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Japanese fisherman preparing to reunite with his boat in B.C., four years after tsunami

Andrew Jennings, assistant manager and guide with Spirit Bear Lodge, steers a small fishing boat that washed up from the Japanese tsunami on the shore near Klemtu, B.C. The lodge has restored the boat and has been using it for bear viewing. (John Lehmann/Globe and Mail)

The unsinkable

After more than four years and 7,000 kilometres, a Japanese
scallop fisherman prepares for a reunion with his boat in B.C.
Mark Hume reports

After the earthquake, a 23-metre-high tsunami ripped through the Japanese port town of Ofunato, destroying houses, tumbling cars like toy blocks and capsizing ships in the harbour. Stacks of freight containers were swept off the docks and sent hurtling through the town. People fled up the steep streets around the harbour, and the air was filled with the terrifying screeches of buildings being torn apart.

This was how the great earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, arrived in Ofunato, a town of 41,000 that, through the miraculous journey of one small boat, has become linked to the tiny fishing village of Klemtu, population 450, on British Columbia’s Central Coast.

When the wave of water that rose along coastal Japan that day swept back out to sea, it left more than 15,000 people dead and took almost five million tonnes of debris with it. Lost were about 1,000 vessels, including many of the boats in Ofunato harbour. Most of the debris soon sank, but an estimated 1.4 million tonnes drifted offshore.

Four years later, fragments of the communities shattered in Japan continue to reach North America’s West Coast, raising pollution concerns but also serving as touching reminders of what was lost. Everything from small plastic toy soldiers that washed up on beaches to a 50-metre fishing boat that eventually sank in the Gulf of Alaska has made the crossing. Most of the debris can’t be traced, but occasionally serial numbers allow a connection to be made.

The First nation of Klemtu, B.C., and the home of Spirit Bear Lodge near where a small fishing boat washed up from the Japanese tsunami. (John Lehmann/Globe and Mail)

The day disaster struck Ofunato, where 420 people died, scallop fisherman Kou Sasaki was resting at home after going out at dawn to work on a calm sea.

“At 14:46, the earthquake came out of the blue. That is the beginning of the nightmare,” Mr. Sasaki said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. “I know scale 6 – it’s a shake I have experienced before. What was different this time was the duration of the earthquake. I’ve never had such a long shaking. I thought our house was going to collapse.”

The earthquake in fact was magnitude 9, much stronger than anything Mr. Sasaki, 45, had ever felt before. But somehow his house, high on a hill overlooking the water, survived.

Mr. Sasaki was not spared, however.

“We lost everything,” he told Yoshi Karasawa, a Japanese-Canadian woman from Vancouver who visited him this year.

She saw in his home a shrine with a picture of a young boy and a smiling woman – and felt the emptiness in the rooms. The woman and child weren’t identified to her.

“The conversation just stopped,” she said, recalling the moment when she asked him what had happened. “He doesn’t want to talk about it.… In Japan, you learn not to ask people, ‘How is your family?’”

Tim McGrady, general manager and guide with Spirit Bear Lodge, looks for bears Klemtu, B.C. The lodge has restored a fishing boat washed up on shore for the Japanese tsunami and has been using it for bear viewing. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Too often, in a country where so many died in the tsunami of 2011, the question just leads to tears Ms. Karasawa had sought out Mr. Sasaki after she and her husband, Vancouver developer and philanthropist Michael Audain, had an unusual encounter on a bear-watching expedition in Klemtu, 200 kilometres south of Prince Rupert. There, at Spirit Bear Lodge in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest – famous for its rare white Kermode or “spirit bears” – she’d been asked to look at a small boat salvaged on the coast in 2013.

“The manager came and said, ‘Can you help me find the owner of this boat?’” she said.

The eight-metre boat, battered and encrusted with barnacles, had been found resting on shore with its Yamaha outboard engine still attached. It was towed to Klemtu, cleaned up and put into service for bear-watching trips, with the new name Japanese Drifter. Ms. Karasawa said that when she saw it among the native fishing boats in the harbour, with its Japanese writing on it, she felt she was meeting an old friend.

Ms. Karasawa turned to Kiriko Watanabe, a friend and the assistant curator at West Vancouver Museum, to help track down the boat’s owner.

Ernest Mason in the Big House at the First Nation of Klemtu, B.C. and the home of Spirit Bear Lodge. Ernest Mason found the small fishing boat that washed up from the Japanese tsunami. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

After the tsunami, Ms. Watanabe had helped an acquaintance in the United States find her missing family and so she was familiar with searching Japanese records. She found the boat registered in the municipal office in Ofunato.

Ms. Karasawa called, and municipal officials said they would contact the owner.

Soon she was on the phone to Mr. Sasaki. She made an appointment to visit him, bringing pictures of the boat he called Somatsumaru, or Twin Pines. In Japanese mythology, twin pines are a symbol of a married couple living in harmony as they grow old together.

They sat at Mr. Sasaki’s memorial shrine, and he pinned a picture of his boat on the wall.

“He didn’t say, ‘Wow, wow’ or anything like this. He was very quiet. He said, ‘Thank you very much,’” Ms. Karasawa said. “He said, ‘To see my boat again is like a dream.’”

Mr. Sasaki told her the boat, which he’d had since about 1985, was like a child to him.

“So when he found out the boat survived that’s like a miracle to him. A whole tragedy happened to his life.… He lost lots of friends, family. But he can make new friends in Klemtu,” Ms. Karasawa said.

She and Mr. Audain have arranged for Mr. Sasaki to visit Vancouver this summer, and members of the Kitasoo First Nation are bringing him to Klemtu as a guest of the community.

“I said everybody is waiting for you in Klemtu,” Ms. Karasawa said of the call in which she invited him to Canada. “He was shocked. He said ‘Really? I was just married in April … this is going to be my honeymoon.’”

The trip is an affirmation that life goes on – even after the greatest of tragedies.

In his e-mail to The Globe, which was translated from Japanese, Mr. Sasaki said he was stunned when he first heard the boat had survived.

“Is it really true?” he wrote, describing his reaction to the news Somatsumaru had drifted more than 7,000 kilometres. “It’s unbelievable that the boat had crossed the Pacific and reached the North American continent. I was astonished.”

Mr. Sasaki told Ms. Karasawa that when he was 22 and living in Tokyo, he decided to return to his hometown of Ofunato to help his father run the scallop fishery. Ever since then, working on the sea has been his life. He got a new boat after the tsunami and won’t have his old one returned to him.

Tim McGrady,general manager (left) and Andrew Jennings, assistant manager, with Spirit Bear Lodge tow a small fishing boat that washed up from the Japanese tsunami on the shore near Klemtu, B.C.. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

In his e-mail he described the little boat’s journey as if it were a symbol of the resiliency and faith of the Japanese people who have struggled to rebuild after the devastation of 2011. “There were calm days and there were heavy storm days, and crossing the ocean needed Somatsumaru to be well navigated,” he wrote. “I thought: There is a God, and God has guided this to happen.”

Mr. Sasaki said he’s looking forward to visiting the Kitasoo people, who like the people of Ofunato have lived off the sea for centuries. “I have my heart full of gratitude to Ms. Karasawa, the local people in Klemtu and everyone else who is helping me make this journey. I cherish this opportunity and I will value this forever,” he wrote.

He is expected to make the trip in August.

“I’m really excited,” Tim McGrady, general manager of Spirit Bear Lodge, said of Mr. Sasaki’s pending visit. A native blessing ceremony will be held on the dock to honour the moment when the man and his long-lost boat are together again.

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