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