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Tsunami survivors: Resuming life interrupted

Kuni Takahashi

A few walls of bathroom are all that remain of a house in a residential neighborhood in Sendai, Feb 18, 2012.

Kuni Takahashi for msnbc.com

Jun Hirayama, 20, and his grandmother, Akiyo, 70, at their apartment in Sendai, Japan on Feb 21, 2012. The 2011 tsunami swept their house away and overtook the car they were driving, Akiyo spent a night on the roof of the half-submerged vehicle while Jun hung onto a tire drifting in freezing waters.

Kuni Takahashi reports: 

Kuni Takahashi

Jun Hirayama,19 and his grandmother Akiyo Hirayama, 70, stand in front of other family members in front of the remains of their house in Sendai, Japan on April 4, 2011.

Jun Hirayama, 20 and his grandmother, Akiyo Hirayama, 70, lost their home in the Japanese city of Sendai when the tsunami swept it away on March 11, 2011. They nearly lost their lives when it overtook the car they were driving to escape the wall of water. Akiyo spent a night on the roof of the half-submerged vehicle while Jun hung onto a tire -- drifting in freezing waters all night.  Akiyo's husband, Shinetsu Hirayama, with some family members in another car, was able to make it out safely.

Jun Hirayama, a college student, had performed as a part-time music DJ at a nightclub, but he lost everything including his clothes and music equipment to the tsunami.

“After the tsunami, I became less materialistic," he said. "I loved fashion and music and used to spend money on clothes and CDs, but I hardly buy anything now except necessary things. Everything I bought and saved disappeared in seconds. I’m so afraid to see that happen again”

“Even a year after, I still dream about the tsunami every month.”

Akiyo Hirayama, who was rescued by a helicopter the morning after the tsunami hit, thought that she would die on the roof of the car, where she huddled overnight in freezing temperatures and snow. She was reunited with her husband at the hospital after her rescue.

“For several months, I was too afraid to either go outside or to stay alone in the house," she said. "I was crying a lot. People kept saying ‘ganbaro’ (stay strong) but I didn't know what to do.”

“Since the disaster, my husband has been working hard to revive the community. I was afraid to stay in the same area but I trust him and have to follow him. Although I am still nervous, there is no other choice but stay here.”

The land where the Hirayamas' house used to stand does not have rebuilding restrictions, though the breakwaters and trees are gone, leaving the area exposed. It is unclear when the breakwaters will be rebuilt.

After Akiyo was rescued, she stayed with her sister. Jun, who drifted close enough to land to make it to shore after a frigid night spent clinging to the floating tire, was reunited with his grandparents a couple of weeks later.

“Being able to see his Seijin-shiki (coming of age ceremony) was the best thing that happened in my life after the tsunami," said Akiyo Hirayama. "I was crying again but that time for joy.”

The younger Hirayama is back in college now and slowly resumed working as a DJ. “Right after the tsunami, I didn’t think I would be able to go back to perform as a DJ," he said.  "But at the same time I realized how important the music is to my life. I cried when I went back to the club for first time after the tsunami. The audience was warm and very supportive. It was great.”

“Survivors are going through tough recovery time and some people may think it’s not the time for recreation, but to me, the music is something to live for. Because of the disaster, I feel like putting more energy and doing my best music ever. It’s like the second chapter of my life just began.”


Kuni Takahashi, a photojournalist based in Mumbai, returned to his native Japan in 2011 shortly after the earthquake and tsunami. He recently revisited some of the people he met there— as well as some of the people that msnbc.com profiled in its After the Wave series -- to find out how they were doing nearly a year after the devastating natural disaster.

Buddhist tombstones stand in the empty land which was once a crowded residential area in Sendai, Feb 18, 2012.