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Tsunami survivors: Struggling to live on, alone

Kuni Takahashi for msnbc.com

Shiro Yuyama is reflected in a photograph of his wife Tamako at his temporary housing in Onagawa, Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan on Feb 5, 2012. Tamako was killed in the massive tsunami that hit northern Japan on March 11, 2011. Mr. Yuyama, who was working on building a barn right outside his house, couldn't save Tamako who was inside their home.

Kuni Takahashi

Shiro Yuyama, 70, looks at photograph of his wife Tamako at his temporary housing in Onagawa on Feb 5, 2012.

Kuni Takahashi reports:

Kuni Takahashi

Shiro Yuyama, 69, looks for his belongings where his house used to be in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan on April 2, 2011 following the massive earthquake and tsunami. His wife, Tamako, was killed by the tsunami.

Shiro Yuyama, 70, remembers with horrible clarity the day when the massive tsunami that hit northern Japan on March 11, 2011, took his wife Tamako. Yuyama, who was building a barn right outside his house in the Onagawa district of the coastal village of Minamisanriku, couldn’t save Tamako who was inside when it was swept away.

“I used to work on a fishing vessel so I can cook for myself," he said. "But I often lose my appetite eating alone now. I remember what it was like to share meals with my wife.”

After the tsunami, Yuyama said he started drinking heavily. “Sometimes by myself, sometimes with my friend, I drank a lot. I have a friend who lost his mother, wife and son by the tsunami. We drank together, sometimes saying that it would be much easier if we committed suicide."  

Then he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in December.

“I was trying to recover from my wife’s death and was slowly moving forward," he said. "The diagnosis was a huge blow. I feel like I've been pushed back to the starting point.”

Yuyama stayed in an evacuation center for the first three months following the earthquake and tsunami, then moved into a one-room temporary home built by the government. His daughter and grandchildren, who used to visit him before the earthquake, rarely come now, as they are busy with school and their own lives and live about 18 miles to the south.

“I wish I had another room to have my grandchildren sleep over," Yuyama said. "I can’t accommodate them when they come to visit.”

His wife's body was recovered last year and she was buried on her birthday, Aug. 3. The place where their house used to be is only about a twenty minute walk from where he lives now, but he rarely visits. The land is empty, now that all the debris has been cleaned up.

“One of my sons, who lives in Sendai, asked me to move to the city but I can’t," he said. "I don’t want to leave Onagawa. I can’t leave my wife behind here. I better live here until I die.”

“My brother calls me sometimes asking if I need anything but I don’t need ‘things’ that I can buy. It’s just difficult to be alone in this temporary home.”

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.

Kuni Takahashi for msnbc.com

Toppled buildings in Minamisanriku on Feb 19, 2012.

Kuni Takahashi for msnbc.com

The remains of a destroyed cemetery in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture on Feb 6, 2012.