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Parents of university student missing after Kumamoto quakes wait anxiously

Hikaru Yamato's father Takuya is seen in Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture, on April 24, 2016. (Mainichi)

ASO, Kumamoto -- For the parents of a university student missing since April 16, when the "main shock" of a recent series of earthquakes struck Kumamoto Prefecture, every day is another day of waiting for news about their son.

Hikaru Yamato, 22, a fourth-year student at Kumamoto Gakuen University, vanished after a landslide knocked down the Aso Ohashi bridge in the April 16 quake. His parents now spend their days praying for his return, and to hear his voice again. On April 25, work continued to locate Hikaru and one other missing person in the village of Minamiaso.

The day before, Hikaru's father, Takuya, 58, was at the Minamiaso village office, listening to a press briefing by the municipal government and the Self-Defense Forces.

"I want any information I can get," he says. Tired as he is from worrying, he makes the nearly one-hour drive to the office almost every day to ask about the state of the search. April 24 was his birthday.

"Hikaru would always send me a text message saying 'Happy Birthday.' I guess there won't be one today," he said despondently.

Hikaru Yamato's mother Shinobu wears a watch that his parents gave him for his 20th birthday, in Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture, on April 24, 2016. (Mainichi)

At 1:25 a.m. on April 16, just after the magnitude-7.3 earthquake struck, Takuya tried to call Hikaru, who had gone to a friend's house in the city of Kumamoto. However, he couldn't get through to his son's mobile phone. He believed Hikaru would be fine, but as the coming day turned to evening, he still couldn't get through. When he asked his son's friend about him, the friend said that Hikaru had left to go home at around 12:30 a.m., shortly before the quake.

Takuya asked the police and others to search for Hikaru, but being in the middle of a chaotic situation they could not meet his request. With the electricity and water to his house cut, Takuya lived out of his car as he visited the police and local authorities, asking for help.

It turned out that an automatic license plate reading system had recorded Hikaru's car. This record raised the likelihood that Hikaru had been driving near the Aso Ohashi bridge at the time of the quake. On April 18, the bridge area finally became the subject of a search for the missing, but because of the danger of landslides, it wasn't until two days later that unmanned construction vehicles from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism were sent in to enable a full-scale search to get underway.

Hikaru's parents asked the prefectural police to allow them to visit the area near the bridge, and they did so for the first time on April 23. Takuya, whose job involves land surveying and technical design, says, "I could see that the mountain had been deeply gouged, and that several meters' worth of dirt had accumulated in the river. But I said to (my son) 'We will find you.'"

Hikaru's name, which is written with a kanji character meaning "spreading light" was given to him in the hope that he would become a person of shining qualities. Just as hoped, he grew up into a king young man.

Hikaru's grandparents' house on his mother's side is near the bridge, and when he was young, he would often play nearby. His mother, Shinobu, 48, says, "I can't believe this would happen in our hometown."

In January last year, Hikaru celebrated his 21st birthday with a birthday cake for the first time in a while. Though he normally disliked the camera, on this day he smiled happily for it. The photo is a favorite of his parents, but now they are overcome with emotion when looking at it.

After Hikaru went missing, a silver watch his parents had given him for his 20th birthday was found in his room. Shinobu now wears it, praying to be reunited with her son.

Takuya says, "We know the situation is tough, but we want the search to continue until Hikaru comes home to us no matter what the outcome is."

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