Japan tsunami anniversary: A father's journey of old pain and new life
MINAMISOMA, Japan — Takayuki Ueno was sitting in front of a memorial urn wrapped with white cloth at his house, which is surrounded by farms in Minamisoma, about a kilometer from the coastline.
"I'm sorry, Kotaro," Ueno said softly, tapping the box as though he were soothing a child. The box holds not remains but clothes belonging to his son, Kotaro, who went missing after the city was hit by a tsunami following the Great East Japan Earthquake. He was 3 at the time.
Then the 42-year-old father cradled the urn of his daughter, Erika, as he held his face against the box. Tears fell from his eyes as his mind was flooded with memories of Erika, a shy 8-year-old girl, and Kotaro, a mischievous boy.
I drove 12 hours to reach the coast of Fukushima prefecture that day March 11, 2011. Having been engulfed by tsunami, the area was painted dark brown.
There, I met people desperately searching for family members. Some were clawing at the ground with their bare hands as others shouted the names of their loved ones, and some were standing in front of a shelter as they stared at its name scrawled on a board.
Ueno was one of them. When the disaster struck, Ueno was living with his parents, his wife, Kiho, and their two children.
The father and his 38-year-old wife were the only ones who survived. They were both at work when the tsunami swallowed the city.
They identified the body of Erika two days later, but they could not find Kotaro. Ueno blamed himself, tormented by the feeling that he was "the worst father who failed to protect his child."
Ueno thought of killing himself if he ever found Kotaro's body.
A thought popped into his head one day. "Maybe Kotaro is keeping himself from being found because he's trying to prevent me from dying."
"I was finally able to feel, I should try to live," Ueno recalled.
Half a year on, Ueno and Kiho were blessed with a new life. Their baby, Sarii, is now 3. Her name uses three kanji characters, two of them taken from her sister and brother.
In April, Sarii will enter kindergarten with a bag that had once been prepared for Kotaro.
"Now Sarii is starting to experience the things that Kotaro couldn't," Ueno said.
Thinking of Kotaro and Erika takes Ueno back to March 11, 2011. Gazing at a smiling Sarii, he realizes the passage of time.
Ueno still continues searching for Kotaro on the weekends — if only so he can lay him to rest in the urn even a day sooner, and hold him close.
Disaster-struck areas are rebuilding, one step at a time. Cities are slowly starting to come back to life. There lie memories of precious, beloved lives.
Armed with my camera, I'm compelled to carry on preserving these memories which must not be forgotten.