Japan anniversary – Diary 1 – Coming to terms with tragedy one year on from the earthquake and tsunami

Published: 5 March 2012 10:00 CET

By Francis Markus in Otsuchi

Tomokazu Sato paces over the concrete foundations that are all that remain of the house where he grew up until the age of 18. “It still doesn’t seem real, I can hardly believe this has happened,” says the stocky bearded 35-year-old Japanese Red Cross staff member. “My grandmother was in the house by herself, because my mother had just gone up the hill to renew her driving license.”

Tragically, Sato’s grandmother lost her life in the disaster. Other family members were safe, including his younger brother, who is now working long hours in the local government office housed in prefabricated buildings, where he struggles to bring order to the town’s finances.

Sato himself has long lived in Tokyo, working at Red Cross headquarters. With his knowledge of this northeastern area, he was drafted into the frontline of the emergency response and recovery efforts following the disaster. He was with the first Japanese Red Cross Society relief team to reach Otsuchi, three days after the tsunami devastated his home town.

As Sato stands in the road in front of the empty space where his house once stood, he holds up his laptop computer with a photograph of himself at the age of 20, together with three of his best friends, all dark suited, at their coming of age day celebration.

“The guy on the right lost his mother and sister, the guy on the left’s father and elder brother are still missing.”  Sato says that the the fourth member of the group died in a car accident eight years ago, but even he wasn’t spared. “His grave has been washed away.”

Although almost all the debris has been cleared since my last visit here in August, except for mounds of rubble and metal being sorted by heavy machines, the landscape tells a story of lives sacrificed.

“One volunteer fireman died, trying to plug a gap in the tsunami barrier over there, even though it was not a very high barrier. But he viewed that as his responsibility,” Sato says.

Another volunteer, the man who used to cut Sato’s hair perished when he went to help rescue an elderly bed-ridden person. “So many good-hearted people were lost,” he says.

Some people made the wrong decision at the wrong time. “Our next door neighbours came back to pick up some valuables. Only their car was found.”

The local government has still not decided what to do with the empty land, which is now deemed too dangerous to live on. “But it remains our property,” says Sato. He says his mother claims she would like to come back, but at the same time, is too scared to return.

As Sato looks round towards the wooded slope across the road that borders the town, it’s as if he still can’t quite take in the enormity of what’s happened. “When I was little, we were told that if a tsunami came, we should evacuate up that hill,” he says. “Nobody thought a tsunami could come up so high.”

But there’s no time to think about that further now. We have to move on the next town where he has work to do, the handover of six school buses to the community, provided by the Japanese Red Cross Society.

In the car, a Japanese colleague quotes for me a snatch of a famous poem by the early 20th century poet, Kenji Miyazawa, who came from this part of the country. It starts:

“Be not defeated by the wind, be not defeated by the rain...”

Then there’s a bit which runs:

In the East, if there is a sick child,
Go there and take care of him,
In the West, if there is an exhausted mother,
Go there and relieve her of her burden.

Miyazawa, who was also a social activist, was coming from a Buddhist perspective rather than a Red Cross one. But I still think he would definitely approve of Tomokazu Sato’s spirit.