For survivors like Sumiko, more than a bus ride

Japan

June 30, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Sumiko Takamatsu rides the Mercy Corps- and Peace Winds-sponsored bus that takes tsunami survivors — many of whom are still displaced — to do shopping and go to doctor's appointments. Photo: Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Sumiko Takamatsu. Photo: Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps

When my colleagues told me about a bus service we run between the coastal Japanese towns of Ofunato and Rikuzentakata, it struck me as a good idea but not something I urgently needed to see: the local supermarket was gutted by the tsunami, so in order to buy stuff, people who had no car needed a ride to the supermarket the next city over. Got it.

But they invited me to ride along today, and as a visitor from headquarters one doesn’t turn down such invitations. I am glad I went, because I got a chance to spend some time talking to a lady named Sumiko Takamatsu.

Just to set the stage a little, the average age on the bus is somewhere in the 70s, and the gender breakdown was overwhelmingly female. I’m an obviously foreign man in my late 30s, and when I come bounding on the bus with my camera the tittering begins. My colleague Rika explains who I am, I smile and bow awkwardly in several directions, and I find a seat up front — next to Sumiko Takamatsu.

The conversation doesn’t start all that well. I am looking for people who lost everything in the tsunami, and Sumiko lived in a village high above town so her property was unaffected by the water. But she seems nice, and I don’t want her to think I’m not interested in her, so as the bus pulls away from the Ofunato shopping center, we keep talking. Here are some highlights of our conversation:

Me: So if your property wasn’t damaged, why are you on the bus?

Sumiko: Well, our family shares one car, and when my daughter-in-law, who lives with us, worked at the supermarket in Rikuzentakata, someone would just drive us both. It was short and easy. But the tsunami destroyed the supermarket there, my daughter-in-law lost her job, and they can’t spare the car to bring me to the market all the way in Ofunato.

Your daughter-in-law lives with you?

Yes, and now my grandson, his wife and their three little boys. Their house was swept away in the tsunami and they had no place to go. You could say our house is lively these days.

Lively, I’ll bet it is, with three little boys running around.

They are 3, 4, and 5. And after the tsunami, my husband lost most of his work as a taxi driver, so he’s around most of the time too.

[In the meantime, we have stopped and picked up a couple of people at the hospital in Ofunato. The mayor of Rikuzentakata asked Peace Winds and Mercy Corps to add it to the route, since folks needed rides to the hospital too.]

People seem to be having a good time on the bus. Have you noticed your friends or family being depressed or anxious since the tsunami?

Just about everyone on the bus right now is from my village. We are all friends. We’re mostly doing OK, and we stay active by riding the bus into Ofunata and shopping.

[As she’s telling me this, the term “retail therapy” pops into my head. I associate that term with the stars of “Sex in the City” going to buy new shoes after bad dates, and it’s a little ridiculous. But listening to Sumiko, I can’t help but think that going shopping — at least for the people on this bus — means being with your friends, having reliable access to the things you want or need, bringing home some comfort to your family, and maybe even indulging in a minor luxury once in a while. If you live in a place that has been mostly demolished, shopping at a decent supermarket probably makes you feel kind of normal, maybe even good. Retail therapy, redeemed.]

We were all together when the tsunami came. Everyone in our village gathered on the main road, with a view of the bay far below.

It was like Mount Fuji coming out of the sea. It rose up, and the water all turned a different color — black — and it was like it erupted on downtown. We were all shocked and scared, especially the three boys.

They were all in kindergarten down in town when the tsunami alert was announced. Their mother rushed to pick them up, and because it had been naptime she took them out of school in their pajamas. They and their mom had to wear my clothes for two weeks after that!

They mostly miss their toys. They always talk about their favorites, and when we go to the Ofunato shopping center, they run straight to the toy section. We haven’t been able to replace their toys, but I did buy them some small cars, which they fight over. The oldest boy decides which car is his favorite, then the other two want it. He changes his mind and then they want that one.

But they are sleeping well and they seem to be OK.

How’s the rest of your village been impacted by the tsunami?

Right now everyone in the village should be processing sea urchin. This is the season for that. But the fishing fleet was destroyed so no one is doing that.

Have people left because of that?

Some people left because their jobs were gone, but others — like my family — took in family members who lived in town and lost everything. There were 35 families in the village before the tsunami — about 130 people — and there are about the same number now, just not all the same people.

What was it like to be at the center of the world’s attention for a couple weeks?

First there were students from all over Japan who came to gave us food and water. There was lots of assistance, and we were very thankful for that. Then the Self-Defense Force came to the village and they were helpful too, though they’ve pretty much left.

[About this time, one of the few other male passengers on the bus — an older guy I’ve been hearing hold court a couple rows back — gets off the bus. It had occurred to me that he reminded me — in appearance and vibe — of my great-uncle Armand. Big guy. Big presence. Likes to be at the center of the circle. After he gets off the bus, alone, the conductor tells us that every day this guy gets the morning bus to the supermarket, has lunch and a beer, and takes the afternoon bus back. “He lost his house in the tsunami,” the conductor says, but the way he says it makes me think the Japanese Uncle Armand had lost much more than that.]

How do you think the government is doing with its response? Everyone seems upset with the central government.

I’m too busy looking after those three boys to worry much about politics and the news.

Epilogue: Spending an hour or so with Sumiko and her friends on the bus helped me understand that the bus is more than a conveyance. It’s a community center on wheels. There’s a practical value to the bus, in that it helps people get where they need to go. But maybe the bus’s greater value is that it brings people together at a time when they especially need friends and fun things to do.