This past week was my first trip back to northeastern Japan since the immediate aftermath of the tsunami that left 20,000 people dead and missing in March. Even though I’d been to the region before and seen it at its worst, the scale of the damage is still staggering. You never get used to the sight of people’s homes, cars and lives torn from their places and left in silent piles somewhere else.
But amid the detritus there are also inspiring tales of survival, and of moving on.
I met Yoshimi Kikuchi this weekend standing on the flat patch of land near Sendai airport where his family’s two-storey home had stood until the tsunami swept it away.
Like many who lived in the low-lying areas near Japan’s Pacific Coast, Mr. Kikuchi and his family had only a few minutes to react between the massive 9.1-magnitude earthquake and the giant tsunami that followed. As sirens wailed, Mr. Kikuchi’s wife, son and daughter-in-law evacuated to the second floor of a nearby steel factory. As the tsunami waters rose they were forced to punch through the ceiling to the third floor as the second floor rapidly flooded. They made it, somehow.
Mr. Kikuchi’s own escape was even more harrowing. A few steps slower in leaving his home, and underestimating the size of the tsunami, he first sought to survive by climbing on top of a truck. It was no help as the wave, which reached 14 metres high in some areas, swept him away like a toy.
But Mr. Kikuchi fought, literally swimming against the tide. He eventually grabbed onto the branches of a nearby tree and clung to it, and life, as the wave carried away everything in sight – homes, cars, people and trees less sturdy that the one his arms were wrapped around. The only thing he could see was the steel factory, giving him hope that his family might also survive if he did.
Astonishingly, Mr. Kikuchi – whose thin and muscular build is at odds with his long career behind a desk as a corporate “salaryman”– held on for 14 hours, from 3 p.m. that day until dawn the morning after. Then, with the waters having receded, he made his way to the badly damaged factory and his family.
“When I was a child, I used to often swim in rivers. That saved me,” he said simply. “It was scary, but I just went by instinct. As long as I wasn’t hit by anything, I knew I would be fine.”
The kicker is that Mr. Kikuchi is 69-years-old. And that he was back at his property on Sunday because he was getting ready to rebuild his home in the same place, if the Japanese government will let him.
Working by hand, he has already replanted his small garden of bonsai trees and is now working on the brick front walk. All he wants now is permission to put his life back the way it was.
The Japanese government is hesitating. An already slow-moving bureaucracy has come to a stop over the emotionally charged question of whether to rebuild in low-lying coastal areas like the neighbourhood around Sendai airport.
“I just want to know one way or the other. If I can’t rebuild here then I can’t rebuild here. Right now we’re in limbo,” Mr. Kikuchi told me, leaning on his garden hoe.
He said his wife is opposed to what he’s doing, terrified that if they rebuild again by the sea, won’t be as lucky if another tsunami hits. But Mr. Kikuchi is carrying on until someone tells him he can’t.
“I’d like to rebuild it just the way it was. We have nowhere else to go. This is our place.”