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Sushi chef who lost mom in Kobe quake to speak for mourners at event marking 25 years

Yoshihiro Ueno is seen looking at the price board written by his mother in the family's sushi restaurant in Higashinada Ward, Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, on Jan. 6, 2020. (Mainichi/Kenji Konoha)

KOBE -- On Jan. 17, a mourners' gathering will be held in this west Japan city to commemorate 25 years since the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which took the lives of around 6,500 people in total.

Yoshihiro Ueno, 47, manager of sushi restaurant Nadazushi in Kobe's Higashinada Ward, has been selected to give the statement as the representative for the bereaved families in the 2020 ceremony. He lost his mother Michiko, then 47, in the earthquake a quarter of a century ago. This year he will welcome the anniversary as the inheritor of his family's business, as a father, and now at the same age his mother was when she died.

On Jan. 17, 1995, Ueno was a fourth-year university student. He was in his apartment in Tokyo when he was woken at around 7 a.m. by a call from a friend telling him something terrible had happened in Kobe. He put on the TV and saw images of the collapsed Hanshin Expressway in the city. Unthinkingly, he raised his voice at his friend, and shouted at them to explain what he was seeing.

His parents' home in Higashinada Ward was uncontactable by phone for a whole day. The next morning, Ueno's aunt called to tell him his mother had been buried under the rubble. He immediately got on the Shinkansen bullet train home. After switching trains, he borrowed a bicycle from his friend and finally arrived at the house, where he found his father just standing there. "We couldn't save her," his father said. Ueno then came face to face with his mother at a nearby morgue. When the funeral came, everyone helped apply makeup on her swollen face.

Yoshihiro Ueno is seen at a press conference about his role as the representative for bereaved families at the memorial for the 25th anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, at Kobe city hall, in Chuo Ward, Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, on Jan. 8, 2020. (Mainichi/Kimi Sorihashi)(Mainichi/Kimi Sorihashi)

As far back as Ueno could remember, his mother was always helping out at the Nadazushi restaurant near their home. She would work late into the night with his father. Although it was a small shop, it was always bustling with activity. He liked to see his mother's smile when she was talking to the customers.

Several months after the disaster, Ueno's father reopened the shop, which did not collapse like other buildings in the earthquake. Initially, Ueno went to work for a major food company. But he often thought about his mother's request that if anything should happen to his father she wanted him to take on the shop. He realized that if he didn't work at the sushi restaurant he would regret it, and left the company in the spring of 1997 to begin learning the trade under his dad.

He learned everything from start, and became able to serve sushi to customers after two years, but sometimes to a harsh response. When he felt like giving up, he would look at the hand-written price menu his mother made for the shop. When he looked at it, he remembered why he was there: to preserve the business his parents had worked hard to create.

In 2017, the restaurant moved to another location meters from the original site. When it did, Ueno framed the old price lists and put them up on a wall in the back. After his father passed away that year at age 73, Ueno became the only one left at the shop. Sometimes when he looks at the framed writing, he feels calm thinking that his mother is looking over the shop.

Now a father of three daughters, he has come to understand painfully the way his mother must have felt dying suddenly at the same age he is now. "She probably imagined what her children would be like grown up. She must have felt such regret," he said.

After giving the address as the representative for the bereaved families in the Jan. 17 ceremony, Ueno plans to open for business. With regular customers who have been visiting the restaurant for a long time, he intends to send out a message to his mother that he is well, and that he has kept things going.

(Japanese original by Takuya Kurozume, Kobe Bureau)

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