ISHINOMAKI, MIYAGI PREF. – Every afternoon, elderly residents at a temporary housing complex in the city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, sit around a table for a few hours of lighthearted chitchat. They update each other on how they feel, talk about TV shows they saw the night before and laugh at each other’s jokes.
But once the gathering ends, they each retreat to their own dimly lit, thin-walled quarters in the Mangokuura district complex and spend the remaining hours of the day feeling uncertain about the future.
“For those brief hours that we come together and engage in conversation, we can forget what is on our minds,” said a tsunami survivor in his 70s who lives in this complex.
The man said being consigned to the makeshift dwelling has stressed him out, and he’s had to go on medication. “The disaster changed my life. I would be surprised if there was any survivor whose life hasn’t changed.”
As Wednesday marks the fourth anniversary of the massive earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 19,000 people, survivors — each in their own way — contemplate the toll it has taken on their lives and struggle to move on. Tens of thousands in the Tohoku region still live in temporary housing.
Here are the tales of four survivors of the tsunami.
Michiyo Oshima, 74
Ishinomaki survivor Michiyo Oshima says all she can do is move on and try to enjoy the rest of her life.
Oshima lost her husband of 40 years, Sadao, to the tsunami. During the first year of her widowhood, she would idle away her days in sorrow, her mind frequently drifting off to nostalgic thoughts about her husband.
Nowadays she no longer appears beset by such grief, as the 74-year-old single-mindedly commits herself to her duties as president of the temporary housing complex in the city’s Minamizakai district. She handles everything from inviting volunteers to checking in on her fellow residents, fearing some may be too withdrawn.
The leadership role, Oshima says, has kept her occupied and given her opportunities to make new friends — instilling in her a renewed hope for life.
“I would be lying if I said I no longer think about my husband,” she said. “But I’m happy I have all these new friends now. As a survivor, we need to enjoy what remains of our lives.”
Four years on, Oshima said many temporary housing residents are at a crossroads in their post-tsunami lives, as some, including herself, are slated to move into state-backed public housing as early as next month.
As much as they are fed up with the increasingly decrepit state of their temporary dwellings, Oshima said some of the survivors leaving her complex have grown so fond of the camaraderie they have built with their neighbors over the last four years that they are now reluctant to start new relationships from scratch in their next communities.
“Some of the residents are afraid that they might end up living in isolation once they have moved somewhere else,” Oshima said.
Still, she insists the survivors have to move on.
“It is often said the memory of the disaster should be kept alive. But personally, I don’t want any reminder of that day. I just want to forget all about it and move on.”
Kei Masuda, 63
When the historic temblor and tsunami struck his hometown, Ishinomaki resident Kei Masuda was at his workplace packing seafood for shipment.
It was easy for him to anticipate, by the force of the jolt, that tsunami would soon follow. When he finally saw the waves materialize a few hundreds meters away, however, he was dumbstruck by the rolling columns of black water as they engulfed a three-story building and surged toward him with increasing momentum.
Terrified, Masuda hopped in his car and instinctively sought the safety of a nearby warehouse. He plowed his car through a warehouse door, but the rising water followed him. Masuda’s car quickly became submerged and after a few moments, he used a hammer to shatter the window and escape the vehicle.
Masuda believes he momentarily passed out in the water, but came to miraculously floating face-up — and alive.
Surviving the disaster, he said, prompted him to change how he lived in unexpected ways, and to take responsibility for the welfare of others.
Masuda is now president of a temporary housing complex in the Mangokuura district of Ishinomaki.
“I was never the type who would take this sort of leadership role,” Masuda said. “But having survived the tragedy made me feel like I have to do something for the good of society.”
Residents in his complex, which currently accommodates 78 households, are of various age, including about 20 children.
After four years, Masuda said the complex has fallen into disrepair.
The dwellings are nowhere near soundproof and light from adjacent units filters through the walls, he said.
The walls are so thin that one can lean against them and feel the back of their next-door neighbor doing likewise.
No wonder then that Masuda “can’t wait” to move into state-backed public housing in the coming months.
“Some residents in the temporary housing voice reluctance to move anywhere else because they’re afraid they might not be able to make a living” after being exempted from paying rent for several years.
“But there is always a way to scrape by, such as by applying for welfare benefits. So we must move on. I’m eager to get my life back.”
Hiroki Endo, 20
The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami changed Hiroki Endo’s life in what he calls the most unimaginable way possible. It swept away his home in the town of Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, as well as his father, who remains unaccounted for.
Endo does not live his life entirely in despair over his loss, however. Now a university student, the 20-year-old said he welcomes the changes he has experienced. The calamity, he said, opened his eyes to the virtue of what he used to take little notice of: the importance of human bonds.
“I am still alive today thanks to all the support I got from all around the world.
“I’ve lost everything — my home and my possessions. But these losses hardly bother me, now that I’ve realized human bonds are what matters most in my life.”
Endo, who was 16 years old at the time the disaster struck, now studies electrotechnology at Shibaura Institute of Technology in Tokyo.
He occasionally travels back to Minamisanriku. But after four years, he said no true recovery has taken hold in his hometown. Granted, he said, layers of soil have been added each year to raise low-lying districts that were submerged in the disaster, making them habitable again. The bulk of the debris is gone, too.
But despite these physical changes his hometown, he said, remains essentially barren and displays no sign of human inhabitation, with many locals shunted into limbo in temporary housing complexes.
“The disaster was just too huge,” Endo said. “It made my hometown an entirely different world.”
Endo himself is moving on. The engineering major said his dream is to repay the kindness he received in the aftermath of the tsunami by helping to improve energy infrastructure in underprivileged parts of the world.
“If an earthquake strikes us again, it will be my turn to do people good and help them. That’s how I feel now.
“In a way, I owe the disaster for who I am today. And I am proud of what I have become.”
A long-term Kesennuma resident nicknamed Mittsu said he sometimes regrets having survived the tsunami. It forever changed his life, he said, robbing him of everything from his home to his close kin.
But above all, he said, it took the heaviest toll on his self-esteem. Mittsu, who had prided himself on taking initiative all his life, cringes when he recalls how powerless he felt in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
He was appalled to find he couldn’t even feed himself. Not only that, the pep talk given by volunteers and media crews who thronged his evacuation center in Kesennuma struck him as condescending.
“All my life, I don’t think I was ever rich. But no matter what the situation was, I always adjusted and acted on my own initiative to make ends meet without asking anybody for a favor,” said Mittsu, who asked that his real name be withheld.
“I felt like my pride was trampled on. There were moments when I felt like I may have been better off having just been killed by the tsunami.”
Still, the newspaper delivery man said he marvels at what he called the “swift” recovery of his neighborhood, citing the removal of debris and the launch of construction to make the seawalls higher.
“Some people complain that the recovery has been too slow,” he said. “But compared with Fukushima, for example, where some houses remain un-cared for and even attract wild animals, I don’t think we’re in a position to complain.”
Mittsu’s life, however, appears far from being mended. The 56-year-old said he still regrets his survival and finds no joy in life.
And yet, he tells himself to keep living so he can support his wife and her parents. The four of them now live in temporary housing, scraping by on meager earnings. Despite his pessimism, Mittsu said he one day hopes to help his wife and her mother, who used to run a small inn near the coast of Kesennuma, restore their business.
“All I hope is to see them enjoy their lives again.”