Japan: Paying a return visit to one family who survived the tsunami

Published: 30 July 2013 8:30 CET

By Katherine Mueller, IFRC

It has been more than two years since large tsunami waves came pouring into the town of Otsuchi in north-eastern Japan, and life, for the most part, has returned to normal. That is, if you consider living in prefabricated housing, shopping in prefabricated stores, and going to school in prefabricated classrooms, normal.

“It is not the community we knew before. We now live among strangers,” says Tomoyuki Matsuhashi, a 43-year-old father of two. “Life won’t really return to normal until we are able to rebuild our home and live in the neighbourhood we once did.”

That probably won’t be possible for another couple of years. The Matsuhashis now live in a small prefabricated house on what used to be a baseball diamond. It is cold in the winter, sweltering in the summer. Their living room doubles as a dining area. They live in a neighbourhood kilometres away from where they lived before the tsunami dumped another house on top of theirs, flattening it to the ground.

Two years later and the piles of debris are long gone and aromatic clover grows amid the ruins. The sound of jackhammers eating away at foundations now fills the air.

“Once the foundations are removed, the government will put down two metres of soil,” says Tomoyuki. “When the soil settles and construction on a 14 metre-high retaining wall is complete, we will be allowed to move back closer to the ocean. It will be safe.”

The Matsuhashi family is grateful for the assistance they have received, including an appliance package donated by Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies from around the world. “I am really happy to have our own space,” says his wife, Satomi, “but it is stressful. We always hear the neighbours, and with two growing children, there is not a lot of space.”

Mizuki is a typical 14-year-old teenager, blushing when asked about boys, wanting her own room, and living in her athletics uniform. She used to play the piano but, like the rest of their belongings, it was destroyed by the tsunami, so she now plays the clarinet in the school band. A fan of swimming, she wants nothing to do with the ocean anymore. “There is something in the sea,” she says. “I don’t want to swim there.”

Her younger brother is anxious to move back to familiar surroundings. “I get scolded a lot more now,” says nine-year-old Masayuki. “It is hard for me to stay quiet and not bother the neighbours.”

When we first met him in the weeks immediately following the tsunami, Masayuki was having nightmares, and still wants to run away when he hears the tsunami warnings. His father suffers from the occasional nightmare. “I dream of being chased by the tsunami. It did chase me in real life, but in the dream it is worse. It was real close,” he says.

The family does not take tsunami warnings for granted anymore.

“The tsunami and earthquake are always at the back of my mind,” says Tomoyuki. “Before March 2011, we ignored the tsunami warnings. Now they are listened to. I have a bag packed and ready for emergencies for every member of my family.”

As they wait and prepare for life to really return to normal, they have a reminder of their old home with them. “I found flowers growing in what was left of our garden at the old house,” says Masayuki, as he crafts one of his origami frogs. “I picked them and we replanted them so we would never forget.”