archive, asahi shinbun, photos

Tsunami survivor determined to leave visual record of disaster, asahi, 2/12/12

By NARUMI OTA / Staff Writer

When I encountered Isao Takahashi two days after the March 11 disaster during my coverage of the calamity, he stood aghast.

The 75-year-old was gazing at the devastation in the coastal town of Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, from in front of his home.

The tsunami spawned by the Great East Japan Earthquake destroyed most of the town, including his osteopathic therapy clinic.

Noticing a compact digital camera in his hand, I asked him if I could publish the images he had taken.

Two days later, his photos of the tsunami wiping out the town were carried in The Asahi Shimbun.

I met with Takahashi again in January. By then, he had reopened his clinic in Tome, an inland city in the prefecture that was not touched by the disaster.

Takahashi mentioned that it took him a while to regain his composure.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, he was forced to move into temporary housing with his wife, Haruko, 73, and his 93-year-old mother.

He said his two-story home, situated on elevated land, was rendered uninhabitable by the tsunami, which hit the structure with such force that several cars were left behind in the debris.

Haruko and his mother were wrapped in blankets and trying to keep warm beside a bonfire when I met them last March 13.

Haruko had pneumonia as a result of inhaling airborne dust left by the tsunami. His mother also fell sick and had to be admitted to a hospital.

At the time, Takahashi was simply too weighed down with problems to think about returning to his practice.

But he gradually gave it some thought after a medical equipment supplier he had known for years from his practice offered assistance.

The supplier offered to provide him with new equipment.

“Well, I have no choice,” he said.

He purchased a 20-year-old property in Tome for his family and in which to work from.

He reopened his clinic in September. For the first week, not a single patient turned up.

Gradually people in the neighborhood began to arrive.

Now, longtime regulars from the Shizugawa district in Minami-Sanriku, where his old clinic and home stood, are coming for treatment.

In my reunion with Takahashi, he recounted the circumstances that led him to take those images.

As soon as he heard an alert that a huge tsunami was approaching, he bolted to a hill overlooking the town.

He frantically took photos until the water nearly reached his feet. He took 46 images over a 13-minute period from 3:04 p.m. on March 11.

The magnitude-9.0 quake hit the town at 2:46 p.m.

The images provide a grim record of the tsunami’s devastating force in just one area of the town, the Shizugawa district where Takahashi lived.

To my surprise, Takahashi said he snapped the shots because he wanted to capture the last images of his clinic.

A one-story house with a blue roof appeared in the center of each image before the tsunami swallowed the area. It bore a sign that read Hasunuma Seitaiin, the name of his clinic that he had rebuilt only a few years earlier.

“I felt I needed to say goodbye to the clinic. All I could think of was to shoot images while it is still there,” Takahashi said.

He said his mind was blank while he was taking photos. Afterward, he said he felt empty.

“Oh, no, there’s nothing left,” he said to himself.

The town had a population of about 18,000. As of last month, some 500 residents died in the disaster and 300 remain unaccounted for.

Takahashi’s images were among the most arresting photos that documented the catastrophe. He says, however, they give him the impetus to continue living.

“They are testament to my survival,” he said. “I am determined to pass along what I learned: When a tsunami is approaching, do anything you can to flee to higher ground.”

Takahashi had many of his photos enlarged and displays them in the clinic’s waiting room.

“It’s my way of telling people what happened to Shizugawa,” he said.

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About liz

from the u.s., recently moved from kobe to sendai, japan, researching community-based housing recovery after disaster.

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