A fisherman’s sad tale

March 2, 2012

By Yuriko Nakao

Seaweed grower Takaaki Watanabe took to the sea in his boat before the massive tsunami roared into the northeastern Japanese town of Minamisanriku, becoming one of a lucky few to save the vessel essential for their livelihood.

But back on shore the raging waters of March 11 swept away his wife, his mother and his house, built on land in his family for 13 generations, though his three teenaged daughters managed to survive.

“At that time, I wasn’t sure whether I could actually resume the cultivation (farming seaweed, scallops and oysters). I had no way of knowing my future,” he said recently.

Now, nearly a year later, the 48-year-old Watanabe has lost 5 kg and four teeth, but is starting to see tentative signs of rebirth as the result of his hard work since the massive wave touched off by the 9.0 magnitude offshore earthquake destroyed a vast swathe of his town, one of the hardest hit.

Much of this is due to the new – and still unusual – measures he and other fishermen have taken to preserve their livelihood: banding together to work in small groups rather than alone or in family units, as was always traditional.

Fishing, a mainstay for many of the communities along the northeastern coast, was hit especially hard by the tsunami. Port facilities, fish processing plants and the frames out in bays used for raising oysters and other seafood were all destroyed.

Only 5.8 percent of fishing boats in the region survived, according to the figures of the municipal office.

Watanabe and fellow survivors from the town’s Shizugawa district worked from May to December to clear rubble from the shoreline and under the water, but even once that was done few had the financial stability to start business for themselves. All had lost the places where they worked and many had lost homes, fishing boats and family members as well.

They decided to create a guild for cooperative farming of various kinds of seafood, including seaweed, oysters and scallops. “By working together, productivity is likely to double and this allows us to cut costs as well,” Tadayoshi Sugawara, a fellow member of the guild said.

There are other benefits as well. “What’s best about this new way of working is that I get to share light moments with them,“ Watanabe said.

DAY OF DISASTER

That kind of relief is badly needed. Haunted by what happened on the day of the disaster, it took Watanabe a long time to be able to speak of it at all.

When the quake hit, he and his wife and mother were preparing to box their seaweed at their working place, situated in front of the ocean. Once the shaking subsided, his wife Yukiko said she wanted to return to their home and make sure all was safe there, while he – suspecting there might be a tsunami – decided to take his boat, worth $250,000, offshore. He fully expected to return in several hours after what he thought would be at most the kind of small, not very harmful, tsunami the region has seen in recent years.

Before he left, he told his mother to tell Yukiko that they should both evacuate to higher ground just in case. But as he waited offshore, it didn’t take long before he knew that this time was very different.

“When I started to see debris such as fishing materials, a refrigerator, a bathtub, I soon realized that scope of the tsunami had been massive,” he said.

Since it was starting to get dark, he decided to wait until the next morning before heading back to shore. He tried to call his family, but his mobile phone didn’t work, and the radio in his boat was broken. With all electricity in the town out, the only visible light was the glow from raging fires in Kesennuma, a city to the north.

“I knew that my house would be completely gone, but I just hoped that my wife and mother had evacuated and that our daughters were safe as well,” Watanabe said.

The next morning, he maneuvered through a maze of debris to reach the shore, where his home and workplace had completely vanished. He called his wife and mother’s names, but there was no reply.

Later, he would hear from neighbors that Yukiko had last been seen using a forklight to move their fishing equipment to higher ground when she was swept away by the tsunami. It took more than a month to find their bodies.

After much thought, he finally came to the conclusion to continue as a fisherman.

“I asked myself many times if I made the right decision to go offshore and save the boat. But Yukiko worked as hard as she could to save our livelihood. She was very hard-working and had a never-give-up attitude,” he said.

Among Watanabe’s new challenges was taking care of his three daughters – aged 17,14 and 11 — by himself.

Now settled in temporary housing, its walls hung with posters of teenage pop groups, Watanabe’s days are a busy rush of cooking, washing dishes, doing laundry, attending school events and shuttling his daughters to a train station 20 minutes away both morning and evening. On top of that, he is working.

“I had never done house chores before, and I still haven’t gotten used to it,” he said, sitting in a room cluttered with his daughters’ clothes. “Still, maybe it’s good that I am busy all the time, because it keeps me from thinking deeply.”

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