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6-year-old tsunami victim learns to smile again

By Toru Hanai / Reuters

Six months after Japan’s massive earthquake and tsunami, I went back to visit six-year-old Wakana Kumagai who lost her father in the disasters in Higashi-Matsushima, Miyagi prefecture.

I photographed Wakana when she visited her father’s temporary grave at a mass burial site in Higashi-Matsushima on April 21, after attending an entrance ceremony at her elementary school. I was struck by how positive and optimistic Wakana behaved.

Toru Hanai / Reuters

Wakana Kumagai, 6, waits for her mother Yoshiko after visiting the grave of her father, who was killed by the March 11 tsunami, at a temporary mass grave site in Higashi-Matsushima, Miyagi prefecture, April 21, 2011, after attending an entrance ceremony of Omagari elementary school. Her father Kazuyuki called his wife Yoshiko just after the March 11 earthquake to tell her to take the children to Omagari elementary school which was serving as a shelter. He was found near the shelter four days after the tsunami, Yoshiko said.

Five months later, Wakana bowed her head in prayer with her mother Yoshiko and brother Koki at the exact spot where the car of their late father Kazuyuki was found. The family crouched in prayer at 2:46 p.m. as Japan marked exactly six months since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Toru Hanai / Reuters

Wakana Kumagai (R), prays with her mother Yoshiko (C) and brother Koki at 2:46 p.m., when Japan marks the passing of exactly six months since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

“Your daddy got out of the car and went towards where he thought you were to find you,” Yoshiko whispered to her children as they prayed at the site.

Wakana then looked toward the elementary school which acted as a shelter and where they waited for the arrival of their father in the cold as snow fell around them on March 11.

Toru Hanai / Reuters

Wakana Kumagai prays at 2:46 p.m., when Japan marks the passing of exactly six months since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, in Higashi-Matsushima, Miyagi prefecture Sep. 11, 2011. Kumagai prayed at the spot where the car of her father, who was killed by the tsunami, was found. Her father Kazuyuki called his wife Yoshiko just after the March 11 earthquake to tell her to take their children to Omagari elementary school which was serving as a shelter. He was found near the shelter four days after the tsunami, Yoshiko said.

On that fateful day, Wakana’s mother Yoshiko received a phone call from her husband Kazuyuki, just after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck. “A tsunami will be coming,” he said. “Take the children and go to the elementary school (shelter). I will go later too,”. These were the last words anyone ever heard from him.

Toru Hanai / Reuters

Wakana Kumagai looks at at the spot where the car of her father, who was killed by the March 11 tsunami, was found in Higashi-Matsushima, Miyagi prefecture, Sep. 11, 2011.

Four days later, Kazuyuki was found dead, and Yoshiko and Koki met him again in a morgue that housed the victims of the disaster. “It is my daddy,’ Koki said without showing a single tear as he confirmed that the body was indeed his father,” Yoshiko explained as she spoke of how even police officers were impressed by how strong 8-year-old Koki was.

The family visited the spot where their house, washed away by the tsunami, used to stand. Searching through the rubble, Wakana tried to look for something, anything, but found only the foundations of their washed away home.

Toru Hanai / Reuters

Wakana Kumagai (C), joins hands with her mother Yoshiko near her brother Koki as they visit the spot where their house, washed away by the March 11 tsunami, used to stand in Higashi-Matsushima, Miyagi prefecture.

Toru Hanai / Reuters

Wakana Kumagai, 6, reacts as she visits the spot where her house, washed away by the March 11 tsunami, used to stand.

“There’s nothing left,” Yoshiko muttered as she looked through the rubble and debris. Throughout the search, Wakana was there holding her mother’s hand.

Toru Hanai / Reuters

Wakana Kumagai (R), holds hands with her mother Yoshiko as they visit the spot where their house, washed away by the March 11 tsunami, used to stand in Higashi-Matsushima, Miyagi prefecture Sep.11, 2011.

Yoshiko had the body of her husband, Kazuyuki, exhumed. He was laid to rest in a temporary mass grave site in Higashi-Matsushima when she had the body dug up to be cremated in spite of the objection of relatives. The body was then taken to a crematory in the suburbs that she found in order to give Kazuyuki a proper funeral service.

“I really wanted to return him home and to be near the children,” Yoshiko said as she explained why she wanted the ashes to be brought back to their home.

The urn containing his ashes is now full of letters that Wakana wrote after her father’s ashes returned home. While most of the letters are the same, one simply says “I know I can’t do anything, but I just want to meet you again Daddy.”

Toru Hanai / Reuters

Wakana Kumagai reads a manga under a portrait and an urn containing the ashes of her father.

One day, one of Wakana’s dolls was miraculously found in the rubble. The doll was her favorite when she was a baby, to the point where without out it she would immediately begin to cry and complain.

“Maybe it’s a gift from my Daddy,” Wakana said while smiling.

Behind her, the ashes of her father and his portrait look down on the family left behind.

Toru Hanai / Reuters

 

You can see the original PhotoBlog post of Wakana Kumagai saying goodbye to her father here.