One of the first things Toru Kawana noticed was the missing clock on the wall.
It had been hanging in the same spot at his mother’s house in Koriyama, Japan for more than 50 years — longer than Toru has been alive.
But time no longer stands still in Japan — not in the aftermath of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that left thousands dead and hundreds missing while triggering a tsunami and escalating fears of a nuclear plant meltdown.
In fact, time has moved on.
In the household of 81-year-old Takako Kawana, that meant removing the clock because she was afraid it would fall and hit her in the head the next time there’s an earthquake.
As Toru sat down for a home-cooked sukiyaki dinner during a visit to his mother’s house, the missing clock was just one of the images etched in his mind amidst the devastation in the place he grew up.
Kawana, a Gilbert resident and former photographer for the East Valley Tribune who left the photojournalism profession about four years ago to work as a firefighter for the Scottsdale Fire Department, spent the last two weeks in Koriyama helping his mother regroup after last month’s widespread natural disaster. People there still are living in uncertainty, not knowing what the ultimate impact will be of the radiation leaking from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant just 40 miles away.
While visiting with family and revisiting the roots of his childhood, Kawana has surveyed the quake’s damage at the cemetery where his father and grandparents are buried, and enjoyed home-cooked meals by his mother and sister — all while digesting changes to what once was an open field where a young Kawana climbed trees long before housing developments took over. He left his homeland for San Francisco 30 years ago.
The recent earthquake knocked out the windows of his mother’s two-story home, ripped plaster from around the frame of the house, destroyed a shrine honoring deceased family members and damaged an older house she used for storage that will have to be demolished.
“It has been a difficult trip emotionally,” Kawana said of going home for the first time since last August. In fact, he said his sister, Seiko Kakurai, told him he would cry when he saw the damage in Koriyama.
“Some buildings were damaged worse than the others,” Kawana said. “A lot of buildings in my hometown have cracks on exterior walls. Some buildings have collapsed and their next door neighbor’s house has no damage. Some small business will never be able to open their businesses again.”
One night last week, Kawana was in a deep sleep “when the whole world shook” again. “‘It might be the big one,’ I thought because it lasted several seconds longer and stronger than the aftershocks I have been feeling every day since I came to Japan on April 12,” he said. “For the last 10 days, I feel like I have been sleeping at the firehouse ... ready to get up and get to work. It can’t be healthy feeling like this every day endlessly.”
But for all she’s been through, Kawana’s mother doesn’t seem as rattled.
“My mother said, ‘I have lived long happy life and by the time I get the effect of radiation, I am dead,’” he said.
Koriyama is an inland commercial city with a population of 339,000. A mountain separates it from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power facility where workers and emergency crews doused reactors with water in hopes of quashing further damage.
Although Koriyama was not one of the cities evacuated, it is one of the cities where evacuees living near the nuclear plant were brought.
Kawana said his mother doesn’t believe the government is telling them the true amount of danger from the radiation, and if there’s any more monster earthquakes, she’ll go live with her daughter.
“A letter to the editor in a local newspaper (in Koriyama) said that there is nothing we can do about the natural disaster, but the radiation leak is a man-made disaster, which needs to be controlled,” Kawana said. “Some of the people who are evacuated may not ever be able to go back home near the power plant.”
Kawana was scheduled to leave Japan on Saturday to return to his wife, Donna, and daughter, Kyomi, in Arizona, knowing he and his mother are among the lucky.
They each have a home to go back to, when so many others in their homeland do not.
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