Omedeto, Only For Two
Father Celebrates Dead Daughter's Graduation, Continues Search For Missing Son
FUKUSHIMA, Japan- "Thank you for remembering Erika, your classmate from second grade". Tears begin to fill Takayuki Ueno's eyes as he speaks in front of the children. The forty-two year old father's eldest daughter, Erika was swept away by the tsunami four years ago, but on graduation day, the elementary school had specially prepared a certificate for her along with the other sixth graders. Accompanied by his wife Kiho, 38, and youngest daughter Sarii, 3, Ueno had come to participate in the ceremony on her behalf. "I look at all the other kids and imagine how Erika would have been all grown-up like them. Years from now, I guess I'll always be feeling the same way", Kiho says with a teary smile.
The day the Great East Japan Earthquake struck, Ueno lost four family members to the tsunami. His father Kikuzo, mother Junko, Erika, and eldest son Kotaro. His father's and son's bodies have not been found yet. After the disaster, Ueno had an opportunity to take some of the local children to Disneyland, a place he had visited many times with his family. "But why aren't Erika and Kotaro here with us today?" Once that thought crossed his mind, he found himself falling behind the group, eventually wandering around the park alone and calling out their names.
Six months later, while living in temporary shelter, Ueno's second daughter was born. Borrowing a kanji character from each of her siblings, she was named Sarii. The tears Ueno shed upon her birth, though, were not out of joy. Grandpa, Grandma and Kotaro, those who should have been here to celebrate the birth of the new family member were all gone. Erika, who was the most excited of having a baby sister, was gone. The tears that kept flowing were from loneliness and regret.
Before leaving home on graduation day, overcome by emotions, Ueno broke down in tears several times again. But at the ceremony, Sarii's winsome manner was able to charm and put a smile on everyone around her. "I'm glad Sarii was with us. I couldn't have managed if it weren't for her" Ueno says. From this April, Sarii has started kindergarten. She leaves for classes every day carrying the little bag which was prepared for, but never used by, her big brother Kotaro.
Ueno has unfinished business. He must still find his missing son.
When the tremor struck that day in March 2011, Ueno immediately returned to his home in Kaihama, Haramachi. Once he found that his parents and Kotaro were safe, he left to fulfil his role as a member of the local volunteer fire company. Never did it cross his mind that a devastating tsunami would soon wipe out the entire place. He would later run into his wife who was safe at her workplace, but could not find the others in any of the emergency shelters. Then, while searching through muddied Kaihama which was only about twenty two kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, one of the reactor buildings there exploded. Everyone fled, and Ueno and his fire company comrades were the only ones remaining in the area. "We were abandoned" recalls Ueno. The cruel reality facing the people of coastal Fukushima following the tsunami-nuclear double disaster set in.
Rescue and search teams from the Self Defense Force were finally dispatched to the area over a month later, only to be pulled out after a mere two weeks. With literally no one else in sight, Ueno and the group of volunteer rescuers equipped with simple fire hooks were the only ones left to search for survivors and retrieve bodies. All of the forty victims they pulled from the rubble were familiar faces from the neighborhood. The grueling task of carefully lifting and carrying each of them to the morgue continued for weeks.
For Ueno, finding Kotaro became the sole reason to exist. He tortured himself for not being able to save the children and considered killing himself once he found his son. But after a year of searching and even more searching, a thought crossed his mind. "Could it be that Kotaro is watching the miserable state I am in and is trying not to be discovered?" He was such a playful, energetic kid. Ueno still remembers that big toothy grin he showed when he came across him playing by the road alone and called out his name. Ueno had lost the volition to continue on with his own life, but if it was his son that was keeping him alive, he started to think that he had to continue doing what only was possible for one still alive.
Driving toward Ueno's house during the end of April, bright yellow colors suddenly appeared in the barren brown landscape. They were from the field mustard flowers the Fukko-Hamadan, a group of Ueno's fire company colleagues and other volunteers, had planted to form a huge outdoor maze. Besides continuing the search for victims in areas left mostly unsearched due to nuclear fallout, the group has been busy hosting firework events and decorating the area with colorful illumination, hoping to "bring smiles to a place once drowned in tears".
Kaihama suffered the loss of 138 lives and the scenery was transformed into a desolate field of debris and destruction by the tsunami. But the endless tears and sweat of the Fukko-Hamadan members had soaked into the soil and had started to give new life. The flowers, once again bringing smiles to the children.
This spring, Ueno was able to deliver the congratulatory greeting "Omedeto" to Erika and Sarii for graduating and entering school. But for Kotaro, who will experience neither, he will never have the chance. Even the tiny urn prepared for Kotaro sits empty at home. That is why Ueno must find him with his own hands. He must ask forgiveness for not saving him, and hold him tightly in his arms.
As long as there is the life Kotaro bestowed upon Ueno, he will keep planting the flower seeds. For those who are no longer here, and for those who live on. And bearing deep regret for the rest of his life, Ueno will keep heading to the beachfront to search for his missing son.
Photo & Text By Yuki Iwanami
Translation by Taro Konishi
During Golden Week from May 2-6, everyone is invited to enjoy the flower maze at Kayahama. Details can be found at Fukko-Hamadan's Facebook page.