Japan's victims struggle to understand what's happened

By Rick Maese
Tuesday, March 15, 2011

IN SOMA, JAPAN The second his mother takes her eyes off him, the 3-year-old boy darts across the room, a gymnasium near city hall that serves as a temporary home to about 500 newly homeless Japanese. He weaves around the older evacuees and leaps over small stacks of blankets. Yurie Tanaka quickly gives chase, smiling the entire way.

In a sense, Tanaka figures, little Somo and his 2-year-old sister, Mao, saved her life. Tanaka had walked out the door Friday just a few minutes before the tsunami washed over her home town of Minamisoma, about 25 miles south of Soma and among the areas hit hardest by last week's natural disasters.

"If I hadn't gone to pick them up from preschool, I would have been swallowed whole by waves," said Tanaka, 25.

That relief has carried her through the days that followed. But for Tanaka and thousands of other victims of the devastating earthquake and tsunami, processing all that has happened has not been easy. And with regular aftershocks shaking the nation and the looming threat of problems related to Japan's unstable nuclear power plants, fear is still the overwhelming emotion for many.

Tanaka was able to return to Minamisoma over the weekend to check on her home. Seven people lived there, including the parents and grandparents of her husband, a fisherman. The house had been in his family for 40 years and, as happened to many home owners in the city of about 75,000 people, it had vanished.

"It was like nothing was ever there," she said. "I couldn't cry. The shock was too big. I didn't know how to react."

The aftermath

The people in Soma's largest shelter don't bat an eye when a strong aftershock shakes the building. But when the intercom starts blaring, they listen intently. The announcements rarely bring good news. One on Monday afternoon invited anyone interested in surveying bodies, so they could identify any family members, to report to the front of the building and board a bus.

Although more than three days have passed since the 9.0-magnitude quake, the threat of danger is ever present.

Shinobu Inada, 55, was watching television at home Monday morning when the government issued a tsunami warning and ordered an evacuation. Inada grabbed only her wallet and cellphone and drove her white Honda away from the coast.

She parked alongside highway 115, a winding mountain road that connects Soma with Fukushima, waiting for the threat to pass.

"You just get used to it," she said. "It has always been, 'In the next 30 years, there will be a big earthquake off the coast.' So, in one sense, we have always had fear."

Because of the severity of the earthquake, the people parked on either side of the road along with her did not know when or whether they would return to the homes they had just abandoned.

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