Mar 24, 2011
No power, little food, but it's still home
Some survivors whose homes still stand opt to stay put amid challenges
Official death toll
Number of missing people
Number of evacuees in shelters
Households without access to water
Households without electricity
Survivors collecting water near their home in Kamaishi, Iwate prefecture, on Monday. Their home was spared, but they have no running water and little food. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
KAMAISHI: No running water, no electricity, and precious little fuel and food. But for some of Japan's tsunami survivors, it is still home - and they are not leaving.
For all the privations they now face, they are among the more fortunate ones: Their houses were spared - often by just a matter of metres - from the wall of water that wiped out the rest of their communities nearly two weeks ago.
They have decided to stick it out where they are, unlike the majority, who have opted to stay in evacuation shelters which, though far from being comfortable, offer companionship and some basic amenities.
'I never thought of leaving,' said Ms Mayumi Ozawa, 52, who lives alone in a hillside home overlooking the devastated north-eastern fishing port of Kesennuma.
'It has not been easy. I have to go out every day to look for supplies, and it is cold at night, but this is my home and, as long as it is standing, I will stay here.'
The reasons for staying put are varied, ranging from a simple desire to maintain some semblance of independence and privacy to the need to care for incapacitated family members.
Some have also simply refused to abandon their pets, which are not allowed in the public shelters.
For Ms Rueko Shitara, her elderly mother and ailing, bed-ridden father precluded any move to the cramped local shelter, where evacuees sleep huddled together on mattresses laid out on the floor.
'The fact that we still have our house and we are still alive makes us very happy,' she said.
Every morning, Ms Shitara and her 75-year-old mother Kiyoko hike from their modest wooden home to a hillside stream to collect buckets of fresh water, which they deposit in large, plastic-lined jars outside the house.
It is a traditional home, and the family has resorted to traditional methods to get by. Her mother boils water in a kettle placed on a metal grate over a kagizuru - a recessed four-sided hearth in the floor of the living room fuelled by lumps of charcoal.
On the other side of the room, a similar hearth is covered by a kotatsu - a low wooden table with a blanket under which the family members wrap their lower bodies to keep warm in the near-freezing temperatures. A single candle keeps the room lit at night.
'Right now, we do not know when everything will work again; we do not know how long this will last,' said Ms Shitara.
The family had some dried and prepared foods in stock before the tsunami hit, but those supplies ran out fast, and Ms Shitara spends much of her day searching for anything to eat.
Mr Patrick Fuller of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said: 'For people who are not in the evacuation centres and are staying in their homes, food is a big problem because most of the shops are closed.
'They can get food from the municipal offices, but the offices are located up in the hills and very difficult to reach. People in the evacuation centres are possibly better off in terms of food supply.'
Some of those remaining in their homes go to the shelters for government handouts that they then take back to their families - a move that has been criticised by some homeless evacuees.
'There is a bit of tension because the people in the shelters believe those in their own homes have enough,' said Mr Kiyoshi Murakami, an official helping with emergency response in Rikuzentakata, one of the worst-hit coastal towns.
'Some people in the shelters are complaining. Of course, it is not everybody.'
In Kamaishi, Mr Takashi Osaka, a retired seaman, decided to remain in his house where he has lived alone since the death of his wife, to whom he keeps a small shrine in one room.
He is better off than some others, having taken the precaution of storing extra kerosene and gas containers which allow him to cook and fuel a heater. At night, he fills a bottle with hot water, wraps it in a towel and holds it in bed to stay warm.
Asked why he chose not to move to a shelter, Mr Osaka simply said: 'I was born in this house.'