Photo/IllutrationNorio Kimura, 53, plays a keyboard harmonica next to a portrait of his missing daughter, Yuna, in a classroom at her former elementary school in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, on Feb. 16. (Hideyuki Miura)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

HAKUBA, Nagano Prefecture--Eight years after the massive tsunami spawned by the Great East Japan Earthquake swept away his youngest daughter, wife and father, Norio Kimura remains stricken with remorse.

The subsequent reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant forced Kimura, 53, and his older daughter and mother to evacuate.

“If the nuclear disaster hadn’t occurred, I could have searched for my family," Kimura said. "I just stood by and left them to die."

Such guilt has driven him to continue searching for his missing 7-year-old daughter Yuna, over the past eight years, driving his van to Okuma, the home to the crippled plant and his hometown, which remains largely deserted since an evacuation order was issued following the nuclear disaster. His eldest daughter Mayu, 18, accompanied him to help in the search.

On a snowy day with the mercury dipping below minus 2 degrees, Kimura and Mayu climbed into a van heading to Okuma, about 450 kilometers from their small house renovated from an old resort inn here.

However, the father and daughter's search will soon to come to an end as they will go their separate ways.

Starting from this spring, Mayu will enter a vocational confectionery school in Tokyo while Kimura will return to Fukushima Prefecture to stay and search for his missing daughter.

On March 11, 2011, Kimura’s house, located along the coast, was washed away by the towering tsunami that left his wife, Miyuki, 37, and Yuna, and his father, Wataro, 77, missing.

After returning from the factory he was working at the time, Kimura searched for the three throughout the night but found no trace.

On the following day, an evacuation order was issued for residents of Okuma due to the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, 4 km from their home, which forced Kimura to leave the town with Mayu and his mother, Tomoe, 80. After staying at Miyuki’s parents’ house in Okayama Prefecture, they evacuated to Hakuba. Shortly after, Wataro and Miyuki were found dead, but only Yuna remained missing.

Kimura was struck by the thought that he could have searched for Wataro, Miyuki and Yuna, if the nuclear disaster hadn’t occurred. His twinges of conscience led him on a mission to search for Yuna.

Glancing at his daughter in the rear-view mirror, who drifted off to sleep in the backseat of the van, Kimura mumbled: “I caused Mayu such trouble and hardship.”

Mayu acted vibrantly at places where she evacuated.

She even created a song with the lyrics: “I want to live cheerfully, looking straight forward” and sang it to assure her grandparents and relatives that she was fine.

Kimura still clearly remember Mayu showing her smile while she joined a circle of children at play on the school grounds at an elementary school she started attending after evacuating.

However, a call from police on Kimura’s cellphone in summer 2011 brought out her daughter's true feelings.

“Miyuki’s body has been found,” police said.

For the first time, Mayu burst into tears. She heard the death of her mother confirmed when she was next to her father.

Her entire body trembled and big tear drops rolled down from her eyes but she couldn’t make a sound even though her mouth was wide open. She soon crawled in her bed and kept crying.

“She must had restrained her urge to cry for a long period of time,” said Kimura. “That's just how she is.”

Kimura has always thought that he must protect his daughter at all costs. But his daughter has grown up almost before he realized it.

Miyuki was a qualified cook who cooked meals at school and enjoyed making sweets.

Mayu always happily helped her mother, who used to bake cakes on birthdays of family members and Christmas day.

Following in the footsteps of her mother, Mayu obtained a cooking license after going to a high school in Matsumoto, also in Nagano Prefecture, that has a cooking program, spending two hours by train and bus following her graduation from junior high school. She decided to go to Tokyo to study at the school she chose on her own.

“Mayu was so weak and helpless but now she will become independent. I will also go all out to do what I need to do,” said her father, who was encouraged by his daughter's growth.

When Kimura’s van reached Fukushima Prefecture, the sun had almost set.

Usually, Kimura drops Mayu off at public housing for disaster-affected residents in Iwaki in the prefecture where Tomoe lives.

While Kimura was searching, it was Mayu’s role to talk to Tomoe.

On this day, his van pulled up to a 40-year-old house in the city where he will move to in April to continue his search.

He carried a washing machine and other items brought from his home in Hakuba.

In December 2016, when five years and nine months had passed since the 2011 disaster, part of Yuna’s body was found.

Tiny bones of a girl's neck and jaw were spotted on a beach near the house where Kimura's family resided, which were later identified as Yuna’s body by DNA testing. The majority of her body has yet to be found.

“I think failing to find Yuna’s body is her message to me,” said Kimura.“I feel that Yuna is telling me to, ‘search for me and tell everyone exactly what happened here.' ”

A site where his house once stood in Okuma was included in the planned area to build an interim storage facility for soil contaminated with radioactivity near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

Although Kimura has refused to sell the land, the beach where Yuna’s body parts were found and green fields where Kimura family played together will be used under the current plan for the interim storage facility.

“To avoid having the sites filled with our family memories turning into such a facility, I want to continue searching for Yuna at that site,” Kimura said.

The next day, Kimura headed to an elementary school in Okuma that Yuna attended.

After sprucing up a desk where she used to sit, with a portrait of Yuna, he placed a keyboard harmonica on the top.

Then, Kimura played the theme song of the hit 2008 animated film “Gake no Ue no Ponyo” (“Ponyo on the Cliff”), which he enjoyed seeing at a theater along with his two young daughters and wife.

He frequently made a mistake while playing the title tune.

“I hope Yuna is smiling (while listening to my playing),” Kimura said shyfully.