Neighbors for 33 years

Japan, March 25, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Setsuko Sato and her husband Kiricho explain how they lost everything in the tsunami and are now homeless, living in the Shuzugawa high school, Mirami Sanriku Cho, Iwate Prefecture. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps

The Satos and the Abes lived as neighbors for 33 years in the Shizugawa neighborhood of Minami Sanriku Cho, a city in northern Japan. After their houses were destroyed by the recent earthquake and tsunami, they’re neighbors again — along with more than 200 other people on a high school gym floor.

Kichiro Sato is 80 years old, and he reminds me of my father. Even crouched down, living in a piece of floor about 8’ x 6’ with a makeshift border fashioned out of cardboard, he looks calm and proud. Like many elderly gentlemen, he seems simultaneously frail and incredibly strong. And he certainly doesn’t look 80.

The Satos and Abes invited me to sit and join them, and Mr. Sato told me the harrowing story of how they were trapped, and nearly lost, when the tsunami hit. The two couples had been at a celebratory gathering of about 500 local elderly people. The gathering was on the third floor of a building, and when the tsunami rolled in, everyone was told to stay inside and go up to the fourth floor.

They remained stuck — waiting to be rescued — on the fourth floor for two days, crowded and standing in partial flooding. Mr. Sato pressed his arms tight to his sides to display how closely the senior citizens were crammed into the space.

Now homeless, the future is precarious for the Satos. But they’re lucky to have their son and daughter living in the same evacuation center. Their son is a fireman and has been working nonstop since the earthquake in rescue, and now, recovery. The Abes are alone.

But the couples have each other, and like a remarkable number of newly homeless Japanese, are taking their situations in stride. Ms. Sato explains that they are kept busy in the evacuation center. Everyone works together to keep the place orderly and clean. They don’t know when they’ll be moved to temporary housing. They hear a city official will visit tomorrow to tell them “the plan” but they are not sure.

The couples admit that the last couple of weeks have been very difficult. Yesterday was the first day they were able to take a shower. A shuttle bus took them to the main evacuation center in Shizugawa, where public baths have just started running. Not having a bath, they explained, has been a big problem. They also need shoes and rubber boots because the outdoors is muddy and wet. I note that it’s cold in the gym where they’re staying; that cannot be a good situation for senior citizens.

The Satos and Abes make me think of my own elderly parents. I consider how my mom and dad would fare if they were suddenly homeless and living on a gym floor, and suddenly my heart goes out to this foursome in a new way. I’m also struck by how little complaining I’ve heard under these toughest of circumstances.

“We know most of the people here — at least we know their faces,” explained Ms. Sato, looking around and gesturing at their new neighbors. “Everyone’s cooperating and doing their best. Our bond is stronger than ever now that we’re all living together.”