Mayumi Baba, 36, took part as a volunteer in a September meeting in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, held for children who lost parents in the March 11 disasters.
In the auditorium after engaging in sports with volunteers, the children shared their thoughts and feelings about their lives with their new foster families. Some cried as the volunteers tried to comfort them.
Baba played badminton with elementary school girls, occasionally sharing laughs at the event, which was sponsored by Ashinaga, a civic group supporting children who have lost parents in accidents and other circumstances.
“I’d be happy if those kids I played with come back again,” said Baba, who herself lost her father in the tsunami.
Asked what motivated her to take up volunteer work, Baba said: “For a long while after my father died, I could not speak with others about what I was really thinking. I just thought everyone else around me was also in pain.”
She said the town she lives in was filled with a spirit in the air urging people to get over the disasters and move on. She tried hard to make it through each day. “But as time passed, I had this sense of sorrow that just got deeper and deeper,” she said.
Baba was working at a kindergarten in Sendai when the magnitude 9 quake struck. After making sure the kindergartners were in the care of their parents and guardians, she headed to Ishinomaki, her hometown.
It took her three days to reach the port from Sendai — a trip by car that normally takes little over an hour. The home she lived in with her parents and a younger brother and his wife had been swept away.
“We’ve probably lost our father,” her brother told her.
She was told her father had warned everyone in the house to flee to higher ground, then he went back to the neighborhood to save a child and was probably caught by the tsunami.
Baba later returned to Sendai to start life alone. “It was just so hard every day,” she said. “I just didn’t know how I could overcome this agony.”
Baba continued working as a nursery teacher. Watching children at the kindergarten almost every day, she thought, “While adults like me are going through this agony, I wonder how those parentless children are coping.”
She then read in a newspaper that Ashinaga was looking for volunteers to help kids who lost parents and joined a training course.
More than 1,500 children lost parents in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures in the disasters.
In the course of training, Baba let out her suppressed feelings at meetings where people in similar circumstances shared their feelings about losing their parents. “I learned I could open up only when there are people who listen,” she says. “I felt much better.”
Her training taught her not to try to lead children into talking but instead let them initiate the conversation and listen to them. Some cannot immediately express in words what they feel. Stay with them and do not fear silence, but allow the children to start speaking at their own pace, she was told.
Ayaka Furusawa, a 20-year-old junior college student, is another volunteer worker who had suffered. Her home in Sendai was washed away by the tsunami. Although her family survived, she said she became psychologically unstable three months after the disasters.
“In the evening, when I saw a bus heading toward where our home used to be, I thought I could go home if I hopped on, or tears just came out suddenly,” Furusawa said. “I also got depressed when I had nothing to do.”
She could not tell her parents about her condition. It was also too much to bear when other people told her it was good that she had at least survived, she said. With no home to go back to and anxiety about the future, those remarks offered little encouragement.
Like anger, grief builds up, according to experts, who say it is important not to contain it but to let it out. Furusawa said she also had to overcome a period of instability by not containing her feelings.
Masaki Nishiyama, a 24-year-old college student who lost his parents in the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, did volunteer work at shelters in the Miyagi cities of Natori and Sendai shortly after the March disasters.
After meeting children, he said he was reminded of the days he went through when he felt it was too hard to go on. He was in the first grade of elementary school in Kobe when the magnitude 7.3 quake struck on Jan. 17, 1995.
He said he also tended to be withdrawn, avoiding contact with others. But many people continued to commit themselves to engaging with him, he said.
“I think those links with other people helped me grow,” he said, noting the importance of keeping in touch with others. That was the message he delivered at meetings with the children who lost loved ones.
He will graduate from university and start working in spring. He is planning to return as many times as possible to send a message to children.
“There will be a moment in life when you feel it is good that you are alive,” he said. “I hope they will continue on until they realize this. They are not alone.”