By Richard Lloyd Parry, from Ghosts of the Tsunami, which was published this month by MCD. Parry is the Asia editor of the Times of London. On the afternoon of Friday, March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake occurred off the coast of northeastern Japan, generating tsunami waves and killing nearly 16,000 people.
Naomi lived with four generations of her husband’s family in the village of Yokogawa. The house’s oldest occupant, her husband’s grandmother, was 101; Naomi’s younger daughter, Sae, was two and a half. At the moment of the earthquake, Naomi was in Sae’s bedroom putting the girl to sleep. The fast, vertical motion, she told me, was like being inside a cocktail shaker. By the time the shocks dissipated, the house was an obstacle course of books, furniture, and broken glass. Naomi’s six-year-old son, Toma, was trapped in another room, its door blocked by fallen objects. It took her half an hour to free him as the walls and floor flexed and wobbled in the aftershocks.
Downstairs, the house was in even greater disarray. Naomi’s father-in-law, Mr. Hiratsuka, who held a high office in the local neighborhood association, was taking stock of the situation outside.
When he returned, Naomi was preparing to go to Okawa Primary School, in the nearby village of Kamaya, to collect her twelve-year-old daughter, Koharu. “I had no doubt that the school was okay,” she said. “But it had been such a strong quake, I thought I ought to pick her up.” Mr. Hiratsuka resisted this idea, for reasons that were obscure. “He said, ‘This is not the moment.’ I didn’t know exactly what he meant.” The old man had walked around the village; Naomi realized later that he must have looked over the bank and observed the condition of the river. But he was a man who rarely felt the need to explain his decisions, certainly not to a daughter-in-law. “I think he was in a panic, although he didn’t show it,” she said. “He’s the kind who keeps his thoughts to himself.”
Naomi sent a text message to her husband but received no reply, and then the network went down. There was no electricity and therefore no television. Even the municipal loudspeakers, which broadcast information in times of emergency, were silent. It was snowing. “I remember thinking about Koharu stuck at the school, and I thought that it must be so cold there,” Naomi said. “I was glad that I’d told her to put on an extra layer of underwear.” In the absence of any news — good or bad — about the state of the wider world, all she could think of was to stay inside and tend to those members of the family who were safe at home.
Shortly before dusk, old Mr. Hiratsuka announced that he was going out again. His intention was to walk downriver and retrieve a radio from the hut at his nearby allotment.
The town of Yokogawa was untouched by the disaster that was taking place. The high embankment and the bend in the river had shielded it from the water. But on the far side of the jutting hill, five and a half miles from the sea, Mr. Hiratsuka found himself on a road rinsed by the ocean. As he walked, a surge broke the river’s edge and covered the asphalt. It tugged at his feet, and then at his ankles and knees, and before he understood what was happening he had lost his footing and was flailing in currents of black water. Had he not become painfully, but securely, entangled in a tree, which held him fast while the water drained away, he would have certainly drowned.
He staggered back home past the bend in the river, without his radio. “He was upset,” Naomi remembered. “He didn’t say so, but perhaps that was the moment when he understood what had happened.”
The following morning, Naomi persuaded her father-in-law to make an effort to reach the school. They drove to a point where the road disappeared into the water. A group of people had gathered there; some of them seemed to be crying. Mr. Hiratsuka told Naomi to stay in the car and strode over to investigate. He came back a few minutes later; the terseness of his replies suggested that he hadn’t found out much. Naomi was not especially worried. Like everyone else, she had heard the report that two hundred children and local people had been cut off by water at Okawa Primary School, awaiting rescue. She was preoccupied with the burden of feeding and cleaning at home. “The children were scared by the aftershocks,” she said. “And the old people were in a dither. All I can remember was cooking. When the time came to go out and find food and water, my mother-in-law and father-in-law did that. I was at home taking care of the children, and cooking and cooking again, morning, noon, and night.”
On Sunday morning, two of Naomi’s friends, the parents of children at Okawa Primary School, stopped by to say that they were going to make another attempt at getting through. Would Naomi like to come? She badly wanted to go with them — but who would look after the two other children in her absence? Her father-in-law had a solution: She would stay at home, and he would go instead.
