April 20: Sasaki receives 100 cases of bananas and 10 19-inch televisions.
April 25: Japan’s military searches one final time through the rubble for bodies, green-lighting the start of a less cautious debris-removal process.
April 26: The local high school baseball team practices for the first time since the tsunami, even though 70 half-finished prefab homes squat across the infield.
And now: Sasaki searches the Web with one of his mobile phones, doing preliminary research to buy a new car, a replacement for the Nissan that was destroyed.
‘Looked like hell’
On March 11, after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit, Sasaki had a responsibility. He needed to drive three miles south and lower a floodgate that would block the ocean from a river.
But he never made it. On a curving road, he saw chaos ahead. Cars accelerating. Water cresting. Coastal houses turning into flotsam. Acting on instinct, he turned his car toward the wave — as if to brace for the collision head-on. He thought, “I’m done,” and soon his car was adrift in the surge, nose pointing down, with water penetrating slowly from lower front section. Sasaki’s car drifted over farmland, and he tried to unlatch the front door. It didn’t move. When a piece of debris, lumber or steel, cracked a small section of the back window, Sasaki used his palms to open a larger space and vaulted out. In the next minutes, he held on to whatever rubble he could, before finally grabbing an electrical wire.
Sasaki spent the frigid night with 20 others on a hillside, naked while his clothes dried, and the next morning he saw what had become of his town. The sun rose at 5 a.m. — “a bright red,” Sasaki said, “and I’ll never forget it” — and the rays exposed a smoky plain of nothingness.
“I was looking at the scene for a long time,” Sasaki said. “I thought dying would have been hell. But what I saw looked like hell as well.”
Rebuilding, Sasaki said, will be difficult, and possible only if the town takes small steps. In his wallet, Sasaki carries the saltwater-encrusted bus ticket that was supposed to take him to Tokyo on March 11, departing at 11:50 p.m. from Sendai. He had been planning to take part in a mah-jongg tournament. The classic Chinese table game used to be Sasaki’s favorite hobby, and although he hasn’t played since the disaster, he still thinks about the game and the skills it requires, and these are the things he talked about as he folded the bus ticket back into his wallet.
“Patience,” Sasaki said. “Perseverance. And courage.”
Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.