TOKYO -- "As another journalist who saw the huge tsunami with their own eyes, I felt like it wouldn't have been so odd if our places had been swapped."
So wrote a journalist senior to me in an article for the Mainichi Shimbun's "south coast diary" series in May 2011. A month earlier, the body of 24-year-old Yukio Kumada, a reporter at the local Fukushima Minyu Shimbun newspaper, was found along National Route 6, about 3 kilometers from the coast of Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture.
There were 1,153 disaster-related deaths in the city -- one of many in eastern Japan devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. On top of that, Minamisoma is within a 20-kilometer radius of Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, meaning entry to the city was forbidden after the triple-meltdown at the plant.
Kiyoshi Abe, 70, is a carpenter. He says he encountered Kumada for a brief moment shortly before the wave struck, and their meeting appears to have saved Abe's life. And I am going back with Abe to the place where it happened.
"I was driving straight home down this road (after the earthquake)," he tells me as we travel on a prefectural road connecting National Route 6 and the coast. Abe hits the gas, just as he had done on that day.
When the quake hit, Abe was working in the city of Soma, immediately to the north of Minamisoma. He was worried his two grandchildren living with him might come home from elementary school, and headed for the family home in the coastal Karasuzaki neighborhood in Minamisoma's Kashima Ward.
Abe stops the car on the side of the road. "It was here, I saw him waving like this," he says, waving his hands above his head. "I thought, what's he waving for? And then I looked up at the horizon and saw this thing like a blue-black cloud."
He realized suddenly that it was the sea; usually invisible from that spot on the road. It was a huge tsunami. He immediately turned the car around and sped away to higher ground. He didn't even have time to look back at Kumada. Abe says he probably drove for a few minutes after that, and when he got out of the car his legs were shaking.
About one or two months after the disaster, he heard a reporter had been swept away back on that road. It was Kumada. He remembered that the young man who waved at him had a camera slung round his neck. He was shocked by how young he was.
The Karasuzaki neighborhood had about 150 homes. Most of them were swallowed by the tsunami, leaving no trace that people had ever lived there. In a square on elevated land overlooking the area, Abe lowers his head before a white Buddha statue. On the memorial stone are the names of 58 locals who lost their lives in the disaster.
"These people were parent and child, these a couple," Abe says as he traces each name with his fingers. Finally, he reaches Kumada. "The local government officials said it would be best to include Kumada. My name would have been on here (without him), they said."
After the disaster, Abe took on work as head of the residents' association for a temporary housing facility, among other local responsibilities. Before, he would have turned down the positions, but he had begun to think that he, as a survivor, must do his part. He distributed donated items from across the country, and organized the system for accepting volunteers.
His home now is about five minutes from the sea by car, built in an area where a group of residents relocated after the disaster. On the drive home, Abe says, "I still think about Kumada, even though we never even spoke. If I'd let him get in the car at that moment, would he have been miraculously saved? I've thought about that so many times."
Wherever he goes, he keeps a cutting of Kumada's newspaper self-introduction in his driver's license sleeve. "He might have married and had kids. When I think about that, I feel so sorry for what happened."
In 2018, Abe was diagnosed with kidney cancer. In September 2020, it metastasized to his lungs, and he underwent surgery. He still visits the hospital regularly. "My life was saved, so I feel if I don't extend my life, even by just a day, I'll have to apologize to Kumada." Days have turned into months and thence to years since a young man he had never met saved his life. Very soon, it will be a decade.
The March 11, 2011 edition of the Fukushima Minyu Shimbun includes an article written by Kumada. A tsunami advisory had been issued after repeated earthquakes over the two days prior, and he reported on the closure of the parking lot for the seaside park in Karasuzaki. The place where he waved to Abe from is very close to the park.
Kumada's father Toshio, 63, lives in the mountains in the Fukushima Prefecture city of Koriyama. He tells the Mainichi Shimbun, "It seems there was a city employee there (to close the parking lot gate). He probably felt like he couldn't leave them behind."
Kumada was in his second year at the job, and was posted to a bureau in Minamisoma a year before the disaster. In junior high and high school, he was captain of the track and field club. Among the photos of his son that decorate his room, Toshio has kept a photo of him in his suit when he joined the newspaper. His nervous expression suggests a pride and hope at joining adult society. "He was a kid with a strong sense of responsibility. If only he'd been a bit more of a coward...," his father says.
After the disaster, Toshio maintained fewer personal relationships. He says with a sigh, "It's a terrible thing when your child dies before you."
(Japanese original by Naoki Watanabe, Fukushima Bureau)