Families overcome hardships for babies born on March 11

Mothers recall events on fateful day in hard-hit Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi prefectures


Around 20,000 lives were lost in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that hit northeastern Japan. On the same day, there were also babies born in the three prefectures hardest hit by the disaster.

One of them is Shion Naganuma, who was born in Ishinomaki, the second-largest city in Miyagi Prefecture.

Part of his name was taken from that of his great-grandfather Shiro Tsuda, who was found dead in rubble more than two months after the March disaster. Shion’s 28-year-old mother, Chihiro, regrets that her son was unable to see her grandfather.

“My days with Shion overlapped the period in which my grandfather was gone,” she said.

Shortly after noon on March 11 — about two hours before the magnitude 9 earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. — Chihiro entered the delivery room at a maternity hospital in Ishinomaki. She was in labor when a tremendous jolt hit the hospital, causing her to almost become unconscious.

A nurse slapped her in the face, saying, “Wake up! Wake up!”

A power outage caused by the quake made it difficult for the doctors to confirm if the baby’s heart was beating, leading them to perform vacuum extraction. Shion was born at 3:18 p.m., about 30 minutes after the quake.

It was shortly after the birth that one of the doctors shouted, “A tsunami is coming.”

Chihiro and the baby, both wrapped in a blanket, were moved to a safer place in the hospital before the building was partially inundated.

Her husband, Hiroyuki, 28, was rescued by helicopter a day after the tsunami swept away the ship he was on, which was under construction.

The couple were initially barred from approaching their home because there was the risk of electric shock due to dangling power cables near the house. When they returned home a week later, they found the house had been destroyed.

“It had not crossed my mind that tsunami would follow the earthquake,” Chihiro said. “If I had been at home, I may have died. I think Shion saved my life.”

On May 21, more than two months after the disaster, the body of Chihiro’s 79-year-old grandfather was recovered from rubble near the maternity hospital.

Hiromi Tsuruoka, 50, Chihiro’s mother, thinks that the baby “must be the reincarnation of my father” because Shion was born and her father died almost at the same time and same place.

Relatives had to wait until the end of June, when the funeral for Tsuda was held, to congratulate Tsuruoka on her grandson’s birth.

Tears still well up in Chihiro’s eyes when she recalls her grandfather, but she cheers up when she sees her son smile.

“I want Shion to grow up strong, given the extraordinary experience he has gone through,” she said, “just like my grandfather, who was kind, broad-minded and had a good sense of humor.”

Woman gains baby, loses mother

Etsuko Shimosawa, 33, gave birth just 27 minutes before the massive earthquake and tsunami struck Miyako, Iwate Prefecture. By a twist of fate, she lost her mother the same day — just 15 months after being reunited with her for the first time since being abandoned at birth.

Months after the disaster, Etsuko, cradling her daughter Sakura, addressed words to her mother, telling her how fast her baby girl had grown up.

Sakura was born at a hospital on top of a hill in Miyako at 2:19 p.m. on March 11. About half an hour later, the huge quake jolted Etsuko as she lay in the hospital bed.

A nurse threw herself over Etsuko and the baby to protect them from falling objects. Other nurses came to help move them up to the third floor of the hospital to escape from the coming tsunami.

The hospital lost power and its water supply. Etsuko left the hospital the following day, not wishing to be a burden to the staff. Her home was safe but she was stunned by the scenes of destruction in urban areas of Miyako, a fishing industry city with a population around 58,000.

Before Etsuko’s reunion with her mother just three months before the quake, she had no memory of her. Her mother had disappeared from the hospital where she was born, leaving her in an incubator. Her relatives had disposed of photos of her mother, so Etsuko did not even know what she looked like.

In mid-December 2009, a woman approached Etsuko while she was waiting for a bus in front of JR Miyako Station.

“You must be Etsuko,” the woman said, then added, “I’m your mother.”

Etsuko could not do anything but stare at the woman.

Etsuko’s mother told her that she had remarried and lived in a coastal area of Miyako with her new husband and his mother.

“I knew you from your face,” the woman said, who also said she had thought of talking to her a number of times but had been too afraid.

Etsuko said that somehow she did not feel any anger toward the woman.

