Children of the Tsunami

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Sample Translation

Children of the Tsunami: The Unwritten Stories

「つなみ」の子どもたち (Tsunami no kodomotachi: Sakubun ni kakarenakatta monogatari
Edited by Ken Mori


The Tsunami Was Black and Smelly

Essay by Mai Nakamura, Second grade, Higashi-Rokugo Elementary School, Wakabayashi, Sendai

A strong earthquake came while I was walking home. A tsunami came, so I was surprised. It was big, so I was surprised. It was the first time a tsunami came and got so big. I didn't have anyone with me then. I hung in there and stayed on the second floor of school by myself, which was lonely.

I had two friends with me so it was all right. My dear things were swept away because of the tsunami. But we're going next time to look for the things that were in our house. When I saw out the window the tsunami was more than fifty meters. But I stuck it out and spent the day at school.

I couldn't sleep because of the voices of the people who were there evacuating. I couldn't sleep because I was afraid of the aftershocks. It was cold at night when it was time to sleep. The tsunami was full of junk. After our time evacuating at school was over I went to the middle school. I was there for one day too. The next morning I went to the martial arts hall. There I was for many days. At night I don't know why but I was able to sleep. When I came, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to sleep here either. I wanted to go home right away. In the morning when I came, I was sleepy but I kept myself awake.

While we were evacuating, we had a little food, so I was glad. But the tsunami was a kind of a black tsunami. It was smelly. But I was able to sleep a little bit. In my usual house I had been able to sleep, but when I came to the evacuee center I couldn't. I ate and then I became all full. The tsunami came rushing with huge power. But I stuck it out. This was what I kept thinking. I thought a tsunami might come again someday. I have a few happy times but the scary feelings still keep going on.

...........

A Guarded Gaze

Turning my car off the Sendai-Nanbu Road at Imaizumi, I was met by a landscape I remembered seeing before. Here in front of me was the setting of that scene repeated on TV and video clips after the earthquake?the tsunami unrolling like a carpet over low-lying farmland with no rise or hill in sight, faster than a car could run, the dark water's fringe toppling houses and overturning and then smothering cars as if it couldn't wait to surge ahead for more. The only possible place of escape would have been a tall building, but looking around now I could find precious few of those besides what appeared to be schools. I could almost hear the desperation of the people on that day: "Where can we possibly go?"

It was mid-April, a little over a month after the disaster, when I made my way to the Wakabayashi district of Sendai. Since the bullet train was still not completely back in operation the only way to get there was to rent a car from Yamagata Airport. I spent the afternoon interviewing people in the city of Natori and arrived in Wakabayashi near sundown. Of the area's several evacuee centers, I headed to Rokugo Middle School, close by the Natori River.

The school's martial arts hall had been set aside for the evacuees. April in Sendai is still chilly, and I could see heaters placed here and there. The building was about half the size of a school gym, with few lights. It being around dinnertime, many of the households were buzzing with activity. After explaining at the reception that I had come to ask children to write about the tsunami, I peered inside and right around the middle of the hall caught a glimpse of a pretty little girl with long hair and a round face next to someone who was probably her father.

It was my first day of asking for essays and interviewing people, and I felt more than a little nervous about going up to someone. Although a month had passed since March 11, evacuee conditions had not improved. Nor was there any way of telling beforehand what the person I approached might be going through. At Natori many people had been very kind about responding to my request, which had reassured me at least to some extent. There was no guarantee, though, that things would be like that everywhere.

Rallying my courage, I ventured inside. "Excuse me," I said to the girl and man I had glimpsed earlier, who as it turned out were Mai Nakamura and her father, Takenori.

Takenori swung around with a guarded look. He kept his gaze locked on my eyes and listened wordlessly as I began explaining what I had come to do. His features remained rigid and unmoving, and I got the feeling this was going to be difficult. "I don't know . . ." he expressed his reserve after I had finished, but then declared that it was up to his daughter and that he would ask.

"So what do you say, Mai? Do you want to try writing something?"

Mai looked at me, then at her father, then at me again and wondered aloud. Thinking there wasn't much hope, I offered that she didn't need to feel she had to, at which she whispered, "I'll do it." This surprised me. Most of the children who had said yes, at least at Natori, had been those whom I could tell just by looking were relatively upbeat and full of energy. But Mai and Takenori appeared almost numb and did not seem to be doing all that well.

A few days later I went to collect Mai's essay. It was already growing dark outside, as on my earlier visit, when I found Takenori inside his allotted space and Mai off playing with the other children. Takenori handed me what Mai had written and I began reading it right there on the spot.

The tsunami had been black and smelly; on March 11 she had been all alone; it had been hard for her to sleep?each sentence pierced me through as I read. How scared, how vulnerable she must have felt. I turned to Takenori, intending to ask him for details, when he abruptly broke his silence.

"We lost my wife, you see."

True, I had not noticed Mai's mother either this time or the last. I had simply imagined she was off elsewhere?a hasty assumption. While I remained at a loss for words, Takenori began telling his story, his voice heavy with regret.

A Brief Phone Call

When the earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, Takenori, who worked as a delivery driver, was in central Sendai heading his van back to the department store after finishing a regular round of clients. Unnerved by the heavy shaking that rattled the very frame of his car, he immediately called his wife, Hitomi. But it was no use no matter how many times he tried. He could see crowds of people milling on the street, looking anxious.

Takenori and his family lived in Hitomi's parents' house in the Idohama neighborhood of Sendai. He knew that at this time in the afternoon Hitomi would most likely be at home with their four-month-old son, Kyosuke, as would Hitomi's mother and younger brother. On the radio the announcer was warning repeatedly that the massive quake, centered off the coast of Miyagi, had measured over 8 on the Richter scale and that there was a risk of a tsunami hitting the coast very soon.

