her house every day, a tsunami survivor who identifies herself only as “Mrs. Sugawara,” says she often thinks about suicide.

Her daughter and two sons survived the March 11 disaster, but her husband and three grandchildren did not. “They were my future, and now they are gone and not coming back,” says Mrs. Sugawara, 69. “The tsunami took my sense of hope away with them.”

Her lonely struggle mirrors that of thousands of tsunami survivors, especially seniors now isolated in temporary houses after spending months in crowded but more sociable gymnasiums. Since her children have gone to work elsewhere, Mrs. Sugawara lives alone, in a prefab unit in the parking lot of a junior high school overlooking the obliterated northeastern city of Rikuzen-Takata. “Immediately after the tsunami, we were all fighting to stay alive, and it brought us closer to together,” she says. “But ever since we all moved into temporary houses, people stay to themselves. We have lost our ties.”

This isolation has deepened her depression, she says, and there’s little — other than the playful schoolchildren — to take her mind off thoughts about her lost loved ones. She says she’s too traumatized to search for work or even to look at the devastated town below. “After the tsunami, I could see where the remains of the city hall were, but I couldn’t even recognize where my house used to stand. I was too scared and disoriented to walk around and figure out where things used to be. Everything was washed away, even my memories,” Mrs. Sugawara says.

She says she often blames herself for her losses on March 11. After the magnitude 9.0 earthquake, she heard a single tsunami warning. “Then the electricity was cut off, and the authorities didn’t say what we should do.” Her husband left her at home alone and drove toward low ground to pick up their grandchildren at school. Instead of waiting for her husband to return, she fled in a friend’s car to the top of a hill. “He probably was planning to come back to get me at home. That’s why they were too late to escape. I feel terribly guilty for this,” she says.

Soldiers eventually found their battered car, empty. The bodies of her husband and two grandchildren were found farther away, while another grandchild, age 5, remains missing and is presumed drowned. She hoped police would find something — anything — from her past. Her neighbor, Kazumi Murakami, 67, was uplifted when someone found a tattered photo album in the debris and gave her and her husband a 30-year-old graduation photo of their missing son.

Mrs. Sugawara wasn’t as fortunate. Police officers later found her husband’s wallet, which contained only his birth certificate.

She initially survived on handouts of food and water from the Red Cross and other charities. By midsummer, the government kept its promise to provide temporary housing for everyone. Her pre-fab unit has a refrigerator, humidifier and a gas tank for cooking. But there is only an air-conditioner in the family room, not her bedroom, which gets stuffy during hot days and nights. She had to buy a fan, and her daily needs of food and water, using money saved in her bank account. She hopes the government will provide compensation for deceased relatives, as well as a fair price for her uninhabitable land.

Though aftershocks are less frequent than before, she is always ready to evacuate in case of earthquake and tsunami. Yet she rarely ever leaves her temporary home. “As a widow, it’s difficult for me to go on. I guess this is how all lonesome seniors feel. I am retired, and I do not want to work. My husband was my support, and I lost him. My whole life was based around my grand-daughters, and they are dead. Now I have no future ambitions. I lost everything, including my motivation. Ever since the tsunami hit, I have only thought about surviving one more day.”

One weekend, her daughter came to her temporary house to take her over the mountains to see normal life in the city of Morioka. But she couldn’t muster the courage to go to the annual Tanabata star festival that locals had organizedto cheer up survivors. “There was going to be a lot of little children there, and that would hurt me.” Her neighbor Taizo Kumagai, 71, says he’s glad he went to the festival.

For 40 years, Mr. Kumagai owned the Ofuna Ryokan, a little hotel that was like a community center for travelers. His guests helped him overcome the loss of five family members due to the 1960 earthquake in Chile that drove tsunami waves all the way to Japan. Accustomed to taking care of strangers, he saved two elderly women who were being swept away in the March 11 tsunami. He swallowed a lot of water, and spent three months in a hospital with a back injury.

He now shares a cramped space with his 80-year-old mother and three others, but says he misses the camaraderie of the hospital and evacuation center. “It feels lonely here now,” he says, watering plants. “There were always many people hanging around in the shelters. It was easy to talk, share our feelings and make new friends. Now, everybody is scattered somewhere else. I miss the people from the hospital and the shelter.” By chance, he met the two women he rescued at the Tanabata festival. “It was wonderful to see them again. They told me ‘Thank you, sir, for saving our lives and giving us a second chance to live.’ That gave me some more hope for the future.”

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