Coping with bitter memories

Kunyo Takahashi

Suzuki-san, 75, lost his house to the tsunami and now sleeps in a primary school auditorium. “Hearts have closed up since the earthquake. Everything has come to a standstill,” he said. “But because it’s been hard, we just have to try that much harder.”
Suzuki has brought the tools of his trade to the emergency shelter and receives work-related faxes there.

He doesn’t know when he can return to living in a house—he hasn’t even been back to his neighbourhood since the tsunami—but he said work is the only way to begin rebuilding.

“The older generation has lived attuned to the seasons—spring, summer, autumn and winter,” Suzuki said.

“We’ve experienced both sweet and bitter. So we know what it takes. I’ve studied life for more than 70 years.”

The centre manager said there were enough supplies, but dinner was still just a ball of rice and an orange.

Suzuki didn’t hear from his brother for nine days. The brother was swept in his car by the tsunami and slammed into a power pole. The surge of water sunk the car underwater, where he sat stuck until three young men noticed and dove in to pry open a door.

He was taken around medical and welfare centres and couldn’t make contact.
“When I heard from him, I thought, ‘Yes, I can do this.’ I don’t want to lose to the earthquake,” Suzuki said.

“All of us have been through a lot.” Mitsuko Kujiwara, 90, has a house near the centre where she usually lives alone. But until her power, water and gas lines are restored, and she can buy enough supplies, taking care of herself isn’t feasible.

“Solitude is another thing. Being alone now right now is chilling,” Kujiwara said.
Still, she wants to return home as soon as she can.

Her neighbour Kuniyo Takahashi is also at the shelter. She too lives alone. “I can’t put words to how frightening the earthquake was,” Takahashi said. “I don’t want to experience something like it ever again.”

She wears a cotton mask even indoors and sits quietly in  a corner. “My legs are still shaking,” she said.

The auditorium is covered with green mattresses, with small bundles of belongings strewn around them. After 11 days, clusters seem to have naturally formed out of the mass of mattresses into dwellings, meagre but with evidence of being lived in.

There are two gas heaters that small groups of evacuees gather around. Nearing bedtime, volunteers pass around small hot bags to keep hands warm.

Tanaka-san, another evacuee, can’t go home out of fear. Shaken by the earthquake, she has had to be prescribed medication to calm down.

The shelter is just one of about 200 in Sendai city alone. The city council runs 112 others for provinces and people with special needs.

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