Japan: One town's struggle a month after the disaster

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Keiko Niinuma and one of her children
Image caption,
Keiko Niinuma starts crying if she thinks about the tsunami

As Japan marks one month since the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 11 March, the BBC's Tokyo correspondent Roland Buerk looks at how survivors are coping in the town of Kamaishi.

Every day begins with a prayer in the wooden temple on the hill overlooking Kamaishi.

Sixty survivors of the earthquake and tsunami still live here, bedding down on blankets in front of the altar with its gold ornaments, and a statue of the Buddha.

As the monk chants the sutras they sit silently, heads bowed.

Before, he says, people came to his temple only for funerals - now they take comfort in the rituals.

Happier times

Keiko Niinuma has her hands full looking after her three boys, aged four, seven and eight.

They are easily distracted from their school books.

She likes to keep busy. The month that has passed has done nothing to ease the pain.

"When I think about that day, I start crying," she says.

"I get so much help from so many people, I always think I should keep smiling. But when I think of it, if I had been a few minutes later there's a good chance I would have been washed away.

"I drove towards the tsunami to get home. I was so worried about my children I didn't care about my own life. The only thing I thought about was them."

Down the hill from the temple, in the town, it seems little has changed in the few short weeks since the tsunami powered through.

Image caption,
Repairing the damage to Kamaishi will take years

The roads have been cleared but the wreckage remains in huge piles: splintered houses, smashed cars, broken bicycles.

When people find photograph albums in the ruins they put them on the pavement for the owners to pick up if they are still alive.

There are smiling faces, someone's wedding, a family holiday, reminders of happier times.

Many lie unclaimed.

Higher ground?

Huddled around the fishing port the town centre was destroyed - nearly 300 shops, as well as houses.

A key question for the people of Kamaishi, and other places along the coast, is whether to rebuild there at all.

Many people say they want to move to somewhere higher.

Keiko Niinuma's husband Masanori is an insurance assessor and in recent days he has been back at work.

With a colleague he is taking photographs of what remains of customers' property and sending them to head office to ensure a swift payout.

"The town has been hit by tsunamis many times in history and it has been rebuilt," he says. "We must pass on that spirit to my sons' generation. If they see us working hard they will learn from it and they can pass it on too."

Pulling together

Back in the temple the head monk, Eno Shibasaki, leads the evacuees in exercises.

A routine is broadcast on the radio every day - tinkly piano music and a voice chanting: "Altogether now, stretch. One, two three, four."

It's a way to keep spirits up.

People take great strength from how they have pulled together in the crisis.

Image caption,
The temple overlooking Kamaishi will remain open until the last homeless survivor leaves

The temple is immaculately tidy and well organised.

Volunteers make the food every day.

Supplies have been sent from around the country, where even those not affected have adopted a spirit of self-restraint and started shunning luxury in sympathy.

"In the beginning people felt lonely because they knew they will have to start demolishing or cleaning up," says the monk.

"But we have been through this hand-in-hand. And people have shown great consideration for others. That might help."

Outside in the car park a brazier burns.

They are using wood from wreckage of their own homes to keep warm.

Repairing the damage to Kamaishi will take years, and the temple will remain open until the last person leaves.