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3.11 quake survivor 'mother of Otsuchi' keeps Kobe-Tohoku links burning bright

Yukiko Yahata is seen at Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture's "3.11 light of hope" monument to the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake disaster, on Jan. 17, 2018. The lamp was lit in 2012 with a flame from Kobe's "1.17 Light of Hope" memorial to the victims of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. (Mainichi)

OTSUCHI, Iwate -- At 5:46 a.m. on Jan. 17, Yukiko Yahata stands before a gas lamp in this northeastern Japanese town, hands pressed together. It was at this time on this day in 1995 that the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck Kobe and surrounding areas, killing over 6,400 people.

Kobe is nearly 800 kilometers southwest of Otsuchi, but the flame dancing in its glass case is a symbol of the link between the two places -- a link born of disaster, remembrance, and hope. Called the "3.11 light of hope," the flame was first lit in autumn 2012 to commemorate the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami that devastated the town the year before. The fire used to light it came from Kobe's "1.17 Light of Hope," itself a monument to the 1995 Hanshin quake. And it is Yahata, the "mother of Otsuchi," who tends it, cleaning the monument and taking care of the messages people leave in an attached letter box.

Yahata was on the second floor of her home when the March 11, 2011 earthquake hit. The building shook terribly, and the tsunami struck shortly afterwards, flooding the family's first-floor food shop. Yahata was also taking care of her then 67-year-old husband Shoichi, who had had a stroke two years before, and she thought they might die.

The couple survived, but others did not. That night, about 10 people from the neighborhood came to Yahata's house. She performed cardiac massage on a man in soaking wet clothes, but he could not be revived. The bitter frustration she felt lit a flame of ardent volunteerism that Yahata has maintained ever since.

In the days following the disaster, Yahata worked hard, going from an evacuation center to help clean out mud-clogged houses and deliver relief supplies to people still in their homes. The volunteers doing this work ended every day caked in mud and slept in their cars. Yahata was shocked. Two and a half months later, when Yahata had repaired her house, she opened the second floor to volunteers who needed a place to sleep. She was filled with the desire for people "to come and see the conditions in Otsuchi, and to listen to the stories of the people living in temporary housing."

Every November since 2011, Yahata has set up a booth at the Kobe Marathon, selling specialty items from Otsuchi and the greater Sanriku region, and also deepening personal ties with shop owners in Kobe's Nagata Ward. In 2014-16, when torrential rains wreaked havoc in Hiroshima, Ibaraki and Iwate prefectures, Yahata hastened to the disaster zones to help prepare meals for disaster victims. The walls of her home's first floor are covered in photos and thank-you cards from across Japan.

And so the predawn hours of Jan. 17 find a group including Yahata in front of Otsuchi's light of hope monument. They light 23 candles and press their hands together in remembrance for the victims of the Hanshin quake. "I want to expand this network of true, heartfelt connection across the country," Yahata says.

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