August 12, 2011 / 12:52 PM / 9 years ago

Candles flicker, mourners drum for dead in Japan tsunami town

KESENNUMA, Japan (Reuters) - Children in a tsunami-devastated town in northeast Japan lit 10,000 candles and banged taiko drums on Friday on the eve of “obon,” a Buddhist ceremony to honour the dead, as residents struggle to rebuild lives five months after the disaster.

Kesennuma, a scenic fishing town some 400 km (248 miles) northeast of Tokyo, was engulfed by fire after it was struck by a magnitude 9.0 quake and a huge tsunami on March 11. The disaster left more than 20,400 dead or missing in Japan, and triggered the world’s worst nuclear crisis in 25 years at Fukushima.

In Kesennuma, about 1,000 out of 73,500 residents died and more than 400 are missing, presumed dead. While police still search, some survivors who lost their loved ones or have waited for their return are now trying to move on.

“Sadness is sadness. But it is an emotion that people should not hang on to forever,” said Kanji Hatakeyama, a city official who also lost his home to the tsunami, as he watched kids play traditional songs on Japanese drums at a summer festival.

Over the last month, the pages of a local newspaper were filled with death notices, and many funerals for the missing were held as residents sought emotional closure before obon in mid-August, when families welcome back the spirits of the dead.

Obon is celebrated every year, but residents say this year’s event is different as Kesennuma copes with losses, and works to rebuild.

The town has worked to clear the heaps of mud and rubble that covered much of its coastal areas, once famous for bonito and tuna fishing. Much has been removed, though piles of burnt cars and debris still remain, now home to crows and flies.

Takehiko Sugawara, a 42-year-old temporary city official who lost his job at a fishery destroyed by the tsunami and was helping to decontaminate ground among the debris, said he was too busy to get emotional.

“It is obon time, but we don’t have things ready. We have so much to do and I don’t have a moment to feel sad,” said Sugawara, adding he feels he has not been able to honour properly his parents, who were washed away by the tsunami.


“I am sorry for my parents, but I have a child and I need to move forward. I want to tell them to please wait a little bit more ... I am doing the best in the way that I can,” added Sugawara, unable to hold back tears as he spoke of his mother.

Nearly 13,000 houses were damaged and about 1,500 evacuees are still in shelters waiting for temporary housing. The city plans to deliver its reconstruction plan by end-September, though some residents complained that it has been too slow.

“I have been waiting for five months and my stress and blood pressure levels rose,” said 71-year-old widower Kuniko Ito, who was talking with her friends at an evacuation shelter in the gym of a hilltop elementary school.

“(Moving to temporary housing) would help me reach a kind of a closure, but I will also feel lonely once I’m living alone,” Ito said, adding she hopes her ancestors will understand that she will have to pray from the shelter this obon season.

As evacuees chatted inside, a festival to encourage rebuilding and to commemorate the dead went on in the playground.

At dusk, volunteers lit 10,000 candles, etching in flames the Japanese word for “prayer” and a the outline of a ship carrying a four-leaf clover.

“They are lined up in a really beautiful way. I feel very happy,” said 8-year-old Airi Ohara, who ran away from the tsunami with her schoolmates.

Residents said their town had hit rock bottom, but their duty was to give hope for future generations.

“I repeatedly thought of leaving this town, but I felt like it would all end if I run away. I will do as much as I can and see how things go,” said Sugawara.

Editing by Linda Sieg and Daniel Magnowski

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