When she lost her parents and younger sister in the tsunami that struck northeastern Japan in March last year, reporter Kumiko Konno set aside her objectivity and covered her search for them through the eyes of a journalist.
She recounted her experiences in the book “Shinsai ga Oshiete Kureta Koto” (What the earthquake taught me), published by Asahi Gakusei Shimbunsha.
Konno, 39, a reporter with the Asahi Gakusei Shimbun, conceded that she had some reservations about writing on “family matters.”
“But if my writing can convey a message, I thought it would have some meaning,” she said, adding, “I wrote only the facts.”
The book unfolds as the massive earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011. Konno was in the newsroom of Asahi Gakusei Shimbunsha, in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward.
Ducking under her desk, she thought of her family living in the coastal town of Arahama in Sendai’s Wakabayashi Ward.
Even though the magnitude and other specifics of the earthquake were not clear then, she had a feeling it must be related to the intensity-6 quake that had struck northern Japan two days before.
Wanting urgently to check on her family in Arahama--her father, Yoshihiko, 74, her mother, Kimiko, 63, and younger sister, Michiko, 34--she walked to Tokyo Station, to catch the Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train.
She planned to go see her family--which turned out to be impossible due to the quake and tsunami damage.
At Tokyo Station, she heard a television newscaster say “the Natorigawa river” and saw footage of the tsunami on screen.
“It occurred to me for the first time that my family members might not be alive,” she writes.
Since Japan Railways had suspended operations for that day, she returned to her home in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, arriving there at 2 a.m. on March 12. She went to Sendai on March 13 after she met her uncle at Akita Airport.
“Strangely, facing an overwhelming event, no tears came. Looking back on our search, I recall it was Uncle Itsuo, the youngest brother of my father, who was closest to him, and I who were the last among our relatives to be emotional,” Konno recalled. “Many things had to be done. My relatives later said, ‘Kumi-chan’s calmness lessened our pain.’ It came natural to me to play the role of consoler.”
More than a year after the disaster, Konno still does not feel like crying, she said.
She wrote the first article on her visit to disaster-stricken Sendai for the Asahi Shogakusei Shimbun’s May 14 issue, from “notes I jotted down,” she said.
Some elementary school students wrote in, “I understand the disaster better from Ms. Konno’s report. I’m grateful that Ms. Konno is a reporter.”
Konno allows herself two chapters in her book to describe how she identified the bodies of her parents and sister.
“I am afraid the fifth and sixth chapters may scare children,” she wrote in the foreword. “But I could not avoid talking about death. I hope adults will kindly consider this when they hand this book to children.”
She made 15 visits to places where bodies were kept and viewed hundreds until she found her family members.
She identified the body of her father, the first of the three victims, on March 23. She and her relatives were not positive that “C76” was Yoshihiko even after the teeth matched his dental records.
But when she bent down and looked at the face from a lower angle, she had no doubt it was her father. It was the angle she saw him from as a little girl.
She identified the bodies of her mother and sister, respectively, on March 29 and April 7.
In several visits to Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, where her parents had lived, Konno was struck by the devastation, but also had moments where she was touched by people's warmth.
A young man on a bike offered to help check the list of an evacuation center for her. At the entrance of an arena where bodies were placed, she found flowers in buckets so survivors could make offerings to the corpses.
“Many volunteers were in town, mainly to help survivors. But some people cared for the dead,” Konno wrote.
She had been busy with her own life after starting to live alone at 17, but now she learned of her parents’ connections and their life through the earthquake and its aftermath.
She finished writing the book in December. For younger readers, all the Chinese characters are accompanied by Japanese hiragana as a reading aid.
Even though she still has mixed feelings about writing a personal story, Konno said she feels a sense of responsibility as a journalist.
“I hope this book will be of use for young people to remember the earthquake,” she said. “Among the mass of information concerning the earthquake, I would be glad if they found it helpful to have a book written by someone they can easily relate to.”
One bit of feedback she liked was from a female student at Chuo Junior High School in Tokyo’s Higashi-Kurume, where she gave a talk on her experiences.
“A teacher told me one student came to her and said, ‘Children in the disaster-stricken areas look full of vigor on television. I wonder if they are cheerful when there is no television camera around.' ”
Konno said she was glad this junior high school student wanted to think about what was not being reported.
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