Witness: Japan tsunami survivors at loss to restore life

Yoko Nishikawa joined Reuters Tokyo bureau 13 years ago, covering economic policy, politics and general news. She moved to the Asia editing desk in Singapore at the end of last year. In the following story she tells of her experience on returning to her homeland to cover the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

By Yoko Nishikawa

TOKYO (Reuters) – “How was it?”

Many people asked me that when I came back to Tokyo from a week reporting in Japan’s tsunami-stricken coastal towns.

I tried to find the proper words to explain, but couldn’t. Instead, faces of people I met on the street and at evacuation centres in the devastated northeast came to mind.

Some sobbed as they thought of loved ones who died and some were grateful for getting food and supplies even though they still had no electricity in near-freezing weather. Some asked me to let the world know what was really happening.

Any words to my friends in Tokyo would sound superficial, I thought.

I visited the tsunami-hit towns of Otsuchi, Rikuzentakata and Kesennuma about 10 days after the 9.0-maginitude earthquake and tsunami it triggered battered the region, leaving about 28,000 people dead or missing.

I had seen television footage of the March 11 tsunami before I went but was overwhelmed by the sheer destruction. It looked surreal, like a Hollywood movie set or a computer-generated image.

Two weeks on, survivors were moving from shock to wondering about their future. They had no place to live, no job, and many were still looking for missing relatives — mostly at morgues.

“Until now, it was just pure fear. But now I can’t sleep as I think about what’s going to happen in the future,” 62-year-old Matsuko Nakamura told me at a packed evacuation center in the town of Rikuzentakata.

Her house, built just a year ago, was wiped out by the tsunami in an instant even though it was quite a distance from the ocean. The tsunami swept as far as 5 km (3 miles) inland from the coast in some places.

“I don’t know what to do. I have no money and I don’t know how much more I can keep going,” Nakamura said.

USELESS, GUILTY

I saw tears falling from her eyes and felt useless and guilty for having a place to stay outside the disaster zone and a hot meal waiting. I felt ashamed for wearing a ski jacket I had brought from Tokyo when many of the displaced were curled up in blankets in the winter chill.

All I could do was spend some time with each person I interviewed. Sometimes that meant I could not get away to talk to other people. But it seemed important to talk as long as possible.

“Thanks for listening to me,” Nakamura said at the end of our conversation, adding that talking had helped. I felt like I was the one who benefited from her generosity.

Hisashi Fujiwara, 65, was one of many survivors trying to restore their own lives while helping others.

He kept busy at an evacuation center in Otsuchi, announcing information to evacuees with a megaphone, but told me quietly that he had to take some time off a few days earlier to cremate his father.

“I have no time to think about my own life,” he said, adding that everyone supported each other at the shelter.

“We have no future in sight.”

As I left the shelter, Fujiwara shook my hands and said he wished we could talk again under different circumstances. “I really hope we would be able to meet again somewhere,” he said.

My colleagues and I went to a small island, also hit hard by the tsunami. We queued up along with residents and their families for a few hours to get seats on a boat that provided islanders with their only link to the outside world.

No one complained that we took some precious seats away from Oshima islanders. Instead, they showed me around the island and explained relief efforts.

“You haven’t eaten lunch, right? Here,” said Hideaki Onodera, visiting his elderly mother at a shelter on the island, handing me a piece of bread.

But Onodera also had a complaint about the panic buying going on in Tokyo and other cities outside the disaster zone.

“Many people in Tokyo are buying so much stuff that supplies won’t reach us,” he said. I thought of the empty shelves I had seen in Tokyo shops.

A few days later, I came back to Tokyo. Shops and train stations were saving energy by dimming lights and not running some escalators but there were no longer any shortages of fuel or food. It almost felt like a different planet.

That night, I took a long bath and all of a sudden it hit me — many people in the disaster zone have not been able to wash with hot water. They must be freezing at night, wondering whether they can ever start new lives.

I felt guilty for leaving them and cried for the first time since the disaster.

(Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Robert Birsel)

Witness: Japan tsunami survivors at loss to restore life