From the Akita edition of the Yomiuri comes the story of a Ground Self-Defense Force Captain whose family were caught up in the tsunami:

3 months after the catastrophe: His family are victims – SDF member on duty in Kamaishi

Captain Kazuo Onodera at work on the Sanriku Railway in Kamaishi

Captain Kazuo Onodera at work on the Sanriku Railway in Kamaishi (Source: Yomiuri)

Crunch, crunch… The sound of SDF members stabbing the gravel with their shovels can be heard here and there. Nearby, on the other side of the river of concrete, a bridge girder is lifted into the air. A twisted track floats in the air.

On June 6th, Captain Kazuo Onodera (50), of the Ground Self-Defense Force 21st Infantry Regiment, was in charge of 16 men from 4th Company in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. To restore the Minami Rias line of the Sanriku Railway that ran along the Iwate coast, Onodera’s men were tasked with levelling out the gravel of around 350 meters of track by mid-June. The men, intensely focused on their spades, staring out from under their helmets, checked their progress.

On March 11th at 2:46 p.m., in a room in Camp Akita (Terauchishogunno, Akita Prefecture), Onodera was talking to his wife, Yoko (38), who was at their home in Tomiyamachi, Miyagi Prefecture. “When are you coming back?” she asked. At the moment he replied, “I think I can come back on the 15th,” Yoko screamed: “Earthquake! Everything’s really shaking!” Ono immediately began to feel the earth moving under his feet. He instinctively hung up the phone without saying another word. “There’ll probably be an emergency call. We have to start preparing!” He told his subordinate. Ono had a hunch the damage would be serious.

The 21st Infantry Regiment voluntarily came to Kamaishi late at night on March 12th. As a result of their yearly training in Miyagi Prefecture, they were able to quickly set up a base in the center of the city and began their search and rescue operations. Rubble towered over their heads.  Using lumber and household tools, it took two hours to advance 30 meters with just manual labor. They found nothing but corpses. They were mostly elderly, and their bodies were quickly moved to a makeshift morgue.

On the 2nd day, they transported a grandmother who held onto a deceased month-old baby, huddled up with her husband. The old couple kept repeating, “I’m sorry,” as they sobbed. The boy’s face looked like he was just asleep. Onodera, with two children of his own, desperately tried to hold back his tears.

“He is irreplaceable. My everything…” After hearing his wife’s scream, Onodera still had no idea of whether his family were safe. After seeing the disaster site with his own eyes, “I pretty much gave up and resigned myself to fate.” His mobile phone reported only “no signal”. On the 15th, he begged a colleague working outside Kamaishi to find out what happened to his family.

Yoko and eldest daughter (11) and son (9) were safe. Their house was badly damaged, but in Onodera’s parents’ house in Kesenuma, Miyagi Prefecture, was completely destroyed. Yoko’s family home in Minami-Soma was close to the troubled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant.

After hanging up the phone, Yoko continued to send mail: “Are you safe? We’re is safe.” There were no replies. The date when Onodera promised he would return home, the 15th, was their wedding anniversary. “He is the kind of person who will always call on our anniversary.” On the 15th, Onodera’s colleague telephoned to find out if they were okay. Yoko reflected, “I was annoyed that it took  so long, but I knew he was doing his best in the disaster zone.”

After putting down the phone, the colleague called Onodera, who said, “Although I think there is no excuse, for a service member, it is natural that ‘Duty comes first’.”

At the start of the May, the SDF’s gradually began to focus on restoration efforts. In these 3 months, Onodera has been sent to two of the three affected prefectures.

From June 2nd, work to remove the rubble from the Sanriku Railway began under the name, “Santetsu Hope Operation” [Santetsu being an abbreviation of SANriku TETSUdo, Sanriku Railway]. The 21st Infantry Regiment formed part of the 2,000-man workforce.

Standing on the ground in Kamaishi, Onodera remarked: “The transportation that took people to work and school is slowly returning. As we are in the disaster zone, my parents and I are all victims. I can understand what it means for the victims to see life returning to normal. We are tied to the hopes and dreams of the victims of this disaster.”

The revival of Kamaishi is the revival of Iwate. The revival of Iwate is the revival of Tohoku. And so revival of Tohoku is also the revival of Japan. That is what Onodera believes. [By Shinsuke Ishiguro]

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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
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