When the March 11 quake and tsunami orphaned thousands of children in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, in the majority of cases relatives stepped forward to start raising them.
This has led to some unlikely matchups, such as a 90-year-old man who took in a grandchild and a 19-year-old woman who started looking after a younger sibling, according to the Ashinaga group that supports orphans.
In other cases, children in Tohoku have been placed with relatives who were grateful but stunned to find themselves entrusted with their care.
They include divorcee Reiko Hino, 52, who was living alone in Sendai when the 9.0-magnitude quake struck last March.
Hino, who has no kids, said she never imagined she would get a chance to raise a child at her age.
But she is currently raising her 8-year-old nephew, Keisuke Masaki, who lost his father, Henmi, 42, mother, Midori, 49, and sister, Kana, 10, to the disasters.
The Masakis lived in Ishinomaki on the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, which suffered some of the worst destruction when the 15-meter waves roared in.
At the moment the Great East Japan Earthquake struck, Masaki was on his way from his elementary school to a children’s club.
He was the only member of his family to survive the March 11 tsunami, and spent that night at a friend’s home. He then stayed at a shelter for several days until a relative collected him.
Masaki was initially taken in by his grandfather, but the arrangement proved far from ideal. Nobody had told him that his parents had died, and he would often weep and ask to be taken to see them. There also were no children of his age nearby and he had no one to play with.
One day, Hino visited her nephew and found “he looked isolated and alone.” In the past, the nephew had often visited Hino in Sendai with his family, and she started to think about caring for him for a few days.
“Do you want to come over (to my home)?” she asked him during her visit. The next evening, they both traveled back to her apartment in Sendai.
It was only then that Hino told him about his parents’ fate.
“Kei, your father and mother both died in the tsunami,” she said. And he replied: “I understand. I won’t ask about them anymore.”
Hino suspects the boy had already worked out that they had perished, but said he only stopped crying over their absence after she confirmed this to him.
Masaki shuttled back and forth between his grandfather’s home and Hino’s apartment for a while, but one day he told her, “I want to go home (to Ishinomaki).”
“There’s no one else but me who can be a mother for this child in place of my sister,” Hino recalled thinking. Also, she was familiar with Ishinomaki as she had gone there from time to time to help Masaki’s parents run their auto repair shop.
Around two months later, relatives convened a meeting to discuss the boy’s future and to decide who should raise him. The family concluded Hino should move to Ishinomaki and start looking after him.
“When we thought about Keisuke’s feelings, there was no other choice,” Hino said, even though the move meant having to give up her life in Sendai and quit both her job as a social worker and her volunteer work to assist foreign residents.
“I just thought I must stay together with him. It wasn’t a decision or determination that I made — rather, I felt it was an inevitability.”
Masaki’s father ran the repair shop and his mother kept the books. The family home was on the same premises.
“I want to run an auto shop. My dad used to work at home and I want to be like him,” Masaki replied when asked what he wants to do in the future.
Hino admitted she had reservations at first about raising a child.
She divorced two years ago but had lived apart from her husband for more than a decade and had become accustomed to a solitary lifestyle.
“After separating from my husband, I thought that I had to do everything on my own,” she said. “(If I moved to Ishinomaki) we would be together from morning till night. It’s totally different from meeting a nephew occasionally.”
After Hino relocated and started raising her nephew, she found that he hated being left alone and would follow her around at all times. If he noticed she wasn’t around, he would start searching everywhere he could think of until he found his aunt.
Hina said it wasn’t until last autumn that her nephew started talking to her about his experiences on the day of the disasters and in the weeks that followed. But he slowly began to describe such events as his time at the evacuation shelter, and even talked about memories of his parents, for example a happy family outing to an amusement park.
Hino is still concerned about her nephew and worries the extreme emotions and trauma that remain suppressed may burst to the surface one day.
However, she remains optimistic about his future. “Kids just move on so fast,” she said, noting he has started to play with friends and go to school again.
But Hino has changed, too. She did not know how to scold the boy at first, she said, but has since learned to raise her voice if she catches him skipping homework or behaving inappropriately.
“Keisuke now often calls me an angry aunt,” she said, smiling.
And thanks to the assistance of others, the auto repair shop also has reopened.
“I just hope that after years or possibly even decades, we will be able to think that not all things were all that bad,” Hino said.
This is third in a series on how children orphaned by the March 11 quake and tsunami and the people around them have been coping.