Takenori was alarmed. Their house in Idohama lay only three hundred meters or so from the water. He had no idea how large the tsunami was going to be, but with the sea so near there could very well be some damage. Their family owned a car, so as long as they hurried they would be able to get away if nothing else, Takenori thought as he punched redial over and over. By this time the announcer was already reporting that the tsunami had reached Ayukawahama on the tip of the Oshika Peninsula further up at the northern end of the bay. Estimated wave height: six meters. More than anything he had to get his family to run.

So Takenori kept trying to reach his wife's cell phone from where he was at the department store. His daughter, Mai, was probably still at school, but there he imagined she would be safe. Although small, Higashi-Rokugo Elementary was built of reinforced concrete and tall enough at two stories. As long as she was at school, he didn't need to worry.

Then, miraculously, his call connected. Trying not to let his urgency get the better of him, Takenori informed his wife that a tsunami was on the way. "What?" cried Hitomi in surprise. The TV was not working and she had heard no emergency tsunami broadcasts, either. She seemed to have no idea what was going on. Takenori pressed his point: "The tsunami's already reached Ayukawahama, so start running right this minute."

"All right, I will," Hitomi replied earnestly despite having been caught off guard. It was ten minutes after three when she ended their call. Please, don't waste another moment, Takenori prayed as he switched off the call on his side.

"?But they didn't make it," Takenori told me in a flat voice. Unable to return to his family that day, he rushed on March 12 to where Mai had been evacuated at Rokugo Middle School.

Hitomi's body was discovered three days later in Sanbonzuka, about 1.5 kilometers from their home. Her father had been away from the house and was spared, but her mother went missing and the brother's remains turned up on April 1.

Four-month-old Kyosuke was found with his mother, still clutched in her arms.

Takenori's words were quiet as he recounted the events bit by bit. For a while I could not bring myself to take notes. My fingers seemed to have lost their strength and the writing blurred in front of my eyes.

"Hitomi seems to have tried to run with all four of them together?her mother, her brother, Kyosuke, and herself, in the brother's car," Takenori continued after noting that from here on he was guessing from later evidence. "The brother didn't have his car keys in his pocket when he was found. He always kept them there, so I'm sure they must have been in the ignition. The tsunami probably struck the four of them from behind as they were trying to get away by car."

The tsunami had not reached Wakabayashi and Natori until a little before four, easily a half hour after they had ended their call. Had Hitomi jumped into the car right away, everyone would have been saved. So what went wrong? "I'm pretty sure I know," Takenori murmured.

I started to ask what he meant by that, but Takenori hurried on as if to interrupt. "I lost my own family too. My parents and brother in Kesennuma. It was late March when I found out."

His father had a bad liver and was in a wheelchair, while his younger brother suffered from severe epilepsy and had difficulty walking. They and Takenori's mother lived in the Osawa neighborhood of Kesennuma only half a kilometer inside the northern border of Miyagi Prefecture. Their house was less than five minutes' walk from the sea. As reports of the damage filtered in and he failed to get in touch with his family, Takenori grew to expect the worst, and the worst was indeed what greeted him once he made his way to Osawa. His mother had been found wearing her gloves. Since the only time she put gloves on was to push her husband's wheelchair, Takenori surmised that the tsunami had taken them while she had been hurrying away with his disabled father and brother.

All told, Takenori had lost thirteen relatives to the tsunami?his own wife and son and two of his wife's family in Idohama, the three members of his family in Kesennuma, and six others on his and Hitomi's sides. "I'm sure plenty of other families have had a hard time too, but I think mine has been hit a little too rough," Takenori confided, his voice dazed.

"I can't help wondering whether we're being punished for something. I can't think why else our family was hit in two separate places. I was able to get Hitomi on the phone?but still she didn't make it. If only she had run right after the call, in terms of time she should have been able to escape. That's what really gets me . . . I'd caused nothing but trouble to my wife over the years, so I feel I can't apologize to her enough for what happened." Behind Takenori's words I could sense there flickered some circumstance surrounding his wife's tragedy that he was still leaving untold.

Through this time Mai had been studying the brand-new pink school backpack she had just received, flipping the flap open and closed, open and closed. Rereading her essay carefully, I realized she had written nothing about her mother's and brother's deaths. Was she still not able to deal with her loss?

I raised the point with Takenori, who took the page in hand. "She was probably trying to say it all through the sentence 'My dear things were swept away,'" he replied. "It's true we lost our house and a lot of other things besides. I guess she didn't write about it straight out because . . . well . . . maybe she doesn't want to worry me. Mai's been acting much stronger about this than I have. She cheers me up and almost never mentions her mother. Inside, though, I'm sure Mai misses her terribly. I'm so much more of a mess right now?to be honest I'm just barely getting by because Mai's there to encourage me. Sometimes when I'm just hopelessly down she'll come to me and say, 'It'll be all right, Daddy, you'll get through.' She truly has saved me."

Still, Takenori recalled the time the two of them had gone to cremate Hitomi and Kyosuke. He had told Mai, "Mommy and Kyosuke are up in heaven now with the stars in the sky. They'll always be watching over you."

"You mean they're dead?" she had asked. "You said they would come back. You said both Mommy and Kyosuke would come back no matter what." And then she had started to cry.

There was still much that I wanted to ask Takenori, but conditions then made it difficult for us to continue. It was approaching dinnertime, and in any case we were not yet at the right stage to go into sensitive details. So I decided to take my leave after promising a later meeting.

Mai was slated to start school again in two days' time. When I asked her whether she was looking forward to it, she took a glance in her father's direction, then nodded.

(Translated by Chikako Imoto)