'First X'mas' for Pinoys in Sendai since 2011 great quake

By Paul Henson, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 17 2012 11:38 PM | Updated as of Dec 18 2012 08:41 AM

SENDAI, Japan – Filipina Marilyn Shoji gazes wistfully at the Christmas tree decked with bright red poinsettias and golden orbs. It is the “first time” they’re celebrating the holidays here in Sendai since the March 2011 great earthquake.

It seemed Christmas was cancelled last year when the killer tsunami swept away much of Japan’s northeastern coast. Around 15,000 people died.

“Akala ko talaga, katapusan na ng mundo. Ilang minutong umuga ang lupa,” recalls Marilyn.

Stepping out onto the wintry streets of Sendai’s commercial district, the cracks created by the 9.3 magnitude killer earthquake are seen no more. Instead, buildings sparkle and twinkle with Christmas lights. Merry shoppers are out in force. Holiday carols blare in the halls. But somehow, deeper cracks have yet to heal.

Marilyn and many others are still living in government temporary housing units for free. She says it will take 3 more years for the permanent high-rise apartments to be built. These will be rented out at low cost by the government.

It took Marilyn and her Japanese husband 25 years to pay for their original home. She even had it renovated at a cost of 3 million yen (roughly P1.5 million). “Naglaho lang sa isang iglap yung bahay namin dahil sa tsunami. Pero okay lang kasi bahay lang iyon. Mas mahalaga ang buhay,” she tells me.


We traveled to the coastal city of Natori in the Yuriage area. Once a community of 5,000 people, now there are no more residents here. Around 900 people died in this place, including 14 students, as many failed to get to higher ground as the raging waters came.

Yuko Tano lost her 14-year-old son who was in school when the tsunami swept him away. Yuko also lost her home and all of her belongings. The only thing she was able to save was her dog.

Yuko Tano with her dog

She brought us to the former local school, where parents built a memorial for the students who perished. Yuko presses her hands on the cold marble marker. She encourages us to do the same. She says it will bring warmth and a smile to her son.

Hanging on a nearby tree are a thousand paper cranes in different colors. Yuko says these origami cranes bear their hopes and wishes.

Filipino students, part of the Kizuna Project organized by the Japan International Cooperation Center and National Youth Commission, offered prayers and flowers at the memorial site, and plants in pots inscribed with messages of encouragement as a simple gesture to help ease the pain of victims.

Pinoy students with a gift offering to victims in Natori City

One image leaves a lasting imprint to those who visit this disaster site. It’s a damaged clock that hangs in one of the school buildings. The time is forever frozen at 2:46 p.m. – a silent reminder of the exact time that the flood waters raged, a moment that will never be forgotten.


Residents of Natori are still going through a difficult healing process. Many like Yuko feel that government’s reconstruction efforts are not going fast enough. Many hope that better warnings and evacuation systems will be in place when calamities strike again.

To alleviate their emotional burdens, residents gather in a gymnasium, sorting out items that were swept away by the tsunami – stuffed toys, children’s school bags, clothes, photo albums, frames and trophies. They wipe off the mud from the items, hoping that their owners are still alive and will claim them someday.

Stuffed toys washed away by the tsunami

Warehouse filled with items washed away by tsunami

In the aftermath of the tsunami, Marilyn, for her part, set up a hotline to take calls from Filipinos seeking information on the whereabouts and safety of their loved ones.

More than a year after the tragedy, much has yet to be done in the areas of disaster waste disposal, housing, health care, infrastructure, agriculture and business. But for this Christmas season, at least, Marilyn and the rest of the affected families can celebrate, albeit simply and quietly, and hope for a better future.


(Paul Henson, executive producer of Bandila, is the head of a 50-man delegation to the Kizuna Project, composed mostly of university students from all over the Philippines. The exchange project brought the group to disaster areas in Japan to gain insights from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.)