8 Mars 2016
March 8, 2016
By MASATAKA YAMAURA/ Staff Writer
KAMAISHI, Iwate Prefecture--A tiny bag of sunflower seeds in the corner of a temporary housing unit has kept Kenichi Suzuki going since the 2011 disaster killed his family and left him all alone and despondent.
“I have hoped that the sunflowers will bear flowers one more year, just one more year, until I can finally return to a life of normalcy,” the 72-year-old said.
His sunflowers, planted in 2011 to pray for the repose of his family, have also established a connection with victims of one of Japan’s other worst postwar disasters.
After the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake rocked the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011, setting off tsunami warnings, Suzuki, a volunteer firefighter in Kamaishi, headed to the port to close the floodgates.
He could only watch helplessly as the tsunami breached the floodgates and headed inland.
Suzuki narrowly survived by fleeing to higher ground. When he returned to his home after the water receded, he found it buried under debris.
Inside the remains of his ruined home were the bodies of his wife, Nobuko, 64, son Kenko, 44, Kenko’s wife, Natsuko, 45, and their granddaughter, Riko, 11.
Kenko’s arms were spread out as if he had tried to protect his relatives from the tsunami.
Suzuki had trouble breathing. Finally, he said, “Thank you,” to his son.
The following spring, Suzuki went to the graduation ceremony of an elementary school to receive Riko’s graduation certificate on her behalf.
Asked by school officials to say some words to the students, Suzuki said, “I would like all of you to pass down a lesson to other people as survivors.”
Overcome with emotion, he could not continue the speech.
His granddaughter was the only child of the graduating class of 54 who was killed in the disaster.
Suzuki was tormented by the thought that had he stayed at home instead of going out to close the floodgates, he could have saved his family.
The city of Kamaishi had a population of 39,574 in 2010. The disaster killed 993 residents and left 152 missing.
With his home destroyed, Suzuki moved to temporary housing where he lived alone. He told people around him that he wanted to die.
At a funeral service held for his family in summer 2011, a local woman who runs a ryokan inn handed Suzuki dozens of sunflower seeds, as well as a picture book describing the story behind the seeds.
The seeds came from sunflowers planted each year across Japan in memory of a girl who was killed in the Great Hanshin Earthquake of January 1995, which left more than 6,400 dead in Kobe and the surrounding area.
Suzuki cleared the wreckage at the site of his home in Kamaishi and planted the seeds. In that neighborhood, the ground was bare except for the foundations of structures wipe out by the tsunami.
That summer, dozens of sunflowers bloomed in the once-barren area.
Suzuki brought a bench near the flowers so that he could view them to his heart’s content.
The next summer, the seeds he planted again bore hundreds of sunflowers against a background that was mostly gray because of the slow rebuilding process.
This time, he was not alone in viewing the sunflowers. Other people, struck by the yellow carpet of flowers, stopped by, and Suzuki began sharing memories of his family with them. One of them was a woman from Saitama Prefecture.
In spring last year, she contacted Suzuki and asked for seeds from his sunflowers.
She sent him a photo album in January this year, explaining that 25 of the pictures were of sunflowers her friends in various parts of the country grew from the seeds Suzuki had provided. She named the seeds Riko-chan sunflowers after his granddaughter.
“Let’s carry on living with big smiles to match the sunflowers,” her handwritten message said in the album.
Five years after the disaster, Suzuki can finally prepare for the next stage in his life. The long-stalled project to elevate the ground for his home has started to move forward, and he plans to return to the site as early as autumn.
Despite harboring mixed feelings, Suzuki has continued his work as a volunteer firefighter. But he will retire from the physically demanding firefighting activities this spring.
“All I can do is to do something for the repose of their souls,” Suzuki said.
In his new house, a room will display Riko’s graduation certificate and her orange school backpack that turned up near the former home.
He will also plant sunflowers at a place where he can view them from that room.