Tears Of Loss, Joy Are Common In Kamaishi, Japan

March 20, 2011

Rob Gifford

Roslan Rahman
Notes of survivors looking for missing family members are posted on a board at the reporting center in Kamaishi.
Roslan Rahman
An elderly Japanese couple receives food and drinks from a distribution center in Kamaishi on Sunday.

There was at least one piece of good news from Japan Sunday. An 80-year-old grandmother and her 16-year-old grandson were pulled alive from a house in the north of the country, after more than a week in the rubble. They had been trapped in the kitchen and had survived eating yogurt.

Those kind of stories have been rare since the tsunami slammed into Japan's northeastern coast on March 11.

In Kamaishi, several military personnel are coming out of a building with a stretcher and a blue body bag. Another body has been found.

They put the bag into the makeshift ambulance and drive off to the makeshift morgue. Morgues, hospitals and all public services are overwhelmed.

At Kamaishi Nozomi Hospital, the generator is working but they had seven days without electricity. They cared for patients in the freezing cold by flashlight.

Nurse Yuko Ogasawara comforts a woman in her 80s, who is stretched out on a mattress on the floor. There's no heating in the ward, and the woman, who has Alzheimer's Disease, is distressed.

The nurse says all the staff have worked around the clock, sleeping at the hospital since the tsunami struck 10 days ago.

The hospital is set back from the waterfront, at the bottom of a hill, and still staff watched in disbelief as the wave, which wiped out much of Kashaimi, swept into the first floor of the building. Staff and patients took refuge on the upper floors and mercifully it came no higher.

Dr. Kazunori Ogasawara sits slumped in a chair in the staff room, his stethoscope draped over a large down jacket, over his white coat.

"We need more food, and we need more drips and saline for patients," Ogasaware says. "Unless we get more supplies and change this situation, they
will become weaker and weaker. Since there's no heating, they will catch pneumonia."

Up the dank, echoey stairwell on a higher floor, two women stand embracing, one of them in the white coat of a hospital nurse. They stand for several minutes, neither moving, just holding on to each other.

Turn any corner in this town and you come across such scenes. Someone finding, or losing a loved one. There are tears of joy and grief but you can't always tell which it is.

"I was so worried," says 35-year-old Jun Tamata. "I just prayed that if she was here at the hospital, that she had survived on an upper floor."

Tomata had been texting her friend for days, but there was no cellphone reception in this part of town until today, so her friend Motomi Miura, whom she has known since high school, couldn't reply.

"It was like a movie," Miura says. "Like that movie Independence Day. I honestly couldn't tell if it was real or not. We just watched it happen from
above."

Motomi says she thought her friend was dead too, but she had been busy for three days searching for her own child, who eventually she found.

The two women embrace again, and again don't let go.

A small reunion in a small hospital in a small town in northern Japan. But for two people, a huge reconnection.

The earthquake and the tsunami ripped the earth open here and tore its people apart. Now, painfully, tenderly and very, very slowly they are just starting to come back together. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.