On April 22 last year, Akemi Karino did exactly what she had done on the same day each year for more than a decade. She made a cake, sandwiches and some other of her daughter Ai’s favorite things for her birthday.

On this occasion she decorated the cake with 12 candles, but there was a conspicuous absentee from Ai’s 12th birthday.

It was Ai herself.

“It was nothing elaborate, but everything was as it usually was — except there was no Ai,” says Karino, 43, tears flooding down cheeks paled by a biting wind blowing through the now-desolate district near the skeletal remains of the school her daughter once attended. “She loved parties and I thought if she could see this one she might come home.”

Ai Karino was one of the 70 children from Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki’s Kahoku district who, along with nine of their teachers, were swept to their deaths by the March 11 tsunami.

Indecisiveness by the staff as to where they should evacuate the children ultimately accounted for 80 lives — a surviving teacher later committed suicide — while a further five remain missing.

Her daughter’s body was found April 28, the news reaching Karino via a phone call just as she was leaving a “shijuku-nichi” (49th day) memorial ceremony, a Buddhist rite held to mark the passage of the dead to the afterworld.

Almost one year on from what was one of the most tragic episodes of the March 11 disasters, Karino is among many grieving parents for whom time has frozen.

This was highlighted during an address by Takeshi Takeyama, chairman of an association for the bereaved families, during a ceremony March 4 in Ishinomaki to mark the one-year anniversary of the disasters.

“The painful and bitter memories remain unhealed, and the days of suffering continue,” said Takeyama, who lost two children. “We must carry on living by supporting one another.”

Akemi Karino’s logical acceptance of her daughter’s death is tempered by “an irrational notion” that she will return from school any day. Her daughter’s room remains as it was a year ago. She often sits on her daughter’s bed and looks at photographs of Ai, her smiling face stirring in her a jumble of emotions from which she is unable to escape.

And on April 22 this year she will bake another cake.

“We found her, we cremated her, she has been laid to rest and I know that I should clear her room and move on,” says Karino, as she rubs the toes of her rubber boots into the muddy dirt on which less than a year ago stood a family’s home.

“But I just can’t seem to gather the strength to do it. I can’t help myself from looking up sometimes and expecting her to walk through the door.”

For the 49 days before the discovery of her daughter’s body, things had been easier. Each day she would visit the devastated area around the school and look for her daughter. She had something to cling on to, something to keep her going.

Now she can’t stop her mind from wandering. Her surviving children, Yu, 15, and Yui, 18, avoid mentioning their deceased sister’s name: “They know it will only make me weep.”

To keep her mind occupied, Karino has returned to work — though she admits to having frequent lapses. On her days off, she still goes back to the area around the school to join the search for the still-missing children.

She sometimes joins another mother, Naomi Hiratsuka, who operates a power shovel, the license for which she obtained in order to search for her own daughter, Koharu, 12, who also vanished.

Even though her daughter was found Aug. 8, some 3 km downstream in Naburi Bay, Hiratsuka continues to look for the missing children, her husband, Shinichiro, 45, helping on his days off work at a local school, and urging the authorities to continue cooperating in the parent-led searches.

“What’s a year?” asks Hiratsuka, 38, who has taken indefinite leave from her teaching post to continue plowing through the earth that now shows few signs of the community that once thrived on the banks of the Kitakami River.

“Nothing has changed, but everything has changed. Our children are still dead and others remain missing. What’s important now is we return them to their homes.”

Hiratsuka and other parents successfully lobbied to get the city to damn the Fujigawa River, a narrow tributary of the Kitakami that passes in front of the school.

On Feb. 14, searches subsequently began along a 1.5 km-stretch that had been inaccessible, with 11 power shovels, including one amphibious caterpillar, scouring the area.

Nothing was found in the allocated 10 days, but Hiratsuka vows to buy more time. “We can’t just give up on them,” she says before making a beeline for two uniformed officials in hard hats.

This is how Hiratsuka’s days are spent. In between preparing morning and evening meals for her two surviving children, Toma, 7 and Sae, 3, and shuttling them between schools and day care, she burrows through the soil, a woolly cap pulled tightly over her ears.

“This is my life now,” she says, her hands in fingerless gloves manipulating the yellow power shovel’s complex control instrumentation like a seasoned pro.

The surviving children have all gone back to school, many of them suffering posttraumatic stress disorder, she says. Attempts to help them have been slow and ineffective — official counseling arrived some nine months after the disasters, she says. “Like everything else, it was too little too late.”

Many parents and some children instead sought solace from spiritual leaders.

“Everyone says that the flow of time has completely changed, that the clocks have stopped,” says Buddhist priest Dairyu Ono, 35, as he carefully places flowers at an altar erected outside the school in memory of the children.

“After the disasters, parents of the children killed would say they don’t have the will to carry on. Now they say that while they have come to terms with their loss, they still suffer a huge sense of guilt at having survived while their children didn’t.”

Unable to reconcile themselves, some parents have moved from the area, he says. According to Hiratsuka, only 19 of the 34 surviving students remain at the temporary school in Ishinomaki.

On March 10 last year, 108 pupils had shouted and screamed as they ran around the mountain-backed playground, peeping their heads through the portholes of a concrete facade on which they had painted colorful images of children from around the globe. Today, the play area is a muddied mess of debris. The school building is a shell — nothing remains except a partially burned dictionary and a plastic sword lying on a desk.

Karino says she too contemplated relocating — though, ironically, that was before the disasters, at a time when she hankered for a faster-paced, convenience-packed lifestyle.

Yet, her loss has somehow adhered her to the area. “I wanted out, but she loved it here. She loved the school, she loved summers at the seaside, playing in the river,” says Karino, stopping abruptly to cover her eyes and mouth with her trembling hands.

“So I have to stay. As a priest told me recently, Ai is watching me. So I have to stay here and I have to smile. For her.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.