Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011
ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi Pref. — At the end of the month, the doors of the old gym will be locked and the 50,000 items stored there, including wedding and graduation photos, trophies, satchels, gym vests and other school clothing, taken to a nearby incinerator.
For now, however, the belongings remain neatly arranged on tables to allow the handful of visitors who drop by each day to sift through them. It's like a rummage sale, only with tags that indicate the item's owner — some of them pupils from the nearby Okawa Elementary School — instead of a price.
The effects were recovered during mopping up operations on the south bank of the Kitakami River, in a community that was devastated by the March 11 tsunami.
While shutting the gym and burning its contents would appear to represent some kind of closure for disaster survivors, there are those who continue to search for possessions too precious to abandon.
Each day, a handful of parents and relatives of the more than 300 residents still missing in Ishinomaki's Kahoku district can be seen digging through the mud or scouring Naburi Bay and nearby Nagazura Lagoon in search of their still unaccounted-for loved ones.
One such parent is Naomi Hiratsuka, a teacher whose daughter was among the 108 students and 12 teachers from Okawa Elementary who were swept away by the massive waves that flattened the riverside community.
Five of those children remained missing until last month, when fishermen pulled out the remains of a body in Naburi Bay, 5 km from the school.
Underwear on the badly damaged corpse convinced Hiratsuka, 37, and her husband, Shinichiro, 45, that it was their daughter, Koharu, who was due to graduate to her mother's junior high school in April.
Last week, DNA test results confirmed their worst fears, and their daughter joined the 69 children and 11 teachers from the school who have been officially confirmed dead since the catastrophe.
The Hiratsukas will hold a wake and funeral for their daughter this weekend, something Hiratsuka said they were previously unable to even contemplate doing "without absolute confirmation" that the body was indeed their daughter.
Nonetheless, Hiratsuka has continued to assist in the daily searches, operating a mechanical digger — thanks to the license she obtained in May to operate heavy vehicles — and helping others whose loved ones remain missing.
"It took five months to find Koharu and since then not one body has been recovered," said Hiratsuka, who applied for a heavy vehicle permit to speed up the search that she and her husband had previously conducted with shovels.
"The parents of the missing children are continuing their search in great pain. I know how they feel. That's why I want to help."
One of those parents is Miho Suzuki, whose daughter, Hana, 9, remains unaccounted for. Each day, Suzuki, 43, scours the land near her devastated home and prays at a shrine that has been erected in front of the skeletal remains of Okawa Elementary.
Grieving relatives leave soft drinks, cuddly toys and other items on the makeshift altar. Alongside a marble tombstone is a photo of the school taken from a hill neighboring the playground, which teachers controversially ignored as a place of refuge in favor of the bridge that spans the river 100 meters from the school.
As they scrambled toward the bridge, the tsunami swept in from the sea, sparing only 33 of the 108 children. One teacher fled up the hill with another child, but, stricken with guilt, later committed suicide.
The body of Suzuki's son, Kento, 12, was recovered several days after the disaster.
Though bitter about the circumstances surrounding the children's deaths, Suzuki leaves letters at the shrine addressed to her daughter and son.
One of those letters, addressed simply, "To cute, cute Hana," reads: "Mommy and Daddy's dream ended as just a dream. Hana, if you read this letter, please come home. Mommy and Daddy are waiting for you."
Suzuki confided that the vigil has taken its toll. "At first, I couldn't even recall her smiling face," she said as she laid flowers at the shrine. "Coming here and knowing she is somewhere nearby is comforting. But I can't rest until she returns home. No loving parent could."
Another among those searching is Masaru Naganuma, who goes out daily in his small boat to look for his son, Koto, 8. Initially, he burrowed through the mud using a power shovel.
"To have to look for your child with heavy machinery is mortifying," Naganuma told the local Kahoku Shimpo newspaper. "All I want is to see him once more."
Yet, there are some who fear the missing children may never be seen again.
Last month, police decided to scale down their operations, leaving just three police officers and two diggers to search the area.
"My greatest fear is the discontinuance of searches by the police and parents," said Hiratsuka, who delayed her planned return to work last month to continue digging for the missing kids.
"Some people say we are slowing our reconstruction efforts, that we should give up searching. We don't want to hinder recovery, but we can't just give up. I hope the police won't, either."
The three police officers who remain in the area are busy removing debris from Nagazura Lagoon in one final push to recover bodies, according to Kahoku police official Kunihiko Murakami.
"There is still a possibility that bodies will be found among the debris," Murakami said, adding that many of the officers who were drafted nationwide to conduct searches in the six months that followed the disaster have already returned to their local municipalities.
"If necessary, we will increase the number of officers, but I think we did all we could have done in those first six months."
The number of mounds of dirt and debris that litter the landscape bears witness to the extent of the searches. The only other structure that was left standing near the school is a clinic, whose interior has yet to be cleared of a wrecked car, a tractor and medical apparatus.
Anything else of personal value found among the ruins of this once-lovely corner of the northeast has been taken to the old gym, whose closure is imminent.
Kazumori Hirobe, a volunteer charged with managing the repository, said few residents drop by these days.
"There are those who don't want to come, those who've since secured new things so they don't need to come, and those who, sadly, are not able to come," he said, adding that a Buddhist memorial ceremony has been proposed before the items are incinerated.
Hiratsuka, who found some of her daughter's belongings at the repository — including a page from a journal that wrote about "Mommy's birthday" shortly before the tsunami — believes many in the community will be relieved when the facility is finally closed.
"For many people, it's difficult to keep hold of things that stir up memories of how things were. I think many will feel a sense of closure when those things are burned. But for some of us, that still won't be the end."