Sunday, March 20, 2011

Japan crisis: two schoolboys with futures in ruins

Japan crisis: two schoolboys with futures in ruins

Three days after pupils at an elementary school in Japan's Iwate province posed for an end-of-term photo, their childhood world was lost for ever thanks to the tsunami that engulfed their town

A world in rubble: Taiga Toba (left) and his friend Manabu Tsurushiba look over the ruins of their school. Their mothers are both missing, presumed dead. 'We realised it wasn't the usual earthquake,' says Taiga. 'I thought, am I going to die here?'
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A world in rubble: Taiga Toba (left) and his friend Manabu Tsurushiba look over the ruins of their school. Their mothers are both missing, presumed dead. 'We realised it wasn't the usual earthquake,' says Taiga. 'I thought, am I going to die here?' Photo: KEITH BEDFORD

The photograph was taken only last week, but it is already a scene from a vanished world. Just before graduating, Takata Elementary School’s top class of 12-year-olds play up to the camera, the holidays and their lives ahead of them, their eyes full of excitement and hope. Three days later, the sea changed everything.

Friday was meant to have been Taiga Toba’s graduation party. His mother would probably have bought him a present. Instead, if they can find her body, he will soon be attending her funeral. Staring into the photo, he picks out five other children who lost parents. The teacher is missing. The boy next to him, his hand in the air, waving to the camera, is dead. And these are just the people he knows about.

We found him searching the rubble near the wreck of his home, a thin, serious little boy with glasses who wants to be a basketball player. He was with his best friend, Manabu Tsurushiba, yet another child who has lost his mother. In a yellow plastic shopping basket, Taiga carried everything he’d found of his old life: one left basketball boot and a dirty LA Lakers cap. His other possessions are the clothes on his back, and a second set he kept at school. He is homeless now, living with 25 other relatives in a house outside the town.

We were in Rikuzentakata, the worst-hit city in the province of Iwate. Eighteen hundred people died here, and three quarters of the town no longer exists. Where it did not destroy the buildings, the water came through them, bringing whatever it carried. The shopping centre has cars and boats on the third floor. But mostly it was destroyed. The landscape is a flat-plan of shattered wood and rubble.

Taiga’s class was making music boxes when the earthquake happened. The teacher was just giving out the mechanisms. They’re still there in the classroom, in their little polystyrene trays, with the boxes and all the kids’ belongings, left behind in the rush.

“We got under the desks but the floor was rocking,” says Taiga. “We realised it wasn’t the usual earthquake. I thought: ‘Am I going to die here?'” The playground is now six feet deep in debris. But nobody did die at the school building. Even the goldfish, in their tank in the lobby, are still in one piece. By sad irony, it was the kids whose parents rushed to save them who were at the greatest risk.

“My mother came for me and took me home,” says Manabu, looking down at the floor, driving his fist into his palm. “She went inside the house to pick up blankets, and then the tsunami came.”

Manabu was still outside, but found he couldn’t say a word. “I just couldn’t call out,” he says. “I just didn’t realise how fast it was. I just ran up the hill. I could hear the noise of the houses being destroyed behind me and I just kept running.”

Taiga was still at school. “One of the teachers was looking out,” he says. “Then he suddenly shouted ‘Run!’ It was like Godzilla. You could see the wave coming towards you, knocking down houses. It was quite slow, but very powerful.

“I didn’t try to get home. I couldn’t see where my house was any more.”

Taiga’s classmate Tomoki Ogata, also 12, was collected from the playground and taken by his mother into the path of the tsunami. Now both mother and child are in another local school, the one that has been turned into the temporary mortuary.

“He was a very gentle boy. He never had fights. He was very kind, very studious. He loved to read,” says Yuko Marakami, his class teacher, who has come into the school staffroom while we are with Taiga and Manabu. Then, suddenly, she notices something on her desk, picks it up and begins to weep.

“It’s a farewell card from the children,” she sobs. “I’d no idea they’d done this. They were going to give it to me on graduation day but we never had it because of the events. They must have come back and slipped it on to my desk. I saw them cutting it out last week, but they said it was decorations for the last-day party.”

There are two folded A3 cards – a pink one from the girls, and a blue one from the boys. Both have the class slogan, “One for all and all for one”, in English on the front, and each child has written his or her own message on a yellow circular Post-it note. Tomoki Ogata’s message to Mrs Marakami says: “You made some scary faces, you made some kind faces, some funny faces. I enjoyed them all and I won’t forget you when I go to junior school.”

Taiga spent three days looking for his mother before accepting that she was dead. He went round all the reception centres, checking the names on the lists. Whenever a case is “resolved”, a red line is drawn through the name. Mrs Toba has not been given her red line. She is still officially missing, but nobody has much doubt about her fate.

The strange thing, though, was how upbeat and cheerful the two boys mostly were. They were excited to meet foreigners and wanted to show us their town. Whenever they saw us, they’d run into their usual place, sitting on each other’s laps in the front seat of our car. For the moment, at least, the novelty of exploring their new bombed-out world – paradise for a 12-year-old – seemed to blot out the tragedy that had overtaken them.

We ask Taiga what her mother was like. “She was fashionable,” he says. “She loved ornaments. She loved shopping. She used to call me Taiga-chi.” Then he stopped, and we changed the subject.

Taiga’s father, Futoshi, is Rikuzentakata’s mayor. Clinging to the roof of City Hall, Mr Toba watched his own house across the valley being ripped up by the tide, knowing his wife was inside it. But his responsibility was to his town. Not until 24 hours later could he make time to confirm that she was missing, or to check on Taiga and his younger brother. He was one of the last people in Rikuzentakata to learn the fate of his loved ones.

“I couldn’t go straight to my family. I had to stay at the office,” he says. He still hasn’t set eyes on his kids for more than two minutes at a time. “I’m a human being and a father, and I do have a hard time at the moment,” he says. “But a lot of my staff have lost their families, too. Everyone is holding it back.”

Taiga, too, the politician’s son, is maintaining a public face. “I have to stay strong, I have to stay positive,” he says. But Manabu is quieter. When we wander near his old house, he slows down, covering his eyes, and Taiga tells us he hasn’t been back there yet. We hadn’t realised, and turn in a different direction.

The class photo was taken as a milestone in these children’s school careers. Now it is a memorial, for lives and a world swept away.

Taiga reels off the names of other classmates who have suffered terrible loss; others he just doesn’t know about. He points to Ayumi Murakami, whose father, he says, is missing; and to Takuma Wakasugi, whose father is also feared dead. Natsuki Kanno’s mother is fighting for her life in hospital while Yusuke Nakano and Rui Nagano lost both their parents.

The teacher in the photo is 27-year-old Monty Dickson, an American from Alaska, who had been teaching English in Rikuzentakata for two years. For at least two nights last week, US Embassy staff visited the temporary city hall headquarters in the search for the young man. Just as scores of Japanese turn up there to scour the list of those missing and those found dead, so too did the embassy staff. Monty, a popular member of staff, has not been found.

Like thousands of children across north-east Japan, Taiga is trying to cope with the terrible loss. His mother is dead; his father is busy; but at least he has Manabu to help him get through the days. “We feel we are closer now and we have connected on a much deeper level,” he says.

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