During the reunion, which lasted 40 minutes, her mother touched Etsuko’s belly and told her, “I think it will be a girl.”

Before they parted, the mother asked Etsuko to come see her once the baby was born.

Immediately after the earthquake hit, Etsuko remembered the encounter with her mother and became worried because her home was located in a tsunami-hit coastal area.

The worry turned out to be well-founded. A few months later, one of her relatives told Etsuko that her mother had been swept away by the tsunami. She wished her mother had been able to hold Sakura in her arms.

In November, Etsuko, her 25-year-old husband, Hiroki, and Sakura visited the coastal district where her mother had lived. They found that houses in the area had been destroyed, with only most of the foundations remaining.

Neighbors told Etsuko that her mother was washed away while she was carrying her husband’s mother near their home. Etsuko’s mother was 58 years old and her body was found among the rubble two weeks after the disaster.

Etsuko prayed at her mother’s grave on a hill, telling Sakura, “This is where your grandmother is sleeping.”

She believes that the momentary reunion with her mother was a miracle.

The Shimosawas say that they hope Sakura will grow up to become someone who can bring joy to people, living up to her name, which means “cherry blossom” in Japanese. Etsuko plans to visit her mother’s grave to tell her how Sakura is growing in the coming years.

Family overcomes food shortage

Atsuto Shinagawa was born in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, on March 11. An immediate problem his 35-year-old mother, Chiharu, and 34-year-old father, Makoto, faced was a shortage of milk and diapers caused by the supply disruption in the wake of the massive disaster and the subsequent nuclear crisis. The couple managed to overcome the difficulties with support from relatives, friends and neighbors.

Atsuto was born at 12:38 p.m. — about two hours before the quake struck — at a clinic in Iwaki, making him the first boy for Chiharu, who had previously given birth to two girls.

It was shortly after she returned to her bedroom from the delivery room of the clinic that the earthquake struck. A mild vibration she felt was immediately followed by a powerful series of quakes.

Chiharu was able to confirm that her husband and other family members were safe. Daily life was soon affected as most commercial facilities in the city, including supermarkets, were shut down after transport networks were disrupted. Also making the supply of daily necessities difficult were fears of radioactive contamination after a hydrogen blast occurred at the Fukushima No.?1 nuclear power plant.

Even under these circumstances, the clinic where Chiharu gave birth continued to operate and played an important role in providing relief goods to Chiharu and other patients.

Makoto, whose job was suspended after the disaster, managed to secure food by turning to his friends and other acquaintances.

“We received really strong support from people around us,” Chiharu said.

It was in late April that the family had to decide whether to stay in Iwaki after the government announced that minute amounts of radioactive substances had been found in the breast milk of seven women in a sample of 23 in Fukushima, Ibaraki, Saitama, Chiba prefectures and Tokyo.

Acting on the news, the couple considered leaving their home, located some 60 km south of the Fukushima No.?1 plant, but they finally decided to stay, given that the radiation level was low in Iwaki compared with many other cities in Fukushima Prefecture.

In the face of a flood of media information on levels of radiation, Chiharu took extra care in choosing foods for Atsuto by checking product origins.

“I am very happy to see the baby born,” Chiharu said, “but I don’t know if I should blindly indulge myself in the joy of having a new child.”

She said she was constantly reminded of the severity of the disaster with TV networks reporting every day on the hardships still faced by other people in northeastern Japan.

Normal life has yet to return for the Shinagawas, but they are optimistic. Seeing the new baby has helped them cope.

Chiharu’s 15-year-old daughter Ayaka, an avid fan of all-girls pop group AKB48, shows a video of the group to Atsuto, saying, “Aren’t they cute?”

Meanwhile, Ayaka’s 9-year-old sister, Airi, likes to hold the baby in her arms.

Atsuto was named after Atsuto Uchida, a defender on the Japanese national soccer team, by Makoto, an enthusiastic soccer fan. Chiharu’s father is a baseball fan while Ayaka plays basketball at school. Chiharu herself used to be a volleyball player. What sports Atsuto will grow up to play may be a subject for a family conference, Chiharu said with a smile.

All the family members hope that Atsuto, born on such a tragic day, will grow up into someone with a tender heart who can be of help to other people.