RIKUZENTAKATA, Iwate — For a 17-year-old boy from this town, devastated by the tsunami that hit the Pacific coast of northeast Japan after the Great East Japan earthquake in March 2011, this spring is bittersweet. He graduates from high school and enters adulthood, but also bids farewell to the grandmother who has raised him since his parents were killed in the disaster.
Haruto Oikawa, who lives in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, plans to study disaster prevention and disaster recovery community development at Sendai University, just down the coast. He is also considering whether to eventually return to his hometown.
To his grandmother, who worries that he lives alone and has to cook himself, Oikawa smiles and says, “Grandma, I’m going to practice and make you a rice omelet.” Deep down, Oikawa also worries about her grandmother living alone. The two just have a little more time to spend together before he leaves.
On March 11, 2011, Oikawa and his fellow freshmen survived the waves by evacuating to nearby heights. But her father Norihisa and mother Shoko, both 39, lost their lives. Norihisa, who was at work, appears to have rushed home to see if his wife was okay. She was home after finishing her night shift at a nursing home.
After the earthquake and tsunami, Oikawa lived with his older brother Yoshiki, now 20, his maternal grandmother Iyoko Murakami, 78, and his grandfather. Being so young at the time, he thought his parents would one day return. It was not until the third year that he understood that they would never come home. He realized that his father and mother would not come to school open days or cheer him on at football games.
Although he only has vague memories of his parents, he still loves Takatamatsubara Beach, where he used to go with his family. He also participates in the Tanabata festival which his parents went to every August 7, and gives drum and flute performances every year. On the morning of the festival, it has become a habit for Oikawa to visit his parents’ grave and tell them, “It’s Tanabata season again.
Oikawa’s grandfather died in 2013 and his older brother, who lived with them in a housing project for disaster victims, left to continue his studies. Every day, his grandmother Iyoko was by his side, watching over him. Every morning, she cooked her lunch and sent it out the door. Oikawa is very fond of his grandmother, who he says is “practically my mother, rather than someone who played my mother.”
The teenager graduated from Iwate Takata Prefectural High School on March 1 and showed his graduation certificate to his grandmother before anyone else. He said to her, “Thank you for taking care of me until the end of high school.”
To hide his embarrassment, he joked, “When I start getting a salary, I’ll buy you anything you want.” Hearing this, her grandmother smiled and said, “The time we were able to spend together is precious to me. Thank you for growing so solidly and sincerely.
Oikawa became interested in city planning after learning in high school how to develop new products from local specialties and attract tourists. He said, “It’s sad to see the town where I was born and raised so desolate. I want to do something about it.” His grandmother commented, “Haruto and Yoshiki will open up new paths and possibilities for their lives. I can’t say I’m sad.”
(Japanese original by Yutaka Yamada, Morioka Office)