Japanese residents try to get home; thousands of displaced quake victims in makeshift shelters

March 13, 2011

Yasunori Takahashi was just trying to get home. The 58-year-old Fujitsu employee was in Sendai last week on a business trip. He boarded the fast-moving bullet train Friday morning, eager to return to Toyko and his wife and two children.

“Then everything started shaking,” he said of the earthquake that rocked the country Friday, prematurely halting his train ride home and dealing a devastating series of aftershocks with which Takahashi and much of Japan is still trying to sort.

“They told us the train would not continue and everybody was responsible for themselves,” he said. “So we left.”

Takahashi made the brief walk to the nearest station and is now stranded about 135 miles north of Tokyo in Fukushima, a city with a population of less than 300,000. More than two days later, the area is still reeling from the consequences of the deadly earthquake. In Fukushima, more than 1,100 people were unaccounted for, according to Kyodo News. Many others have been left homeless. Most of the city’s electricity was restored Friday, though running water is nearly impossible to find.

Takahashi is one of thousands of Japanese making his home at a make-shift evacuation center. Without train service or working bus lines, Takahashi has no way home. He’s resting his head for the time being in the judo gymnasium at Tachibana High School.

There were more than 800 people who called the school home shortly after the earthquake struck, but the population has since shrunk to about 100 as most have found other accommodations. Dozens of similar shelters have been established across the region for the thousands of displaced earthquake victims, most providing a roof, food and water.

Tachibana has evacuees spread across two gymnasiums. The judo gym -- with its space heaters and judo mats doubling as mattresses -- is the coveted spot. At one end of the room, a radio blares earthquake updates and at the other, a laptop streams television news reports.

The temporary residents describe a “boring” daily routine. They swap their tales of woe. Wait for the next meal. And plot their way to other accomodations. The gym is dimly lit, mostly quiet and judo mats blanket much of the floor. Shoes are left at the front door, and water is brought in buckets at a time, much of it drawn from a nearby river by firefighters. Some of the elderly patients require IVs or wheelchairs and a few small children sprint from one end of the gym to the other.

The evacuees visit convenience stores to purchase newspapers, magazines and books, which are quickly circulated around the gym. Mostly, they wait for signs of hope that life might be normal again soon.

Across the gym from Takahashi, Fumie Ishijima read a children’s book to her four-year-old daughter, Erika. The conditions aren’t ideal, but Ishijima, 39, was grateful to be with family.

She had just picked up Erika from preschool Friday when Japan started to tremble. “It wouldn’t stop shaking,” Ishijima said.

Ishijima shielded her daughter with a mattress and a pillow and then sprinted outside as soon as the earthquake finished. They were safe, but their home was not. The seven-floor apartment building suffered shattered windows and serious structural damage. Ishijima couldn’t close the doors and could even see a long beam of light poking through a crack in one wall.

Her family-- and four dozen others from the apartment building-- is temporarily relocated to the high school while inspectors determine whether the building can be salvaged.

“At the least, we are together,” she said.

Unlike Ishijima, many evacuees already know they’ve lost their homes and they’re now waiting for the government to establish temporary housing. In the Fukushima area, other evacuees lived within a 20-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and were required to evacuate.

Tachibana is at least twice that distance and most of its temporary residents are here because they’re either stranded or their homes suffered structural damage and are not safe while aftershocks continue to rock the area multiple times day.

Mitsue Suzuki, 57, arrived in Fukushima last week to visit her mother-in-law, Mitsuko, 84, whose home suffered irreparable damage in the quake. Suzuki is from Yokohoma, about 30 minutes south of Tokyo, and isn’t sure how she and her husband will return home. While the Suzukis drove to the shelter, getting home is a bigger problem. Gas is scarce and the stations that do have working pumps are limiting the amount that customers can purchase.

So as they wait for resources to return, the Suzukis spend their time at Tachibana, eating rice and bread three times a day and taking a stroll through the neighborhood each afternoon.

On the next judo mat, Takahashi sat, reading a manga book, waiting for train service to resume so he could rejoin his family in Tokyo. He wore the same sweater vest, dress slacks and gold watch that he took on his business trip to Sendai. His suit jacket was carefully folded, atop his briefcase on one corner of the mat.

“Hopefully, I will be home soon,” said Takahashi, a field coordinator for Fujitsu.

He misses his children, desperately wants to bathe and can’t wait to again eat meat. “Maybe I will at least lose some weight,” he said.

Takahaski’s family and his bosses know he’s safe. But no one knows when he’ll be able to return to Tokyo.

“I just want to go home,” he said.

Rick Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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