By Lorisa Salvatin
The buildings of Ondai are so plain and gray, they disappear into the sky. It’s as if the day’s light summer rain has dissolved the buildings, the pavement and the sky together. People stay inside to keep dry, and this only adds to the plainness of the place, a temporary housing development where people are warehoused in row after row of tiny gray apartments.
Inside the main building that serves as a community center, colorful streamers and origami hang from the ceiling; the walls decorated with posters from Christmas parties and handmade paper flowers; photos of famous visitors pasted on cardstock line the doorway. Even so, the bland light entering through the window sets a somber mood.
Then, a 70-year-old walks in the room and lights up the room with a large smile, dancing with energy. She kneels down as everyone in the room greets her. She introduces herself, joking that she shares the name with crowned princess of Japan. This is Masako Matate: self-proclaimed princess, wife, mother of four and survivor of the Great Eastern Japan earthquake and the tsunami that followed.
In March of 2011, the magnitude 9 earthquake sparked a series of tsunamis that hit the coastline with waves more than 30 feet high. Thousands of people were killed or injured, and more than 800,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Nearly 500,000 people had to be evacuated from their coastal homes, including Masako and her family.
As she seats herself at a table in the Ondai community center, Masako begins to tell her story.
She had ties to the sea. Before the earthquake, Masako’s husband worked as a fisherman, and though she thought of herself as a housewife, many of her daily activities went quite beyond the usual cooking and cleaning. Her day would begin at 3am, when she bid her husband farewell as he sailed out for the daily catch. She would wait for his return at 7 in the morning. Much of her time was spent helping her husband repair the nets or selling fish at the local market.
But a few days before the earthquake, Masako’s life took a drastic turn, when her husband had a heart attack. He was then sent to receive treatment from a hospital in Sendai, leaving Masako to travel back and forth from their home in Haragama to visit him. She was on the train to visit him when the earthquake struck.
When the quake subsided, she found the train had stopped and would be evacuated. Many thoughts rushed through her head, but her family was the most prominent of them. She asked the woman sitting beside her if she could borrow her phone to send one message.
She sent a message to her son:
Your mother is alive.
Those on the train were evacuated to a gym in Soma City. That night, the radio informed her that a tsunami had followed the earthquake. Being so close to the sea, she assumed that her house was destroyed.
For the next three days she would be out of touch with her husband. Masako laughs a little from across the table, remembering that back home in Haragama, she and her husband would always be at odds. But then, having no idea what condition her husband was in did nothing but worry her.
Finally on the fourth day, Masako gets a call from her husband, who had received her contact information after their son dropped her off the gym. She lights up again and lifts her hands off the table to wipe her eyes as she describes hearing his voice over the phone asking if she is ok.
Her smile slowly fades again as she recollected finding nothing but devastation when upon returning to their home in Haragama two days after the earthquake.
“This is hell,” she muttered with placing her hands in her lap, as she began describing how she had to make her way carefully through the debris. Ships had followed the sea inland, and lay scattered across fields. Everything was destroyed. She returned to the place where her house stood only to find it was gone.
“I was so overwhelmed,” Masako said, “I couldn’t cry.”
As they continued to walk around, her son pointed something out in the distance, thinking this might be their house. About 100 to 200 meters from where their home originally stood, they found the second floor of their home.
“I finally cried,” Masako said from across the table, remembering how her house was so strong. After searching what was left of the house to see what they could salvage, she could find nothing of any sentiment, “All the memories were flushed away.”
Although she had lost almost everything in the tsunami, Masako spends these days wearing a smile, knowing that she is alive and her family survived. A heart attack is already unfortunate in itself, she says as she lifts her hands from her lap, but it is also the reason she and her family are able to tell their story today.
Masako sits up and once again, places her hands on the table, going back in her story to explain that her grandson had been on spring vacation from school a few days before the earthquake, so her son and his family had been out of town. Her grandson had called her that day telling her that they were coming home. Yet, it was her husband’s recovery at the hospital that led her to take the train and tell her grandson that they should wait for her to come back before they return.
Their lives may have been lost that day if it weren’t for that stroke of silver lining.
By the time Masako finishes her story, the rain still falls, but only in small droplets. And while the sky still lies flat beyond Ondai temporary housing, a silver lining seems to outline the buildings, painted by a Princess named Masako.