He returned at lunchtime.
“What happened?” asked Naomi.
“We got to the school,” he said.
“How was it?”
“There were several bodies of children there. But not Koharu. I could not find Koharu. I heard that a few of the children survived and went to Irikamaya. But Koharu was not there.”
Naomi found herself unable to speak.
“We have to accept this,” Mr. Hiratsuka said. “You need to give up hope. The important thing now is to look after the children who are still alive.” With that, the conversation was over.
Naomi told me: “That was the moment when I knew that Koharu was not alive. But I couldn’t show my grief. Mr. Hiratsuka is a very strict, controlled person. He is not the kind of man who allows his natural feelings to show. He had lost his granddaughter. I know that he may have felt very sad, but he contains his feelings. Nonetheless, if he found me in a state of sadness, he should have refrained from saying words that would hurt me. But he did not refrain.”
Naomi’s mother-in-law had heard the exchange and stood nearby, weeping. Mr. Hiratsuka scolded his wife and ordered her to quell her tears.
Naomi was an English teacher. She spoke the language well, when she tried, with a clear American accent. Yet she lacked confidence, and in our conversations she used Japanese. Describing the events following the disaster, she talked fast and fluently, with sharp, emphatic gestures. But when I asked her about herself, she hesitated and seemed ill at ease.
She had grown up in Sendai, a city north of Tokyo, and studied at a university in Okinawa, the chain of beautiful subtropical islands far to the south of the Japanese mainland. She went to school filled with excitement and aspirations, but came away disappointed. “I have Okinawan blood, but I had never lived there,” she said. “I wanted to study the old Okinawan language and learn Okinawan dance. But I accomplished less than half of that.” After graduation, she left the sunny south and returned to the cold northern territory of her birth.
Of all the Okawa mothers I met, Naomi was the most clear-sighted, even in the intensity of grief. Many of the people I spoke with experienced the tragedy of the tsunami as formless, black and ineffable. But in Naomi’s telling, it was glittering and sharp and appallingly bright. This clarity was the opposite of consoling. It left nowhere to hide.
In all the time I spent with Naomi, I never went to her home. Her father-in-law did not care for journalists, and she didn’t want to upset him unnecessarily. We would meet at the school and drive back up the road toward Ishinomaki to talk in a restaurant.
Naomi’s husband, Shinichiro, arrived home on Monday. Like his wife, he was a teacher at a junior high school in Ishinomaki, which had become a refuge for a thousand people made homeless by the tsunami. His presence diluted the authority of his father and made it okay for Naomi to leave the house. With Shinichiro, she drove down the road as far as the waters allowed. There she met the mother of another girl from Okawa Primary School, who told them that she had just identified her own daughter at the gymnasium of a high school upriver. She thought she might have seen Koharu’s body there too.
The Hiratsukas drove inland to the gymnasium mortuary. More and more bodies were coming in, and the place was in the grips of bureaucratic confusion. There were papers to be filed, and incoming bodies had to be examined by a doctor and formally logged, a process that sometimes took days. Naomi and Shinichiro had young children and needy old people back at home; they couldn’t wait. They filled out the necessary documents and left.
The following day, Shinichiro left his family and went back to his school in the city to help with the care of the refugees there. His wife did not question the decision. None of his colleagues would have reproached Shinichiro if he had walked away from his school to look for his child’s body, but no self-respecting Japanese teacher could have done so with an easy conscience.
Shinichiro came home whenever he felt able. When he did, he and Naomi went to the gymnasium. There were two hundred bodies there by the end of the week. “They were laid out on blue tarpaulins,” she said. “A lot of them were people I knew. There were parents of pupils of mine. There were classmates of Koharu’s. I was able to say, ‘I know him, and I know him, and I know her.’ But none of them was Koharu.”
