With or without you
By Yuriko Nakao
One photo of a young woman, wrapped in a beige blanket and standing in front of a pile of debris, became one of the iconic images right after Japan’s massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake, which triggered huge tsunamis that devastated a wide swathe of northern Japan.
Reuters, along with other major agencies, picked up the photograph run by Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, shot by Tadashi Okubo, a photographer with the paper. The image was published extensively around the world, and many people came to know her as the woman wrapped in a blanket.
Her name is Yuko Sugimoto. She is 29 and the mother of a five-year-old boy and was born and raised in Ishinomaki, where the photograph was taken. Around 3,800 people perished in Ishinomaki alone, the highest death toll for any individual city.
When the photograph was taken at 7:00 a.m. on March 13, she was staring in the direction of her son Raito’s kindergarten, which was surrounded by piles of rubble and still partly submerged by seawater. She had been searching for him since the quake hit two days before, but in vain.
“At that point, I thought there was only about a 50 percent chance he was alive,” she recalled.“Some people told me the children at the kindergarten were rescued, but others told me somebody had seen the children swept away by the tsunami.”
Reunited with her husband the day before, they had been making the rounds of evacuation centers – first by car, but then by bicycle, as fuel ran out. Her husband found a boat and made his way towards the kindergarten, but didn’t find anybody there and returned soaking wet.
Somebody handed him a beige blanket as he tried to warm himself in front of a bonfire, the same blanket that Yuko wrapped herself in the morning the photo was taken, as she waited for others to return from searching for their children.
The next day, she and her husband heard the kindergarten children had been rescued by the Japanese military the morning after the tsunami. The head of the kindergarten had evacuated everybody up to the school roof before the tsunami struck, then spent a night up there as the teachers struggled to keep the children from being cold and afraid.