Grandparents stifle grief to raise orphaned boy

Kin help bring up more than 1,500 children who lost parents on 3/11

First In A Series

In the three prefectures hardest hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake last March 11, 1,580 children lost either one or both of their parents, according to a health ministry survey of Iwate, Fukushima and Miyagi conducted at the end of last year.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s poll, most of those children are being cared for by relatives.

In Iwate Prefecture, 7-year-old Sora Sasaki from the coastal town of Yamada lost his mother, Kanako, on the day of the disasters and is currently living with kin. His mother was raising him in a single-parent household; his father was out of the picture.

The boy’s 33-year-old mother was swept away by the massive tsunami while working in the neighboring town of Otsuchi, also in Iwate. Kanako, an insurance agent, had driven there for her job, leaving her son at home in Yamada with his grandparents, 60-year-old Etsuko and 61-year-old Masao Sasaki.

Sasaki and his mother had returned to live with her parents in Iwate after she divorced. While married, she lived in a town in Saitama Prefecture. Her son was 3 when the couple separated and she raised him.

A little after 3 p.m. March 11, just minutes after a tsunami warning siren wailed in Otsuchi, the grandmother’s mobile phone rang. She picked up but the line went dead before the caller could speak. Call logs show the call was from Kanako Sasaki — her daughter.

“I wonder what she wanted to say in those final seconds,” Etsuko said. “Could it be, ‘Mother, I’m scared?’ “

Masao said: “If you had heard her voice, you would have been frantic ever since because you weren’t able to save her. It was good that you couldn’t get to the phone sooner.”

“Kanako must have felt so cold after being engulfed by the tsunami,” her mother said. She was so traumatized by the tsunami that took her daughter that it was a while before she could even submerge herself in a bathtub, she said.

“Sora lost his mother and we lost our daughter, and it is just too much to bear,” she said. “But we were a bit hesitant about feeling despondent or being interviewed when some people lost as many as four or five family members.”

The boy’s mother was listed as missing in Otsuchi, where the giant waves that rolled in from the ocean March 11 obliterated homes, damaged apartment buildings, uprooted trees and swept away tombstones.

Sasaki repeatedly asked his grandparents about his mother’s whereabouts in the days that immediately followed the disasters, but after a week passed he realized something was wrong.

“Mom must have been swallowed by the tsunami because she doesn’t come home even after I’ve waited this long,” his grandparents recall him saying.

Then one night the grandmother told him the truth.

“Sora, Grandma and Grandpa also don’t know where your mom is,” she told him, after putting him to bed. She recalls her grandson, who already had his back turned, didn’t respond and that his body froze.

“Grandma is sad, too, so you don’t need to hold (the pain) all by yourself,” she told him, and he turned round to face her.

“I hate tsunami,” he told her, the first time he had expressed his sorrow and loss since the day of the disasters.

The car Kanako Sakaki had been driving when the tsunami struck was later found in Otsuchi, and her son was taken to see it in late March. The waves had overturned the vehicle and dumped it on top of a large pile of debris, and the boy just stared at it in silence.

His mother’s body was later found and her ashes delivered to her kin in late September, on a day his grandmother says she will never forget.

“He just looked confused by the urn, as if it was something he had never seen before. But it was Sora who said he wanted to see (the remains of) his mom,” she said.

“After I placed one of her bones in the palm of his hand, he just touched it gently and said: ‘Welcome home, Mom. I hope you will rest well.’ He didn’t cry.”

But by late November, Sasaki and his grandparents had already started to pick up the pieces of their lives. While the grandparents were being interviewed, the boy at times mimicked his schoolteachers and actors in TV dramas, bursting into laughter.

“It’s always like this at our place (now),” his grandfather said.

After dinner, their grandson got up from the table and went to wash the dishes. His grandmother suffered a fall in late October and broke her wrist, and the boy has since helped even more with daily chores.

“He does it without being told,” his grandmother said with a smile.

Before going to bed, he always sits in front of the family altar to look at a photograph of his mother and tell her good night.

The boy is now in the first grade of elementary school. The grandfather has continued to work as a roofer, even though before March 11 he had hoped to retire at 60, and will be in his 70s by the time his grandson graduates from high school.

“After all, I feel responsible (for the boy’s care now),” he said.

The grandmother confided that she sometimes fears her health might deteriorate due to the strain of her new child-rearing duties, but said she is determined to take care of her grandson.

“Perhaps it’s naive to expect a child to grow up happily after losing a parent,” she said.

“I’m sure that as a boy, he will face some hard times and go through a rebellious phase, but we also have to grow along with Sora (to ensure he is raised properly).”

This is the first in a series on how children orphaned by the March 11 quake and tsunami and their communities have been coping with the disasters’ aftermath.