The following are sketches of three people who survived the earthquake and tsunami in Ishinomaki, Japan, last year.
KOICHI OHTSU, age 64
Ishinomaki Senshu University
Koichi Ohtsu considered himself among the lucky ones. He lived on a hill, so his home was not destroyed by the tsunami. He lost no loved ones. He grieved for his city, but not for himself. Still, he felt connected to the disaster, because he didn’t know if the school where he worked — Ishinomaki Senshu University — could survive it. One afternoon about three weeks after the tsunami, Ohtsu met with about a dozen other faculty for an emergency discussion on whether the school could reopen.
It did — about two months late.
When the school year resumed in June (the typical Japanese school year begins April 1), the school still felt a lot like a crisis center. About 700 evacuees slept in one building. The city’s Red Cross hospital was so overwhelmed, it created a makeshift care center on the campus. The university also became ground zero for thousands of volunteers, who camped out in tents on the lawn.
“They stayed until October,” Ohtsu said. “People had come not just from all around Japan, but from all around the world.”
Ohtsu’s job also changed. He taught seven classes, but he was also asked to compile a book about the university’s role in the disaster. Ohtsu spent hours every week gathering documents and photographs and interviewing survivors. The 190-page book — “it’s more like a historical archive,” Ohtsu said — will be published March 11.
The school’s enrollment has fallen in the last year, and students who once commuted now struggle to attend classes, because train service in the region hasn’t been fully restored.
“But I dare say we’re recovering,” Ohtsu said.
STEVE CORBETT, age 26
Japan Exchange and Teaching Program
When the 9.0-magnitude struck off Japan’s northeastern coast last March, Steve Corbett had already lived in Ishinomaki for 1 1/2 years. His teaching contract was up. The California native was about ready to head back to the United States.
But the disaster, as it did for so many, altered those plans.
Because of the tsunami, Corbett’s second-floor apartment was flooded on the first level. And because of radiation leaks at a nuclear plant to the south, Corbett arranged a flight home as the disaster unfolded.
When he returned to Ishinomaki weeks later, most comforts were gone. He moved back into his damaged apartment. He went until June without running water or electricity. No longer was there a grocery store within walking distance. No longer did he even have a neighborhood.
“The entire neighborhood around the corner from my block was leveled, and most of the buildings on my block were rendered useless,” Corbett wrote in an e-mail. “So instead of getting shops back up and running, and getting kids back into the neighborhood school building, they have cleared the property where the shops were, and placed the kids in different schools. Getting back to the way it was before is something that will probably never happen.”
Even so, Corbett, by late summer, decided to spend one more year teaching high school in the city. He felt a new connection to the community and a greater comfort with residents who admired that a foreigner hadn’t abandoned town. Plus, he wanted to see the rebuilding up close.
“It will prove to be one of the better decisions of my life, right up there with initially coming to Japan,” Corbett wrote.
TOSHIKATSU KUMAGAI, age 34
Ishinomaki Hibi Shimbun
In the minutes between the earthquake and tsunami, Toshikatsu Kumagai, a newspaper reporter, headed to a coastal area of a town in chaos. He wanted to take photos of the traffic.
Then he saw the wave.
It was 100 meters away, then 10 meters away, and then he was in it.
He survived by grabbing onto a ship. He feared death. He also thought about his regrets.
“I should have gotten married,” he thought to himself.
After the disaster, both his job and his outlook were different. When he interviewed people who had lost their homes, he felt guilty that his still stood undamaged. When he interviewed the unemployed, he felt guilty that he still had a job. With Ishinomaki’s economy so depleted, his newspaper’s ad revenue shrunk, and the paper published four pages daily, not the usual eight.
“People cheer us up and say we did an excellent job [covering] the disaster,” Kumagai said. “But that goodwill has not helped our subscription rate.”
But Kumagai says he’s become more optimistic, and perhaps more adventurous as well. He recently took his first international trip — a reporting journey to Sumatra to write about an analogous tsunami. Later this month, he plans to participate in a musical performance at a theater in Tokyo — a benefit show to gain attention for the disaster region — even though he says he is “not that good at singing or dancing.”
Kumagai, who is single and lives with his parents, has also committed himself to finding a wife.
“My goal of the next year? I would like to get married,” he said.
— Chico Harlan