Paying a rare return visit to a family affected by disaster


By Katherine Mueller

They came running up to greet me with open arms, big smiles on their faces. After two years, I had returned to the town of Otsuchi in northeastern Japan and was again meeting the Matsuhashi family.

We had first met in the weeks immediately following the tsunami in March 2011. I had been deployed to Japan with IFRC, to gather photos and interviews, to tell the stories of those affected by the giant waves.

(Photo: IFRC communications manager Katherine Mueller with the Matsuhashi family --Tomoyuki father 43, Satomi mother 43, Mizuki daughter 14, Masayuki son 9 -- in the living room of their prefabricated house in Otsuchi in northeastern Japan.)

At the time, the Matsuhashi’s were using a 360 year old Shinto shrine as an evacuation centre. Their house had been flattened by another, and the shrine was on higher ground and provided them shelter and safety. Their story touched me and during my short stay in Japan, I would visit with them three times. We took photos; the daughter, Mizuki made me an origami crane while the son, Masayuki showed me how to skateboard. We exchanged email addresses, promising to write once power and internet connections were restored. It would not be easy. They don’t speak English and I don’t know Japanese, but we would find a way to manage.

Then I lost the little piece of paper with their email address on it. I was so disappointed. I could not offer this family shelter, or food or clothing or peace of mind, but I could offer them friendship, and I had lost the avenue through which to do so.

The months passed, and around the first anniversary of the tsunami, I received an email from Red Cross colleagues in Tokyo. They had a package of handwritten letters from the Matsuhashi family to send me. I was thrilled beyond belief. We emailed a few times, and when I found out I was returning to Japan for a conference, I immediately asked colleagues from the Japanese Red Cross if it would be possible to visit the Matsuhashi’s.

It was astonishing seeing them again. As aid workers, we rarely get the opportunity to return to the site of a disaster, to follow up with the incredibly strong and courageous people we meet. I felt so blessed to be given this opportunity.

They all looked the same. The kids are a little taller, the dad a little more energetic. When we first met, he was shell shocked, having watched houses, including his own, crumble around him, and then being chased by the wave.

We chat over coffee for a couple of hours, crowded into the small living room of the pre-fabricated housing they now call home. They show me the framed photos they still have of me and the kids from two years ago. We walk to the children’s school, Masayuki a typical nine year old boy scampers about, while his older 14 year old sister Mizuki seems almost embarrassed to be seen with us. It makes me smile, as I recall typical teenage behaviour back in Canada.

I am honoured that this family, who has been through so much, has opened their home to me. I look forward to returning in a few years when they have rebuilt and enjoy coffee and conversation in a home they can truly call their own.