After ten days they decided to go to Okawa Primary School to see what was happening there. The water had receded to the point that they could drive and wade to Kamaya. Rough paths had been cleared by the volunteer firemen, who were using a digger to part the debris. But rubble still overwhelmed the school buildings, and on top of the clogged mud was a thin layer of snow. Next to the traffic island at the entrance to the village, bodies were laid out on blue vinyl sheets to be washed before being taken to the mortuary. Half a dozen mothers lingered there.
Naomi looked at the faces of the people on the blue sheets, hoping to recognize Koharu. Her daughter had unruly, shoulder-length hair and a plump, humorous face. Naomi thought about the last moments they had spent together. Koharu was about to enter her final week of primary school; she and Naomi had discussed what she would wear for the graduation ceremony. Most of the other girls favored jackets and tartan skirts, in emulation of pop stars. But Koharu had chosen a hakama, an elegant traditional skirt with high pleats worn over a kimono. The skirt had been Naomi’s, but Koharu was already almost as tall as her mother, and it required little alteration.
Naomi came back to the school whenever she could. Time, as she experienced it, was passing in an unfamiliar way. There was so much to do for the family at home, and doing it was such an effort. She would spend hours lining up for petrol and food, drive home, drop off her supplies, and then drive to the mortuary or wade through the black water to the school to scrutinize the dead. One day she found one of Koharu’s shoes, and later her backpack. Bodies were still coming out of the debris at the rate of several a day. She knew it was only a matter of time before her daughter came out, too.
In the beginning, the search for the missing children had been performed by local people, who cleared away what rubble they could, and by the police, who supervised the processing of the dead. Then came soldiers from the Japan Self-defense Forces. At first their arrival had been a cause for optimism, as the rubble encasing the school was removed piece by piece. But the longer the search for the children went on, the more the scale of the task was exposed.
In the early days, children had been found all around, thrown up against the hollows of the hill — thirty-four of them in one soft heap. Then they began to come out in smaller groups of one or two, and then the flow diminished to a trickle. By late March, some thirty of the seventy-four missing children had still not been found; a fortnight later, there were just ten missing. At the end of April, four children were recovered in quick succession from a pond that had supplied water to the rice fields of Kamaya. Some of them were five feet below the water and mud, beyond the reach of even a bamboo pole. It had become obvious that to search thoroughly, the whole area would first have to be drained. So mechanical pumps were acquired, and a generator that had to be fueled around the clock. Eventually, bodies began to turn up in Fuji Lake, two miles away, on the other side of the hill.
In May, a doctor took swabs from the mouths of Naomi, Shinichiro, and their children, in order to isolate Koharu’s DNA. At the end of the month, parts of a small body washed up in Naburi, a fishing village on the Pacific coast, four miles from the school, across lagoons and mountains. The condition of the remains made it impossible to identify them by sight; it took three months for the laboratory to establish that they belonged not to Koharu but to another missing girl.
Finally, three months after the tsunami, the Self-defense Forces withdrew. The search operation, which had formerly consisted of ten earthmovers and hundreds of men, shrank to a single team of policemen and a man named Masaru Naganuma, who operated the digger. With her children back in school, Naomi was able to come to Okawa every day. But by this stage, there wasn’t much she could usefully do. When the steel arm of Masaru’s digger uncovered something, they would wade out and examine it. They found mattresses and motorcycles and wardrobes, but no more remains. They tidied the shrine in front of the school and threw away the dead flowers. Sometimes a second digger would work in tandem with the first. The machines moved side by side, their long yellow limbs waving and plunging.
An idea was taking form in Naomi’s mind. She consulted Masaru about it. “Why not try?” he said. In late June, she attended a weeklong course at a training center near Sendai. All the other participants were men. They showed no curiosity about Naomi, and she felt no urge to explain herself. At the end of the week she came away with a license to operate earthmoving equipment, making her one of the few women in Japan to possess such a qualification. Immediately, she borrowed a digger of her own and began sifting the mud in search of Koharu.
Her father-in-law strongly opposed this development. He argued that operating heavy machinery was dangerous for a woman, and that her place was at home, looking after her children, her husband, and her in-laws. Naomi listened patiently to what he had to say. Then she went back to digging.