About 30 km north of the disaster-hit Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, an old shiba dog strains for breath in a temporary, prefabricated house in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture.

The dog’s name is Chibi. On this spring morning, in a four-tatami mat room, her 18-year life appears to be nearing an end, cradled in the arms of her loving owner, Chikara Sakurada.

Sakurada, 64, has been using a wheelchair for about two decades, ever since he suffered a brain hemorrhage while he was a worker at the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant.

In the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, Chibi helped save Sakurada’s family from the deadly tsunami. Throughout the stressful times and uncertainty that followed, Chibi has remained a loving companion to her master and his family. Observers compared her behavior to that of a nurse.

In Fukushima Prefecture, more than 23,000 people still live in temporary housing, according to the prefectural government. Unlike the Sakuradas’ residence, many temporary housing facilities bar residents from keeping pets, despite the therapeutic and other benefits they apparently bring.

On March 11, 2011, the family was in their home a few kilometers away from their current temporary housing. Sakurada’s wife, Miyoko, who is now 57, and their daughter, Yoshie, who is now 33, dashed to the upper floor of their house as the waters rose. Chibi, apparently trying to assist her master, was pinned under his wheelchair and injured.

It was the yelping and whimpering of the dog that alerted a relative passing by the house the family was trapped inside. It was about two hours later that rescuers reached Sakurada’s family home and brought them to higher ground.

The family faced many more difficulties after the tsunami receded, however.

At their first evacuation center in a Minamisoma junior high school, Miyoko was left stunned when a city official told her bluntly: “It would have been better that your husband had been killed by the tsunami. Then all of you wouldn’t have had to face such difficulties and you could have escaped by bus.”

Tragedy struck again on March 11 of this year, the fourth anniversary of the disaster. Chibi fell into a coma-like state when public warning sirens blared to commemorate the exact minute the earthquake struck.

“Chibi had been so traumatized by the tsunami,” Miyoko explained.

A local vet told the family that she had to be put to sleep, but they kept calling to her by name until, finally, the dog woke up, according to the family.

Still, Chibi’s health remains fragile. The vet says she could die any day.

In many of the disaster-afflicted areas, family pets have helped keep up the morale of their owners through trying times, allowing them to live happier and healthier lives than would otherwise be the case.

At the Chikura temporary housing area where the Sakurada family lives, there are said to be 35 dogs and 20 cats living among the 70 families.

“For those people in particular, pets are indispensable,” said Katsuaki Izumi, a 63-year-old community leader. “There are some people who have only their dogs upon which to rely.”

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