Yuji Hamada will mark his 16th birthday on March 11, but last year’s disasters have stripped the occasion of much of the joy he felt on past anniversaries, when he would celebrate at home with his family.
With the first anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake approaching, Hamada feels conflicted by a day that now marks both his birthday and last year’s enormous loss and destruction.
“It’s a day that appears to be both happy and bad,” he said.
Hamada used to live in the Yuriage district of Natori, Miyagi Prefecture.
On the day of the twin disasters, his 13-year-old sister, Rui, and his mother, Naomi, 39, were on their way to buy a cake for him when the tsunami engulfed them.
He said they had driven off minutes before the first massive waves roared in, and their loss continues to haunt him.
Hamada is one of the more than 1,500 children who lost one or both parents to the tsunami that ripped apart coastal towns in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures.
According to a health ministry survey held at the end of December, 1,580 children became such orphans in the three worst-hit prefectures — 846 in Miyagi, 572 in Iwate and 162 in Fukushima.
At the precise moment the 9.0-magnitude quake struck off Tohoku’s coast, Hamada was attending a graduation party at a municipal hall for students from his local junior high school.
As he was leaving the party, his mother drove up to the hall with his sister in the back seat. He suddenly saw a cloud of dust growing near the waterfront and people realized tsunami were about to strike.
“Mother, you go by car,” he shouted to them. “I will go up to the second floor of the hall.”
But he before he could climb to safety he was swept away by the first monstrous tsunami. He passed out among the waves, and when he came to he was in an ambulance taking him to a hospital.
He remained hospitalized for a week, and remembers spending those days wondering about the fate of his mother and sister.
He later learned the tsunami killed them both. Their car had become stuck in traffic and the giant waves just swept it away.
After doctors discharged him, Hamada viewed the corpses of his mother and sister in a funeral parlor in Natori. The expression on his mother’s face seemed as gentle as ever, but his sister’s was more upsetting, he recalled.
“Why am I the only one who didn’t die?” Hamada often wonders.
He now lives with his 62-year-old grandmother, Sato, an uncle and four other family members in the town of Tono in Iwate Prefecture.
The funeral for his mother and sister was held in Tono last May. Hamada prayed for them that day, but says he felt an overwhelming sense of solitude afterward.
“It’s not that I wanted to die with them but it’s not fair that they alone were killed,” he said.
Before the disasters, he and his sister lived in a one-room apartment with their mother in Natori’s Yuriage district. He remembers his mother sometimes looking tired or suffering headaches due to the stress of raising her two children.
On such days he used to help her out with daily chores, but now feels he could have done more to ease her load.
He said he often used to fight with his sister, but now when he is playing video games or watching TV shows alone, he often misses her deeply.
Hamada visited his old neighborhood after March 11, and says he will never forget the destruction the waves left in their wake.
The apartment building he lived in with his mother and sister is now just a shell, its outer walls destroyed, while the homes around it simply disintegrated when the waves smashed into them.
Piles of debris lay scattered around everywhere.
After Hamada moved in with his grandmother in Tono, he entered high school. At the enrollment ceremony last April, he didn’t interact with classmates.
It wasn’t until mid-May that he started to open up to them, when a boy sitting close to his desk started a conversation. After that, he gradually started to talk with and get to know other students in his class.
He says he now feels comfortable among his new friends, even though they do not seem to understand how much the tsunami took from him, or that he’s only attending their school because he lost his family and former home.
Late last year, Hamada spent a night at the home of one of his old friends in Natori and met up with former classmates from his junior high school.
He said it was fun to talk with them again, and meeting them felt the same as always. As he was leaving, his friends asked him to visit again soon.
But the tsunami has left scars. Hamada says he still can’t understand why he was the only one from his family to survive that day.
“Because I survived, I have to live my life to the fullest,” he now believes.
This is second in a series on how children orphaned by the March 11 quake and tsunami and people around them have been coping in life.