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1 week after Hokkaido quake, survivors gripped by shock and loss

Makoto Habata stands near the ruined house of his neighbor and childhood friend Takeshi Hatashima, who was killed by a landslide triggered by the Sept. 6, 2018 earthquake, in Atsuma, Hokkaido, on Sept. 11, 2018. (Mainichi)

ATSUMA, Hokkaido -- A week after the magnitude-6.7 quake that took 41 lives in Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, many of the survivors remain lost for words as they pray for the dead. Meanwhile, daily life is a challenge in the wake of an island-wide blackout just after the temblor, while 1,592 people were still living in evacuation shelters as of 6 p.m. on Sept. 12, some because their homes have been destroyed.

In Atsuma in the west of the prefecture, houses dislodged by landslides sit crumpled and crushed amid scattered muddy clothes and pillows. The Sept. 6 quake hit a 7 on Japan's 7-level seismic intensity scale here, and many of the dead in the disaster lost their lives when the hillsides gave way and unleashed a speeding wall of mud and uprooted trees on the small community.

Among the victims was 86-year-old Takeshi Hatashima. Eighty-nine-year-old Makoto Habata, Hatashima's neighbor and childhood friend, stands staring at the collapsed mountainside behind their homes. He appears dumbfounded as he says, "Why Takeshi-chan? Why couldn't he be saved?"

Habata says that there was a terrible rumbling sound from the earth at about 3:08 a.m. on Sept. 6, the moment the earthquake hit. Waiting for the shaking to stop, he then pulled himself out from underneath a fallen chest of drawers and went to check on his friend. But in the darkness, his path was blocked by mounds of dirt and broken trees, and he could not see Hatashima's house.

Habata went to an evacuation shelter, but returned home at about midday. It was then that he saw Hatashima's house, pushed some 30 meters off its foundations by the earth and fat tree trunks that had invaded the building. He hoped then that someone would be able to help his neighbor, and he told the rescue workers at the scene where Hatashima and his 81-year-old wife Tomiko's bedroom was. Not long after, Habata was told that the couple was dead.

Many farmers from Japan's main island of Honshu settled in Hokkaido in the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Hatashima's grandfather Kichijiro was one of them, arriving in 1899 from Toyama Prefecture on the Sea of Japan. The entire area was wetland at the time, and Hatashima's forebearers cut down trees and transformed the land into rice paddies and fields.

Both Habata and Hatashima are the descendants of colonists from Toyama Prefecture, and their families have long been close. When the two were children, they played together on the hillside and skied down it in the winter. However, it was that very hillside which collapsed and killed his friend.

"The bedrock here is strong, and we had never had serious damage from a natural disaster before," says Habata, choking up as he speaks.

After finishing primary school, Hatashima became a farmer full-time. His father passed away when he was about 20, but he never complained about continuing the family farm. This was at a time when they still had no agricultural machinery, and everyone in the community would help each other out to make sure all the work was done on time.

Hatashima married Tomiko in his 20s, and the pair raised three boys while keeping up the rice farm. During the Bon festival of the dead in summer, the whole family gathered in the yard to eat "Genghis Khan," a lamb hot-pot.

Later, Hatashima donated the 110-year-old farmhouse where he was raised to the town. The central pillar and the stays of the traditional "Ecchu" Toyama-style home were all made entirely of wood. It has since been moved by the municipality to another location, and is called the "old Hatashima house."

"Takeshi-chan really took care of that house," says Habata.

Hatashima had been leasing his rice fields out for some years, and had turned his own efforts to growing vegetables nearby. Three days before the quake, Habata was working in his shed in the yard when Hatashima dropped by bearing a freshly picked watermelon he wanted to give to his neighbor. Habata ate that watermelon around noon following the temblor, recalling the sight of Hatashima trimming the trees and attending to flowers in his yard.

On Sept. 11, Habata placed a can of juice and a bouquet of pink lilies and yellow chrysanthemums in front of Hatashima's ruined home. He stared at the mounds of earth and said, "It's so sad. It's all gone..."

(Japanese original by Tamami Kawakami, City News Department)

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