Photo/IllutrationJin Abe is prepared to be airlifted to safety after he and his grandmother were rescued on March 20, 2011, in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi Prefecture--When a 16-year-old high school boy and his 80-year-old grandmother were miraculously pulled from piles of debris nine days after the 2011 tsunami destroyed her house here, the nation wanted to hear his story.

But Jin Abe didn't say much at the time, and over the years, declined media requests for interviews.

Now 23, Abe has moved back to his hometown and has started to share his story with others to make a difference as his hometown continues to rapidly change.

“I was surprisingly positive while I waited to be rescued,” Abe calmly recounted in a talk given to a group of university students from Tokyo on Sept. 5.

On March 11, 2011, after the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake rocked Ishinomaki and elsewhere in northeastern Japan, he and his grandmother gathered in the dining room on the second floor of her house.

Then, the massive tsunami engulfed and swept away the entire house, destroying it. Miraculously, they remained safe in the damaged room, although they were trapped amid piles of debris from other houses and buildings.

Luckily, some food also remained in the room, and the two survived on yogurt from the refrigerator and cookies they found. There were also dry comforters that were kept in vacuum bags.

Once they decided that escaping from the room was not possible, there was nothing they could do but wait.

At night, it became too cold to sleep, so he would pass the time watching the stars from a gap in the ceiling. As the nights passed, the moon became fuller.

The most useful item during their time trapped in the room were three science fiction manga books that happened to be there, Abe said.

He was not a big fan of the manga, but he repeatedly read them to take his mind off their predicament.

“Being in such an extreme situation, I wished that I could develop supernatural powers,” Abe fantasized.

There was no way to know what was going on in the outside world and what had happened to their town.

“What will I do with this mess in this house?” his grandmother muttered.

On the seventh day, March 17, the teen lost sensation in his left foot due to frostbite.

On March 20, he found that the horizontal boards in the wall were exposed and he could climb up to the attic, where he then managed to crawl out on the roof.

By sheer luck, there were two men on a hill nearby, who had come to see the sea of debris left from the tsunami. Abe shouted to them for help.

“I am still alive today, thanks to a series of coincidences,” Abe said in his talk.

The rescue of Abe and the grandmother 217 hours after the disaster hit made national headlines, but he wanted to live life as if nothing special had occurred.

At school, he focused on creative subjects and decided to attend a university art school in neighboring Yamagata Prefecture, away from his family. There, he submerged himself in metal sculpture and enjoyed club activities like any other university student.

He was sometimes asked to be interviewed by the media, but declined as he thought he had nothing to talk about. He hardly reflected on his ordeal during his years of studies.

That changed when he started exploring his career options.

He applied to design studios in Tokyo and Sendai when he became a fourth-year student, but he felt something was not right.

One day, he came across a job offer in Ishinomaki.

The vacancy was at Machizukuri Manbo, a company that had been working to revitalize the city since before the 2011 disaster, and the operator of the Ishinomaki Mangattan Museum.

The museum is dedicated to the art of manga and renowned manga artist Shotaro Ishinomori (1938-1998), who was originally from Miyagi Prefecture. Abe frequented the museum from childhood.

He thought it a good idea to move back to his hometown and applied for the position. His application was successful, and he returned to Ishinomaki in the spring of 2017.

His grandmother is also still living in Ishinomaki.

For the first time in a while, he revisited where his family home once stood, and the site where they were rescued, which is about 100 meters away.

The debris was long gone, and preparation for new houses has started and new roads have opened.

While he was away, the city was going through dramatic changes.

“What was I doing for all those years?” he said he asked himself.

His life was largely shaped by fate and by luck, including surviving the tsunami and finding employment in Ishinomaki. Abe thought that he can change that fate into something more meaningful.

“I don’t want anybody to go through what I went through,” he said. “I would be happy if (talk attendees) would keep my story in the corner of their minds, and we can share the actuality that disasters can hit anytime, anywhere.”