A mother’s re­lief

Ja­pan Earth­quake pho­tog­ra­pher re­vis­its the story of Yuko Sugi­moto – ‘ the woman wrapped in a blan­ket’ – then and now.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING - By JO IWASA

ON March 13, 2011, two days af­ter the disas­ter, a then 28- year- old woman from Ishi­no­maki, Miyagi Pre­fec­ture, was pho­tographed as she stood wrapped in a blan­ket, long­ing to be re­united with her then fouryear- old miss­ing son.

Her name is Yuko Sugi­moto and she be­came known all over the world through The Yomi­uri Shim­bun pho­to­graph taken by Tadashi Okubo.

To­day, Sugi­moto lives with her son and hus­band in a house rented from a friend on the out­skirts of Ishi­no­maki. An­other Yomi­uri pho­tog­ra­pher, also from Ishi­no­maki, clearly re­calls his mis­sion to find the woman.

“We need you to go back to Ishi­no­maki,” my boss told me. It was the morn­ing of April 4, 2011, and I was back at work for the first time in two weeks af­ter re­turn­ing from a brief visit to my home­town of Ishi­no­maki.

The pho­to­graph of a woman stand­ing wrapped in a blan­ket, which had been taken on the morn­ing of March 13 in Ishi­no­maki and car­ried in The Yomi­uri Shim­bun, was draw­ing at­ten­tion in many parts of the world. The photo was car­ried by var­i­ous me­dia out­lets through ma­jor news agen­cies, such as The As­so­ci­ated Press and Reuters, which ob­tained the photo from the Yomi­uri.

It ap­peared on the front pages of ma­jor Euro­pean and US news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines. The Yomi­uri Shim­bun re­ceived many in­quiries about it, with peo­ple want­ing to know who the woman was, if her fam­ily was al­right and how she was do­ing now.

The pho­to­graph was taken by Okubo, a pho­tog­ra­pher at The Yomi­uri Shim­bun, Osaka. He was go­ing to ask the woman her name and other in­for­ma­tion af­ter shoot­ing the photo, but he found out that the photo was not go­ing to be car­ried in the evening edi­tion of The Yomi­uri Shim­bun that day, so he moved on to an­other lo­ca­tion to keep on pho­tograph­ing the disas­ter- hit area.

So my mis­sion af­ter ar­riv­ing in Ishi­no­maki on April 6 was to as­cer­tain the iden­tity of “the woman stand­ing wrapped in the blan­ket.”

I went to the lo­ca­tion where the photo was shot. I tried to gather in­for­ma­tion by ask­ing peo­ple around the area, but all I saw were houses that had been de­stroyed or made un­in­hab­it­able by the tsunami. Oc­ca­sion­ally, I met res­i­dents who were wad­ing through the muddy wa­ter. Some of them had re­trieved and cleaned a soiled photo al­bum.

I bumped into a for­mer school­mate. She and I went to the same kinder­garten, pri­mary and middle schools. She was liv­ing on the up­per floor of a build­ing in which the shop and stor­age space on the first floor had been filled with de­bris swept in by the tsunami.

“Three cars were car­ried by the tsunami and into this store­room,” she said, show­ing me with a smile. “Let’s take a pho­to­graph in front of it to show that we were here,” I sug­gested.

Find­ing the woman in the blan­ket was not easy. I went to a nearby pri­mary school that was serv­ing as an evac­u­a­tion cen­ter, where sev­eral peo­ple told me that a for­eigner had been look­ing for her.

On the fourth day of the search, I got a phone call from my cousin, who is the same age as me. “I found out her name,” my cousin said.

This cousin’s fam­ily was tak­ing refuge in the home of a rel­a­tive whose wife hap­pened to know the woman stand­ing wrapped in the blan­ket.

I vis­ited the com­pany that the woman was sup­posed to work for, only to find out that she had quit her job af­ter the earth­quake. I left my mo­bile phone num­ber with the com­pany, ask­ing them to ask her to call me if she wished.

I didn’t re­ceive a call, how­ever, so I went to the com­pany again the fol­low­ing day. This time, the head of the of­fice of­fered to ask her if she would mind my re­ceiv­ing her phone num­ber. That is how I was able to get in touch with her.

I was fi­nally able to meet Sugi­moto on April 13, a clear but windy day. She and her fam­ily were liv­ing with three other peo­ple in tem­po­rary hous­ing that was se­cured by her hus­band’s com­pany af­ter the earth­quake, in a town ad­ja­cent to Ishi­no­maki.

Ac­cord­ing to Sugi­moto, when the photo was taken she was look­ing in the di­rec­tion of the coast, where the kinder­garten of her son Raito was lo­cated. She had not yet been able to find him in the af­ter­math of the tsunami.

When the earth­quake struck, Sugi­moto was at work. She im­me­di­ately headed for the kinder­garten but could not get there be­cause the tsunami had swal­lowed the road. On March 12 and 13, she and her hus­band Harunori, then 36, searched for their son through an en­tire area sub­merged in wa­ter.

One per­son said, “I heard kids were res­cued,” while an­other said, “I saw kids be­ing swept away.” Amid var­i­ous pieces of con­flict­ing in­for­ma­tion, Sugi­moto was look­ing to­ward her son’s kinder­garten, feel­ing torn up in­side.

When the earth­quake oc­curred, there were 11 chil­dren and 14 teach­ers at the kinder­garten. About an hour af­ter they evac­u­ated to the se­cond floor, the tsunami of black sea­wa­ter struck the build­ing. The wa­ter kept ris­ing fast, so the teach­ers took the chil­dren to the rooftop. There they spent the night, us­ing gym mats to shield the chil­dren from the wind and cov­er­ing them with stuffed toys and cur­tains to keep them warm.

On March 14, Sugi­moto was told that her son was at Ishi­no­maki Sen­shu Univer­sity. She rushed to the univer­sity and hugged her son tightly when she found him. The feel of hav­ing him in her arms again could not stop her from cry­ing.

The Sugi­mo­tos had barely be­gun to make mort­gage pay­ments on their home, which was washed away by the tsunami. Still she re­mained strong. She showed me three pho­tos of her fam­ily, say­ing, “This is all I have left.”

I promised her, “I will take so many pho­tos of your fam­ily.”

Her pho­to­graphs were once again picked up by the in­ter­na­tional me­dia.

Now nine, Raito is a fourth grader at a pri­mary school. His hair is a lit­tle longer than it was five years ago, and he keeps him­self busy play­ing base­ball.

Sugi­moto’s mother, her two younger sis­ters and her younger brother still live in tem­po­rary hous­ing. Re­cently, they re­ceived a long- awaited let­ter in the mail, no­ti­fy­ing them of their ac­cep­tance to pub­lic hous­ing for disas­ter re­con­struc­tion. They had ap­plied many times.

1 Sugi­moto stands wrapped in a blan­ket in the dev­as­tated city of Ishi­no­maki, Miyagi Pre­fec­ture, on March 13, 2011, wor­ried about her young son. 2 Sugi­moto and her son visit his kinder­garten in Ishi­no­maki, Miyagi Pre­fec­ture, in April 2011.

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