3/11 Family Chronicle 1 / ‘Strongest dad’ keeps smiling until son leaves the nest

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Hiroshi Yoshida, left, and his son, Yoshihiro, stand on a seawall in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, on March 11 — the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

Three months after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, Yomiuri Shimbun reporters were each assigned to cover families directly affected by the disaster. Over the years, the project has followed these families through their highs and lows as reconstruction efforts took shape in disaster-hit areas. Ten years after the devastating earthquake and tsunami, the reporters share an intimate look at how the lives of the families they followed have changed over the past decade and the bonds that have been forged between them. The following is the first in the series.

RIKUZENTAKATA, Iwate – On March 11, the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, two men looked out to sea under an endless blue sky from atop the huge seawall standing between Rikuzentakata and the Pacific Ocean

“To me, this year isn’t so much about the 10 years that have passed, but about the fact that you turn 20,” Hiroshi Yoshida, 43, said to his son, Yoshihiro.

“I was pretty small then,” Yoshihiro replied with a chuckle.

Ten years ago, when Hiroshi received a diploma at a kindergarten in Rikuzentakata on behalf of his five-year-old son Masahiro, who died in the tsunami, he kindly agreed to be interviewed by a Yomiuri Shimbun reporter.

In 2014, I took over the assignment.

The first day I met Hiroshi, he extended a hand toward me and said, “Nice to meet you.” His smile, which has the power to instantly cheer people up, belied the fact that three members of his family died in the 2011 disaster – his wife, second son and mother.

How did Hiroshi remain so cheerful? I was determined to find out.

When I became involved in this project, Hiroshi was living in a temporary housing unit with Yoshihiro, who was in the sixth grade of elementary school at the time.

Residents who had grown impatient with the lack of progress in construction work to elevate land near the coast had started building their homes on higher ground. The electrical appliance store Hiroshi operated received many requests to install air conditioners and do wiring in those new homes.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Hiroshi and Yoshihiro play together in 2011.

Hiroshi wanted to spend as much time as he could with his son, but he also needed to work to pay the bills. He was grateful that customers would contact him even late at night or on holidays, but at times it was hard to tear himself away as he rushed out to do job after job.

“I was so lonely then,” Yoshihiro recalled. “Unlike my little brother, I was quite clingy and I couldn’t easily get to sleep without my Mom there.”

Hiroshi married a woman whose husband had died in the tsunami, but they divorced about one year after moving into a new house on higher ground. Even so, Hiroshi said: “I really needed that time with someone. I’m grateful that she supported me.”

Father and son share a love of judo.

Hiroshi has done judo for much of his life, and Yoshihiro has followed in his footsteps. Although the tough training had Yoshihiro on the brink of quitting, he gradually improved and experienced the thrill of perfectly executing a move. In time, Yoshihiro became infatuated with judo.

“I want to get even stronger,” Yoshihiro said, revealing a competitive streak reminiscent of his father’s.

Yoshihiro was captain of his high school’s judo club, and he has become physically bigger and stronger.

“I still won’t lose to you!” Hiroshi said with a grin.

Yomiuri Shimbun photos
Hiroshi and Yoshihiro after a judo bout at a tournament in 2012, left, Yoshihiro works out on a benchpress in their temporary home in 2017.

In Rikuzentakata, it seemed that time had stopped. Whenever I visited, heavy machinery was always operating on the vast plots of vacant land in the city. For Hiroshi, who had hoped to rebuild his home and live there with his son, the pace of the reconstruction has been too slow.

In May 2020, before their home was completed, Yoshihiro moved to Sendai. He is apprenticing at an electrical equipment company so he can one day take over his father’s business.

Hiroshi’s first wife, Makiko, was an excellent cook. If the disaster had never occurred, Makiko would undoubtedly have spent a lot of time taking good care of her eldest son while he was working hard by himself in the big city. And Masahiro, who loved his big brother, would happily have lent a hand when Yoshihiro moved away.

Hiroshi could not hold back the tears when he was driving back to Rikuzentakata after helping Yoshihiro move to Sendai. This was no ordinary father-son farewell. This was a farewell between two people who had lived together through sorrow and despair. But now Yoshihiro was starting his own journey in life. Deep within his heart, Hiroshi cried out words of encouragement, “Stay strong!”

In February, Hiroshi and I went to Sendai to visit Yoshihiro. Yoshihiro asked his father to bring him not a game console or dumbbells, but a new set of tools.

As for the source of Hiroshi’s cheerfulness? Yoshihiro knows the answer to that question better than anyone.

“For 10 years, my father hid away his heartache and feelings of sadness so that I would not get anxious. He always stayed positive and stayed strong for me,” Yoshihiro said. “I’m happy now. I think he’s the strongest dad.”

Hiroshi Yoshida, who runs an electrical appliance store in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, lost three family members in the 2011 disaster: his wife, Makiko, 33; his second son, Masahiro, 5; and his mother, Shizuko, 72. His store and home were washed away in the tsunami. His older son, Yoshihiro, who was nine at the time of the disaster, will turn 20 this year.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Hiroshi and Yoshihiro pray at their family grave in 2014.