Japan's tsunami survivors suffer in silence three years after disaster

Wed Mar 5, 2014 4:14pm EST
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By Mari Saito

RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan (Reuters) - Hatsuko Ishikawa never got a final look at her 36-year-old son, a firefighter, before he was swept away by the tsunami that devastated Japan's northeast coast three years ago.

Ishikawa only heard his voice, bellowing from his fire engine as he sped towards the sea to try to evacuate people before the wave struck. As the truck raced past, Ishikawa heard her son call out to her grandson, telling the boy to evacuate to higher ground. Then he was gone.

She is haunted by what happened and tormented by what might have been.

"I blame myself over and over again, asking myself why I didn't stop him," said Ishikawa, 65, as she sat in the spartan shelter where she has lived since that day.

Small towns across Japan's northeastern coast are rebuilding but far from healing three years since a massive earthquake set off a tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people. In Rikuzentakata, where one in 10 residents died, nearly everyone lost a friend or family member on March 11, 2011.

The resilience of Rikuzentakata's tsunami survivors was embodied by a lone surviving tree, dubbed the "miracle pine". But the tree died last year and a replica stands in its place.

Around 5,000 people, a quarter of the town's population, are still in temporary shelters with their lives on hold. Many like Ishikawa have chosen to suffer alone rather than seek support.

Ishikawa's voice cracked as she described how her husband placed a scarf around their son's neck when they found him in a makeshift morgue. "He looked so cold," she said.   Continued...

The replica of a lone pine tree that survived the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster, now labelled the "miracle pine" as it became a symbol of hope for the region, is seen behind a huge belt conveyor which carries soil and sand from mountains to raise the ground above sea level in Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture, in this February 13, 2014 picture provided by Kyodo. Mandatory credit REUTERS/Kyodo