7 Mars 2016
March 7, 2016
By KENICHIRO SHINO/ Staff Writer
MINAMI-SANRIKU, Miyagi Prefecture--About a month after the March 2011 tsunami, Kiyokazu Kawatani found himself sifting through the rubble and debris left behind by the massive wave in this coastal area Tohoku town.
Stuck in the muck was a photograph of a young couple. Not knowing if the pair survived the calamity, the amateur photographer put the picture on display in his personal exhibition in nearby Tome in the fall of 2012.
When Shoko Kosaka saw the photograph in the exhibition she found her own smiling face looking back at her. Now 29, she told Kawatani that her fiance also survived the tsunami and expressed her gratitude for discovering what is the couple’s only remaining picture taken before the Great East Japan Earthquake.
To show their appreciation, Kosaka and her fiance, Kenji Haga, invited Kawatani to their wedding in July 2013. The memorial picture was projected on a large screen during the wedding ceremony.
“I never imagined that someone would find our pre-disaster picture, and I could meet that person to express my gratitude,” Haga said. “It is a symbol of our special bond, which I call a miracle.”
Kawatani first visited Minami-Sanriku after the towering tsunami generated by the magnitude-9.0 earthquake almost completely flattened the town center as a member of a volunteer team tasked to search for photographs and other items for survivors and victims’ families.
It was during his three-day mission when he found the picture of Kosaka and Haga and a damaged cellphone on the property of a collapsed house near JR Shizuhama Station.
The photo shows the smiling couple giving peace signs. A picture he took with the couple's photo and the cellphone became part of Kawatani’s collection of photographs of disaster victims and devastated townscapes.
Before he quit his job in April 2012 as chief secretariat at the prefectural Nagano Kita High School in Kawachi-Nagano, Osaka Prefecture, he made 10 visits to Miyagi Prefecture. He eventually moved to Tome, a city about 20 kilometers inland from Minami-Sanriku, to participate in recovery efforts in the region.
In fall 2012, Kawatani held his first personal exhibition at a local farmhouse to display about 50 photographs that were taken during the 18-month period since the 2011 disaster, including the picture featuring the couple's photo and the damaged cellphone.
After Kosaka's family home was destroyed by the tsunami, she found a job in Tome, and her workplace was less than a kilometer from the farmhouse. She took in the exhibition after one of her colleagues told her that her picture was on display there.
“It is truly encouraging that you two survived the disaster,” Kawatani told Haga when they met for the first time.
Haga barely escaped death after being engulfed by the tsunami at his family home. His grandfather remains missing.
The picture and Haga’s cellphone were found near Haga’s home. They turned out to be the only things left. The tsunami erased all physical traces of Haga’s life before the earthquake.
Before the March 11, 2011, earthquake, Minami-Sanriku boasted a population of 17,000. Of those, 620 people were killed in the disaster, while 212 are still missing as of the end of February.
The Minami-Sanriku Volunteer Center still preserves the digitized data of about 150,000 pictures that have been found among the debris and wreckage. About 40,000 pictures have been returned to their owners, according to town officials.