WAKUYA, Miyagi – The living room echoes with the laughter of brother and sister Haruki and Oto Takahashi. They sound like their two sisters they never knew, who died in the tsunami caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011.
Kiyoaki and Chiharu Takahashi, both 48, lost two daughters in the tsunami. Both attended Okawa Municipal Elementary School of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, where 74 of the school’s 108 students died in the disaster. Subsequently, the Takahashis moved from their home near the elementary school to the inner prefectural city of Wakuya.
In the evening, when the first star appears in the sky, the family looks up. “Is that Yu? Or is it Mei? Haruki, their 6-year-old son, and his younger sister, Oto, 4, ask. When they died, Yu was 10 and in fourth grade, while Mei was 8 and in second grade.
Their mother Chiharu tells them, “I wonder which one it is. They’re both watching you from heaven.” Kiyoaki and Chiharu wonder when the day will come when Haruki and Oto will ask them why their sisters died and how well they understand what happened.
Haruki and Oto are both shy but love to dance, just like their older sisters. But Haruki’s recent obsession with catching bugs is a bit different from her older sisters’ interests. Recently, her summer routine has been to play in the woods and swamps of her parents’ former hometown. Okawa Elementary School is nearby.
“It’s Yu and Mei’s school. We also had a house there,” Kiyoaki and Chiharu said, but Haruki kept chasing dragonflies with his net. Chiharu often slowly follows Haruki while looking around and reminiscing about life before the disaster. “Without these children, I wonder if I would remember the disaster even more,” she said.
Haruki was born in late summer 2015. After the disaster, the couple wanted another child, but initially struggled to lose two children. They found encouragement from a friend who also lost their child in the disaster and later had a baby. When Chiharu became pregnant, the couple’s entourage congratulated them. They named the newborn Haruki, reflecting their “hope”. Oto came two years later.
Their new family gives them a chance to look to the future. In mid-February, a kindergarten teacher from Oto approached the family to comment on Oto’s cute hat. Chiharu replied that the hat had been in the family for 20 years, before adding to the puzzled professor: “Oto had older sisters, but because of the earthquake…”. The teacher then apologized for asking the question, but Chiharu said, “It’s okay. I also want to talk about Oto’s sisters.”
As Haruki and Oto grew up, their parents also experienced new kinds of pain. While washing Haruki’s legs in the bath recently, Kiyoaki had a flashback to when he found Mei’s body two days after the disaster. His corpse was among many bodies lying in a street near the school. Every time he touches Haruki’s leg, he thinks how painful Mei’s deeply scarred leg must have been. Haruki is starting elementary school this spring.
Oto once told her parents that she wanted to see Yu and Mei on the move. In fact, there remains a DVD of Yu: the “half-coming-of-age ceremony” that his school held just nine days before the disaster. “Thank you for 10 years. Thanks to mom and everyone, I can really enjoy my life,” she reads aloud. To this day, the couple cannot watch it.
At the end of February, the family had been out together when, from the back seat of the car, Oto suddenly asked, “Why did Yu and Mei go to the stars?” Haruki, who was sitting next to her, replied, “They died in the tsunami.”
“Did you know?” Chiharu couldn’t help but ask. “I’ve heard it before,” Haruki said, seemingly uninterested. Chiharu felt a load lift from her shoulders. She wondered if she had told him before without realizing it.
If the couple takes their children to the area near their former home and Okawa Elementary School, or if Haruki and Oto see tsunami footage on the news and then reenact their experiences, they will demand to know more about this era. Chiharu says she wants to “explain the details to them when those times come.”
(Japanese original by Shin Yasutaka, Regional News Department)