Party for baby whose birth saved father from Japan tsunami

Tue Mar 6, 2012 7:01am EST
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By Antoni Slodkowski

MINAMISANRIKU (Reuters) - Searching through piles of bodies after Japan's March 11 tsunami, Kenji Sato was struck by the thought -- he could easily have been one of them, had it not been for his son born earlier that day.

In a fortunate twist of fate, Sato, a wiry descendant of fishermen in his coastal hometown of Minamisanriku, took time off from work to see his third child, Haruse, born at a hospital in a nearby port city.

Hours later, the only thing left of the nursing home where he would usually have been was a skeleton of steel pillars.

Nearly all 70 residents were swept away by the tsunami set off by the 9.0 magnitude offshore earthquake that devastated Minamisanriku, one of the worst-hit towns. Sato and his work mates set about the task of searching for them.

"I just confirmed that my wife and son were safe. Then, I spent days on end identifying bodies, looking for evacuation centers for the elderly," said Sato, 31, surrounded by his four-generation family at their home.

A year on, the Satos, who all survived since their house was built on a hill, are planning a quiet birthday with some cake and ice cream for the child who, his grandmother Kazuko insists, "was born to save us."

Because of Haruse's birth, Kazuko also took the day off from her job at the Minamisanriku town hospital. A boat still perches atop the 5-storey building, a chilling reminder of the height of the walls of water that ripped through the town.

Wave after wave razed the heart of Minamisanriku, killing around 1,300 of its 17,000 residents. Many survivors still live in more than 40 barrack-style temporary housing settlements dotted on the hills around what was once a lively fishing town.   Continued...

Hiromi Sato holds her son, Haruse, as her husband, Kenji Sato, holds a calligraphy with the characters of his son's name and the date he was born during a photo opportunity at their home in Minamisanriku, northeastern Japan, March 3, 2012.  REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao