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Painful memory of losing loving brother to 1995 Kobe earthquake unforgettable

Mika Shigemori, center, talks to her son Soma, left, and daughter Noa, right, in front of the site where her home had been at the time of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, in Kobe's Hyogo Ward, on Jan. 17, 2021. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)

KOBE -- When the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck on the morning of Jan. 17, 1995, Mika Shigemori, who lived with her family in Kobe's Hyogo Ward, was just 8 years old. Her 9-year-old brother Sumito, who had always been generous and kind to her, died screaming in the flames that went up after the temblor. Unable to do anything, Mika just stood there, listening to his cries for help.

    Twenty-six years have passed since the disaster, and 34-year-old Mika is now the mother of four children, aged between two and 18. "Memories of my brother and the quake disaster are painful. I want to forget them, but I also don't want to forget," Mika says.

    On the day the massive quake struck, the six-story apartment building that Mika's family was living in fell over on its side. Her mother Kazuko and her brother Sumito, who were sleeping side by side, were pinned underneath a chest of drawers. Mika, who had been sleeping close to the window, was miraculously spared of injuries, and her mother was also pulled out from underneath the chest by neighbors. But Sumito, who was pinned further back, could not be wrested out, as the flames closed in on them.

    "Mom!" "Help me!" Sumito's screams reverberated through the darkness. Kazuko yelled back, "Sumito! Sumito!" Mika tried to go back inside for her brother, but adults nearby stopped her. Her brother's screams changed to "It's hot!" and eventually they stopped altogether. One month later, his bones were found in the charred rubble.

    Named "Sumito" by Kazuko, with the hope that he would grow up to be someone with compassion and the warmth of March, the month in which he was born, Sumito had always been by Mika's side. They walked to and from school together. When Mika revealed that she wanted multiple items at the candy store where they went to every day, he would give her his 100-yen coin (approx. $0.96). Because their mother was gone a lot for work, he would accompany her to the bathroom at night when she was scared to go by herself.

    "He never once got upset. We never fought. He was just so kind," Mika recalls. The terror, sorrow and sense of loss she felt from her brother's voice gradually fading away amid the spreading post-quake fire has not changed at all, 26 years later.

    But her everyday life changed dramatically after the earthquake. At times, her mother told her, "It should've been you who died," and once, she even tried to push Mika off the veranda. Unable to tolerate the abuse from her troubled mother, at the age of 12, Mika left home. She lied about her age and worked at restaurants, got married at 16, and gave birth to a son, Seiya, who is now 18 years old. "I've led a pretty unconventional life, haven't I?" she says, laughing.

    Nine years ago, Mika's eldest son surpassed the age at which her brother's life ended. "It was a strange feeling. I felt like I could sort of understand the grief my mother must've felt from losing my brother." Mika's mother, with whom she never cut ties, died from an illness in 2015 at the age of 58.

    "I wish children today could live tranquil lives without knowing a thing about past painful disasters," says Mika. "But," she also says, "disasters are going to happen." Mika, who now lives in the Osaka prefectural city of Moriguchi, experienced the massive 2018 Osaka Earthquake. Being mindful of her pregnant belly, she held her then 2-year-old son Soma tight. She was terrified and couldn't stop crying.

    Mika finds herself in a cold sweat when the emergency earthquake warning alarm goes off on TV. She can't sleep through a typhoon. "The horrors of natural disasters have sunken into my psyche," she says. And then there is the heartache of losing someone you love. "When I think about all these things, I realize I should never forget what happened. This day will be a special day for me forever," she says.

    Mika Shigemori, top, plays with son Soma, center, and daughter Noa, at a park next to where she lived at the time of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, in Kobe's Hyogo Ward, on Jan. 17, 2021. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)

    On Jan. 17, 2021, Mika pressed her palms together in front of where her apartment building used to stand, to pray for her brother's soul. The site looks completely different from what it looked like at the time of the quake, but she tells her two younger children, Noa and Soma, that she went through the Great Hanshin Earthquake here. Smiling at the two youngsters who don't quite understand the gravity of the situation, they go to the park next door to play, just like Mika used to with her late brother.

    "When my two youngest children are older, I'd like to tell them about my brother too," Mika says.

    (Japanese original by Shota Harumashi, Kobe Bureau)

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