TOKYO (Kyodo) — Mayumi Baba, 36, took part as a volunteer in a meeting for children who lost parents in the March 11 disasters at an auditorium in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture in September.
After playing sports with volunteers, the children shared their thought and feelings about their lives with new families hosting them. Tears welled up in the eyes of some children who were then comforted by volunteers who sat with them.
Baba played badminton with primary school girls, occasionally sharing laughs at the event sponsored by Ashinaga, a civic group supporting children who have lost parents in accidents and other circumstances.
“I’d be happy if those kids I played with come back again,” says Baba, who herself lost her father in the tsunami.
Asked what motivated her to take up the volunteer work, Baba says, “For a long while after my father died, I could not speak with others about what’s really on my mind. I just thought everyone else around me was also in pain.”
She says the town she lives in was filled with a spirit in the air urging people to get over the disasters and just move on. She tried hard to make it through each day. “But as time passes, I had this sense of sorrow that just got deeper and deeper,” she says.
Baba was working at a kindergarten in Sendai city when the magnitude-9 quake struck. After making sure the kindergarteners were in the care of their parents and guardians, she headed to her hometown in Ishinomaki.
From Sendai, it took her three days to reach the port town, though typically it can be reached on a drive of a little over an hour. She found that the home where she lived together with her parents had been flattened without a trace.
“We’ve perhaps lost our father,” she was told by her younger brother who with his wife shared the house with their parents.
She was told her father was most probably swept away by the tsunami after he urged all other family members to evacuate to higher ground and returned to save a child in the neighborhood.
Baba later returned to Sendai to start a life alone. “It was just so hard every day,” she says. “I just didn’t know how I could overcome this sense of agony.”
Baba continued her job of nursery teacher. Watching children at the kindergarten almost every day, she thought, “While adults like me are going through this agony, I wonder how those parentless children are coping.”
She then read in a newspaper that Ashinaga was looking for volunteers to help bereaved children and decided to join a training course.
More than 1,500 children lost parents in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures in the disasters.
In the course of training, Baba let out her suppressed feelings at meetings where people in similar circumstances shared experiences of losing parents. “I learned I could unload it only when there are people who listen,” she says. “I felt much better.”
In the training, she says she learned she should not try to lead a conversation with children but rather she should try to listen to them. Some cannot immediately express in words what they feel. Stay with them and do not fear silence, but allow the children to start speaking, she was told.
Ayaka Furusawa, a 20-year-old junior college student, is another volunteer worker who had suffered. Her home in Sendai city washed away by the tsunami. Though her family survived, she says she became psychologically unstable three months after the disasters.
A survivor Keichi Kudo picks up car tire near the his damaged house at a devastated area in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, Japan, Wednesday, April 6, 2011, following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
“In the evening, when I saw a bus heading toward where our home used to be, I thought I could go home if I hopped on, or tears just came out suddenly,” says Furusawa. “I also got depressed when I had nothing to do.”
She could not tell her parents about her condition. It was also too much to bear when other people told her that it was good that she had at least survived, she says. With no home to go back to and anxiety about the future, those remarks made her taciturn.
Like anger, grief builds up, according to experts, who say it is important not to contain it but to let it out. Furusawa says she had also overcome a period of instability by not containing her feelings.
Masaki Nishiyama, a 24-year-old college student who lost his parents in the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, did volunteer work at shelters in Natori and Sendai cities in Miyagi Prefecture shortly after the March disasters.
After meeting children, he says he was reminded of the days he went through when he felt it too tough to move on. He was in the first grade of primary school in Kobe city when the magnitude-7.3 quake struck on Jan. 17, 1995.
He says he also tended to be withdrawn, avoiding contact with other people. But many people continued to commit themselves to engaging with him, he says.
“I think those links with other people helped me grow,” he says, noting the importance of keeping in touch with others. That was the message he delivered at meetings with bereaved children.
He will graduate university and start working in spring. He is planning to return as many times as possible to send a message to children.
“There will be a moment in life when you feel it is good that you are alive,” he says. “I hope they will continue to live until they think so. They are not alone.