(Mainichi Japan) March 21, 2012
Learning what it means to be a journalist through disaster victims
Having reported from areas deeply affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis since immediately after their outbreak, the question of whether I've been able to convey the disaster survivors' reality weighs increasingly more heavily on my mind.
Over the past year, survivors repeatedly told me that their "reality cannot be glossed over with pleasantries" -- words that hit me hard.
Sure, in most of the disaster areas I've seen, there have been countless episodes characterized by warmth and tight bonds.
Without any reservations, I've reported stories of victims supporting each other through their many challenges.
At the same time, however, I witnessed bonds being broken by the triple disasters.
I heard about people who have been kicked out of relatives' homes that they'd taken refuge in, and accusations of some people taking relief supplies all to themselves.
I agonized over whether to report on the negative incidents and sentiments among the survivors I wanted so much to support, and for the most part ended up barely doing so.
The question of how, if at all, exposing the survivors' faults would help the situation, had driven me into a corner. 「被災者のあらを取材して、一体、何の役に立つのか」。
It was at such a time that I was reunited with a certain survivor, and learned the importance of facing head-on the ties that one has lost.
I met Hiroko Sugano, 69, of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, at an evacuation center four weeks after the March 11 quake last year.
She had a friendly smile, and was busily carrying boxes of relief supplies.
In early May, however, when I again visited the same evacuation center, she was no longer there.
She had apparently returned home just a few days earlier.
When I asked another evacuee why Sugano had returned home, the only response I got was, "It's a long story."
It didn't seem like something an outsider like I should pursue any further.
Not long afterwards, Sugano appeared at the evacuation center, asking if it would be all right for her to recharge her cell phone there.
Seeing the same smile she had when I first met her, I felt relieved that she had been able to return home and that things had seemed to work out for her.
In the texts she subsequently sent me with her cell phone, she showed no indication that anything was wrong.
But I'd been naive.
When I visited her in February this year, Sugano told me, "I was literally living by the light of a lantern after I left the evacuation center."
Four years ago, Sugano reached mandatory retirement at her company job, and returned alone to her parents' home, which had been empty.
She struggled to readapt to her hometown, which she had been away from since she left for Tokyo over 40 years earlier. Her ties with relatives and acquaintances there were no longer strong.
It was under such circumstances that the massive earthquake hit.
None of the other evacuees at the evacuation center were willing to take on the task of keeping track of relief supplies and maintaining name lists of the evacuees at the center.
In her years working in the corporate world, Sugano had accumulated a wealth of experience in administrative work.
Figuring that she may be the person for the job, she took on the center's general affairs.
At first, relief supplies were barely delivered to the center.
At one point, Sugano racked her brain over what to do with the seven toothbrushes that had been delivered from the government's disaster countermeasures headquarters, when there were 130 fellow evacuees staying at the center.
Sitting until night in the entryway, where a cold draft blew through, Sugano maintained a name list to keep track of the many people coming and going. Soon, she fell sick.
Sugano returned home, she says, because some fellow evacuees had requested that people whose homes had not collapsed in the temblor or been swept away by tsunami to go home.
With the elimination and merging of evacuation centers, space was at a premium.
Sugano felt dejected, as if her ties to her fellow survivors were being severed.
Back home, with none of the basic lifelines restored, she once again lived by the light of a lantern.
She felt hopeless, and pondered the possibility of taking refuge at a relative's home in the Kanto region.
But she couldn't give up now.
Her fellow survivors, including young brothers who had lost both of their parents and a former classmate who had lost her husband remained at the evacuation center.
She had finally made emotional connections with these local residents.
Life by lantern lasted for two weeks. Until gas and water supplies were restored, Sugano lived on boxed meals from the convenience store.
She also went to visit her fellow survivors at the evacuation center.
Recharging her cell phone was just an excuse for her to go.
Today, even if it's one of the people who asked Sugano to leave the evacuation center, she stops to chat with them when she runs into them on the street.
At her home, which was spared extensive damage, Sugano puts up friends who were not as lucky, and volunteers who come to the area to help with relief efforts.
Some volunteers are arrogant.
But she still lets them stay.
"It would be embarrassing not to be able to contribute at all because I'm hung up on the little things," Sugano says. "
The volunteers are all valuable people who have come here for the sake of Rikuzentakata.
It's not a time to complain."
Sugano appears to be slowly rebuilding the bonds that were almost destroyed by the quake.
It was through the disaster, she says, that she's been able to become a true "Rikuzentakata citizen" again.