A True Japanese Story

It’s not movie; It’s not play; It’s a true and tragic Japanese story. Minutes before a violent earthquake convulsed City Hall, Mayor Futoshi Toba, called his wife, Kumi, at 2:40 p.m. March 11, 2011 to suggest they take their two young sons to a barbecue place for dinner. She promised that she’d email him soon to let him know. But at 2:46, tremors from the magnitude-9 earthquake, knocking out electricity and phones. Soon afterwards, a wall of black water more than 40 feet high smashed through the 20-foot high seawall and poured into the heart of the city. “When I looked back in the direction of my home, I just saw all the houses being crushed,” Mr. Toba said. “The sound of the wood splintering was so loud.” Mr. Toba’s sons, Taiga, 12, and Kanato, 10, were at a hilltop school, and escaped the tsunami. But his wife was at home, closer to sea level, as she usually was during the day. “I considered just ignoring everyone, hopping in my car, and rushing to get her. But I really couldn’t do that,” he said, explaining that his duties as mayor required him to lead his colleagues to safety. “I was thinking the whole time: ‘I hope she was able to get away.'” More than 2,300 people, a tenth of the population here, were dead or missing. For weeks, Mr. Toba had been too busy to visit the morgue to see if Kumi was there. He also dreaded what he might find. “As a husband, I’d like to go search for my wife, but I need to lead the way on the recovery effort,” the mayor said late last month. “Many people here are in the same situation.”

At around 7 p.m., it started to snow. Some survivors gathered up debris and started a bonfire for warmth and to provide a beacon for any rescuers. The mayor and his aides huddled around a radio, listening to news bulletins. Aftershocks continued through the night, and roiling waves swept in and out. Mr. Toba said he feared the entire building would collapse. “We were just praying for daylight.” Some city-owned buildings -including City Hall, a fire station and a sports center- remain standing, but are so badly damaged that they will have to be torn down. Mr. Toba’s wife was missing, but his sons were alive. Of its roughly 23,000 inhabitants, more than 1,100 are confirmed dead. Nearly 1,200 are missing and presumed killed. Hundreds of bodies in the temporary morgue set up in a gymnasium remain unidentified.

Finally, the mayor got a call. There was a body in the morgue that resembled his wife, whose 39th birthday had been the day before. The woman’s body had been found about 2,000 feet uphill from their home. For several hours, Mr. Toba couldn’t get away from the office. At last, he made his way down to the morgue. The body was badly damaged. But it was Kumi. He debated what to tell his sons, and thought he didn’t want to let them see her like that. It wasn’t how he wanted them to remember their mother. “She was like a friend to them,” he said. “Since I was always so busy, they always ran to their mother.” Standing before her body, he apologized to his wife for not coming to find her. His responsibilities as mayor, he told her, kept him away. “When I think about that,” Mr. Toba said afterward, “it really makes me question what kind of human being I am.”

It’s really tragic and moving. It’s really like a Japanese classic story. But it could be a comic-tragic story, like Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton love story!, too. Maybe there is a hidden Monica Lewinsky in this story. Maybe, who knows !

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