Thursday, 12 September 2013

With no closure from tsunami, fisherman prays before empty grave of his wife

Yoshinori Iwatsuki bows his head and says a prayer in front of a gravestone here, unsure if his words will be heard.

“I usually pray here, but the grave is empty,” Iwatsuki, 65, said on Sept. 11.

Two and a half years ago, the tsunami that swamped the northeastern coast of Japan swept away his 63-year-old wife, Kimiko. Iwatsuki was on a tuna-fishing vessel off South America at the time, and it took him nine months to return to Japan.

Since then, Iwatsuki has tried desperately to locate Kimiko’s remains for closure. He has repeatedly called police for information, attended meetings on identifying bodies, and even sought the services of a necromancer.

But as time passes, he is losing hope.

As of Sept. 10, the official toll from the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami was 15,883 dead and 2,654 missing. In the hard-hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, 114 bodies are unidentified.

DNA tests have been conducted on these remains, and pictures have been shown to potential relatives. But additional information and clues to the identities of these bodies have become scarce.

Iwatsuki currently lives in temporary housing in Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture, and every month, he takes a bus and a taxi to visit a temple in Kesennuma that contains the empty grave of his childhood sweetheart.

He is also somewhat haunted by the last words she said to him: “Nothing is broken here. There’s no problem.”

Iwatsuki, who was born and raised in Kesennuma, became a wireless operator on a tuna-fishing vessel immediately after graduating from high school. His vessel fished mainly in waters off South America, and his work usually kept him away from home for five months at a time.

His semi-annual dates with Kimiko, a former classmate, were joyous occasions, and the two were married when they were 25 years old.

Even after marriage, the couple lived far apart for most of their years. As tuna catches declined and fuel costs rose, Iwatsuki’s fishing excursions became longer.

In June 2010, Iwatsuki’s vessel departed from Japan for an extended fishing operation. During the journey, Iwatsuki communicated with Kimiko via satellite phone twice a month.

Two days before the March 11 disaster, Iwatsuki learned from a shortwave broadcast that an earthquake measuring a lower 5 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7 had hit Miyagi Prefecture. He called Kimiko to ask if she and Kesennuma were OK.

In their last conversation, Kimiko reassured her husband that everything was fine.

But then the magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck, spawning a tsunami that wiped out entire communities in the Tohoku region.

Iwatsuki was off the coast of Peru when he learned of the disaster back home from a news agency report. He tried to contact Kimiko, but she did not answer the phone.

Several days following the disaster, his eldest son and daughter who live in Tokyo visited evacuation centers and morgues in the Tohoku region to find their mother.

They came across a carpenter who had been working behind Iwatsuki’s home when the earthquake struck. The carpenter said that he told Kimiko to flee after an evacuation warning was issued.

He said he saw her enter the home apparently to prepare to evacuate but did not know what had happened to her and could not recall what clothes she was wearing.

Iwatsuki received this information from the children by e-mail, and grew frustrated by his inability to help in the search. Six of the 20 crew members of the fishing vessel were from Kesennuma or neighboring Minami-Sanriku. One of them learned that his home had been destroyed by the tsunami.

But they could not ask the captain to suspend operations to return home because of fears of a low tuna catch.

It was not until December 2011, nine months after the disaster, that Iwatsuki and his colleagues returned to Japan.

As the vessel approached the Kesennuma beach, Iwatsuki saw that his home was gone. He threw a bouquet of flowers into the sea where he believed his wife had been when the waves carried her away.

Iwatsuki submitted a notice of Kimiko’s death without finding her remains. He held a funeral in February 2012 and ordered a grave.

Kimiko was a shy but serious woman who was good at dressmaking, Iwatsuki said. The couple had spent almost all of their time together when the fisherman was in Japan.

He now says he feels guilty for not being home for a chance to save Kimiko from the tsunami.

Last fall, the bereaved husband visited Mount Osorezan in Aomori Prefecture, a site where the spirits of the dead are said to gather. Female necromancers called “itako” are believed to be able to summon the souls of the dead and deliver messages in their voices in a ritual known as “kuchiyose.”

Although Iwatsuki asked an itako to summon Kimiko’s spirit, the itako just said commonplace things such as “how sweet of you to come” and “I’ve been waiting for you.”

Iwatsuki still visits a police station to ask if Kimiko’s remains have been confirmed through DNA testing.

He has also attended gatherings that provide information on unidentified bodies. Although Iwatsuki has already seen every picture of the disaster victims at such sessions, he could not find any definitive clues on Kimiko, a 150-centimeter-tall, chubby woman in her 60s.

The ocean, which has provided Iwatsuki’s livelihood, took away so much for so many families on March 11, 2011.

The 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake that struck the Kobe area killed 6,434 people, but it did not trigger a tsunami. Only three people are reported missing from that disaster.

In the 1993 earthquake and tsunami off southwestern Hokkaido, 28 people, or 12 percent of all dead or unaccounted-for victims, are missing, and 401 people, or 8 percent of the total, in the 1959 Ise Bay typhoon are listed as missing.

Iwatsuki said he has never blamed the sea for Kimiko’s death. But he said he has been reluctant to board a boat or even look at the water from a distance since he lost his wife.

“I had been leaving all domestic affairs, including child upbringing, to my wife,” Iwatsuki said. “(During the last fishing trip,) I thought that it was time for me to stay on the beach and ease the burden she had long been shouldering.”

Thursday 12 September 2013


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