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'It was all so sudden': Family members mourn victims of southwest Japan flood disaster

Self-Defense Forces personnel and firefighters are seen rescuing people who went missing in landslide disasters brought on by torrential rains that hit southwestern Japan in this photo taken in the town of Tsunagi in Kumamoto Prefecture on July 5, 2020. (Mainichi/Tomohisa Yazu)
A woman who was flown to safety in a Self-Defense Forces helicopter after being found stranded in a district suffering from river flooding is shown in this photo taken in the village of Kuma, Kumamoto Prefecture, on July 5, 2020. (Mainichi/Kentaro Ikushima)

KUMAMOTO -- Over 20 residents here in this southwestern Japan prefecture were confirmed dead on July 5, a day after record torrential rains hit the area, causing severe damage from floods and landslides. Sadness swept over the region as family members mourned the bereaved.

Rescue operations have been ongoing in the disaster-stricken areas in the southern parts of Kumamoto Prefecture. At around 5:30 a.m. on July 5 in the Meshima district of the town of Ashikita, Seiichi Kosaki, 69, and his wife Mineko, 68, were found on the first floor of a house that had been crushed by soil and sand that flowed into the building, and have been confirmed dead. Their 44-year-old daughter, Katsura, had watched over search operations that had continued since the night of July 4 by self-defense force personnel, police and firemen. She had not yet come to terms with the reality and commented, "I don't know what happened as it was all so sudden."

Her father and mother were very affectionate toward her son. As Seiichi had experience playing baseball, once his grandson began to learn the sport himself, Seiichi played catch with him and watched his grandson's games. The boy's baseball games had been called off due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and Seiichi had been delighted that he could go cheer on his grandson at last after his daughter told him of an upcoming game.

The grandson, who is now a sixth grader in elementary school, had also watched the rescue operations all through the night, and mourned his grandfather's death, saying, "I wish he could have come and cheered me on more." A wristwatch belonging to Seiichi has been found, which the grandson says he will wear as a keepsake. The man's daughter choked up as she commented, "I only have gratitude toward everyone who participated in the search. I'm glad that it (the watch) was found together with my parents."

Meanwhile, in the Tagawa district of the town of Ashikita, family members of Tsugie Horiguchi, 93, her daughter Taeko Irie, 69, and Irie's son Ryuichi Irie, 42, were found in a state of cardiopulmonary arrest and were later confirmed dead between July 4 and before dawn on the following day.

According to relatives and neighbors, Horiguchi recently became unable to move her legs as freely as before, and spent most of her time inside the house besides going to a day care facility for the elderly. Many wisteria flowers were grown in the garden of her house, and she looked forward to inviting over friends and viewing the flowers with them. She is also said to have been fond of karaoke and often sang traditional Japanese enka songs.

Taeko Irie had lived next-door to her mother Horiguchi, along with her son Ryuichi, his wife, and her five grandchildren. At the time of the disaster, Ryuichi's wife and children had evacuated to the Kumamoto prefectural city of Minamata, and were safe.

Taeko had adored her grandchildren, who are in elementary school, and often escorted them to and from where they boarded the school bus. Ryuichi worked at a company within the town, and also took part in volunteer fire brigade activities. Although he caught a severe illness several years ago, he devoted himself to rehabilitation such as walking around the neighborhood, and had returned to his workplace.

A 78-year-old male neighbor who delivered cucumbers to the family's house 10 days ago commented, "Ryuichi expressed his appreciation with a smile on his face. The household was a lively one where the voices of children could always be heard."

In the Fukuhama district of the town of Tsunagi, Isamu Maruhashi, 85, was confirmed dead while search operations for missing family members of Isamu's wife Michiko, 83, and their 58-year-old son Kiyotaka have been ongoing.

According to relatives and others, Isamu and Michiko are originally from the town of Ashikita. Isamu retired from a major steel manufacturer in 1994 after reaching the mandatory retirement age. The next year, he was a victim of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in the city of Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, in western Japan where he lived with Michiko. Although their house did not collapse, it was left tilting greatly. At the time, their son Kiyotaka lived in the Hyogo Prefecture city of Kobe, and his wife had just given birth to a son who was the elderly couple's first grandchild. Isamu had traveled along destroyed roads on a motorcycle to deliver milk and diapers to them.

Isamu and Michiko moved to the town of Tsunagi around the summer of 1995. They grew oversized mandarins called dekopon in the nearby mountains and enjoyed looking at the ocean from their fields. Afterwards, their son and grandchild also began to live with them. The elderly couple had been looking forward to their grandchild's wedding, which was scheduled for the summer.

Michiko's 70-year-old younger sister, Mineko Matsuzaki, had watched the search operations for Michiko and her son at the site, and barely forced out a voice as she said, "I just want for them to be retrieved as soon as possible."

(Japanese original by Hayato Jojima, Kumamoto Bureau; Hiroyuki Takahashi, Saga Bureau; Shotaro Asano, Kyushu News Department; Yuki Kurisu, Kumamoto Bureau and Yusaku Yoshikawa, Kyushu News Department)

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