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One family's ordeal through Japan's procession of calamities

Kazuhisa Takeuchi was badly shaken, but unhurt, when the massive quake hit. Over the coming days, however, his family would be touched by the temblor and by the tsunami and nuclear crisis that would follow.

March 19, 2011|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • Shiho Takeuchi visits her grandfather, Tadashi Onodera, 81, who survived the tsunami after his mattress was swept up by waves that carried him to safety atop a roof.
Shiho Takeuchi visits her grandfather, Tadashi Onodera, 81, who survived…

Reporting from Kesennuma, Japan — Kazuhisa Takeuchi was taking advantage of a rare moment of calm between the afternoon and evening shifts at his Sendai dialysis clinic, chatting on the telephone with a colleague about a patient, when he felt himself lifted from his chair by a force immediately recognizable to anybody who grew up in this part of Japan.

"Earthquake, bye," the 55-year-old doctor said, slamming down the receiver.

When the unearthly shaking had ended, everything in his office was on the floor — the computer and printer, the microbiology textbooks and French art books that had lined his bookcases — but he was unharmed. He rushed down the staircase to check on the patients. They were OK too.

Photos: Unrelenting crisis grips Japan

"We're so lucky," Takeuchi told himself.

But like so many emotional aftershocks, the coming days would rob him of his luck.

His wife's mother lived 70 miles up the coast in Kesennuma, which was hard hit by the tsunami that followed the earthquake. She suffocated when the ventilator clearing her lungs stopped because of a power outage.

His wife's father was missing, swept out to sea, it was feared, by the 45-foot wave that crashed through the nearby nursing home where he was being treated for a stroke.

His own elderly parents, along with his sister and her family, lived 50 miles south of him, in Fukushima prefecture. Their area had been spared the worst ravages of the earthquake, but the tsunami hit the seaside nuclear plant, leading to radioactive leaks.

On Tuesday night, four days after the quake, his 81-year-old father died at a small hospital in Fukushima where he'd been bedridden the last two years with Alzheimer's. Whether the hospital had lost electricity or medical supplies in the earthquake or tsunami, or whether personnel had left because of the threat of radiation, Takeuchi has been unable to determine.

To describe the terrible cascade of disasters that began to strike Japan at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, the Japanese have adopted a term they coined for the Sept. 11 attacks: douji tahatsu tero, which literally means "multiple simultaneous terrors."

The Takeuchi family would be left untouched by none of them.

Today, Takeuchi's mood flits from gloom to euphoria as he tries to make philosophical sense of what happened when his country was hit by an earthquake, by a tsunami and by a nuclear disaster.

"That my mother-in-law and my father should die under almost the same circumstances, I think that was not a coincidence," he says. "I think maybe in this crisis, the old people understood that the dying would have to die and the living would have to live."

His real worry, he says, lowering his voice, is the younger generation, especially his two daughters, 21 and 25.

"I'm a doctor, I know. The effect of the radiation could increase cancer and damage genes. The effect could last more than a generation."

*

Takeuchi's eyes are weary from working almost round the clock, trying to find hard-to-get supplies like saline solution for the dialysis machines and gasoline to transfer patients from another dialysis center up the coast that was destroyed by the tsunami.

Although he wears a casual turtleneck under his white doctor's coat, he conveys a certain elegance with silver hair combed smartly back. He speaks a rusty, but still-eloquent English from three years he spent doing postgraduate work at Harvard.

He and his wife were small-town kids made good through their academic performance. Takeuchi was born in Shirakawa, part of Fukushima, and was the son of a junior high school teacher. He graduated from medical school in Sendai, the largest city on the northeastern coast, and, after his stint at Harvard, settled there.

His wife, Yuriko, had graduated with a degree in French literature from prestigious Tokyo University. She came from Kesennuma, which had a modest claim to fame as the leading exporter of shark fins to China.

Yuriko's father, Tadashi Onodera, had retired as the station master of the railroad station. He lived on a bluff overlooking Kesennuma's pretty bay. Two years ago, next to the family's traditional two-story wooden house, he'd built a modern ranch house with a concrete foundation that could better withstand earthquakes and had a ramp to accommodate the wheelchair needed by his ailing wife, Tomiko.

The afternoon of March 11, Tomiko was home in bed, being cared for by Hideo Sasaki, one of her sons-in-law. The bluff above the bay afforded a graphic view of the calamity following the earthquake, something nobody could have imagined happening because the bay was set back far from the open sea. But as the tsunami wave roared inland, the narrowing of the channel only increased its height and ferocity. Among the ships in the bay was a tanker that burst into flames, spewing burning oil as it slammed into shore.

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