Photographers' Blog

The place that adults fear

March 12, 2012

By Toru Hanai

March 11 is here again in Japan.

A year after the tsunami devastated Higashi Matsushima city in Miyagi, seven-year-old Wakana Kumagai visited the grave of her father Kazuyuki with her mother Yoshiko, brother Koki, and her grandparents.

I first met Wakana last April, just weeks after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and huge tsunami devastated Japan’s northeast Pacific coast. The school year begins in April here in Japan, and Wakana was carrying her new, shiny red school backpack as she visited her father at a temporary graveyard that housed those who died from the tsunami. She gracefully bowed to her dad, showing off her new bag and her dress she wore for the first grader’s ceremony as if she were at a ball, and told him that she just attended her school for the first time. Her graceful bow struck my heart.

The next time I saw Wakana was on September 11, half a year after the disaster. Seeing her pray at the spot where her father’s car was found, Wakana looked like she had grown up a little bit. I heard that she was writing letters to her father, saying “Daddy, I want to see you but there’s nothing I can do about it, right?”, then placing them in an urn containing her fathers’ ashes, which was still at their house because there were not enough spots for graves. Her message for her father sank into my mind.

And that day came again.

On March 11, Wakana clasped her little hands together in front of her father’s grave that the family had finally managed to build in November after waiting for months. A siren rang from afar, letting people know that it was 2:46 p.m. – the very moment that the earthquake struck and changed the fate of so many, including Wakana and her father.

It has been a year since then.

That day a year ago, Wakana’s mother Yoshiko received a call from her husband. “The tsunami is coming. Take the kids and evacuate to the elementary school. I’ll follow you guys shortly.”

They waited for him to arrive in the snow, but he never did. Four days later, he was found dead near the school his family was at. He was 31.

After visiting the grave, they went to visit the spot near the sea where their house used to be. The pile of rubble had been cleared completely, and a mere foundation of what used to be a house remained, as slight proof that someone did once live there.

But Higashi Matsushima city has decided that this area should no longer be a residential neighborhood due to safety concerns.

“I want to go back,” Wakana shouted in tears after Yoshiko told her a week ago that they will not be able to live near the sea anymore.

“When will we go back?” Wakana still wants to go back to that place, the place where adults fear to return because it reminds them of the tsunami, her mother said.

“It was the place where she grew up in. It was the place where she spent time with her dad who she loved so much. If the house is rebuilt there, maybe her dad will come back. If she goes back by the sea, maybe everything will be the same as before — I think she feels that way,” said Yoshiko, Wakana’s mother.

“But it has been a year and I want closure. I plan to stop coming back here. We can only live in a new place and move forward.”

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