After 70 years apart, leprosy patient comes home to be buried

July 24, 2012

By TOMOKO TAKAKI/ Staff Writer

TSURUTA, Aomori Prefecture--Seventy years after he was torn away from his family, the remains of Tetsuo Sakurai have come home. A former leprosy patient, the 87-year-old spent most of his life in a sanitarium in Gunma Prefecture, where he died late last year.

As a teenager, Sakurai was taken from his family under the now-repealed government policy of isolating leprosy patients to prevent further spread of the disease. This policy often meant long years of isolation and estrangement from friends and relatives, and many times when a patient died, their ashes were placed in cemeteries on sanitarium grounds.

In that sense, at least, Sakurai was more fortunate than most. A relative, who first met him 10 years ago, collected his ashes after he died, and on May 19, he was interred in his family plot.

About 30 people, including relatives, friends and former teachers, gathered at Sakurai's childhood home in the town of Tsuruta for the ceremony. A blue sky spread over the green land of the Tsugaru region as they placed his ashes in the family grave, next to those of his parents. White apple blossoms and yellow dandelions dotted the surrounding fields, and Mount Iwakisan rose serenely in the distance.

"You had so many difficulties in your life," one of the mourners said, addressing Sakurai's ashes, "but now, you can be at peace."

Another told him, "You have finally come back to your family."

Moved by admiration, a third added, "Thank you so much for teaching us the strength of a person's will to live."

That strength of will showed in Sakurai's poetry, which he continued to compose even as the disease ravaged his body. He lost his eyesight and fingers due to complications from the disease, and could only speak with difficulty. Yet his poems vividly recall scenes from the Tsugaru region, in Aomori Prefecture, where he grew up. A local school, apple orchards, Nebuta summer festivals, Buddhist statues and the windswept Tappizaki cape, on the northern tip of the Tsugaru Peninsula, all make their appearance in his work.

Sakurai made his final visit to his hometown in May 2008, when he published a collection of his poems, using his real name for the first time since his confinement. Like many leprosy sufferers who wished to avoid stigmatizing family members, he had used a pseudonym for decades.

During that last visit, Sakurai planted a cherry tree seedling on the lakeside with his childhood friend, Kenji Nakano, now 82.

"The next time I come here, will the flowers on this be blossoming?" Sakurai asked Nakano at the time.

"I'm sure they will be," his friend replied.

He thought about the tree often, even as he lay near death in his bed at the sanitarium.

"How is the tree I planted with Kenji?" Sakurai asked one of his friends in the sanitarium.

"I heard it's blossoming," the friend answered.

"Really?" Sakurai said. "Then I will go see them."

He never made it back to see his tree in bloom. But, after 70 years of loneliness and hardship, the delicate pink flowers on his tree were blooming as he joined his family in their tomb.

By TOMOKO TAKAKI/ Staff Writer
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Former leprosy patient Tetsuo Sakurai, center, plants a “Yaezakura” cherry tree seedling in his hometown of Tsuruta, Aomori Prefecture, on May 2, 2008. (Tomoko Takaki)

Former leprosy patient Tetsuo Sakurai, center, plants a “Yaezakura” cherry tree seedling in his hometown of Tsuruta, Aomori Prefecture, on May 2, 2008. (Tomoko Takaki)

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  • Former leprosy patient Tetsuo Sakurai, center, plants a “Yaezakura” cherry tree seedling in his hometown of Tsuruta, Aomori Prefecture, on May 2, 2008. (Tomoko Takaki)
  • Flowers blossom in May this year on a cherry tree planted by Tetsuo Sakurai in 2008. (Provided by Hideo Hanami)

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