Photo/Illutration Joe Biden, then U.S. vice president, meets residents of a temporary housing in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, on Aug. 23, 2011, five months after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

NATORI, Miyagi Prefecture--Joe Biden is fondly remembered by residents from his brief visit to this coastal town when he was vice president and spent the day consoling those who lost their homes and loved ones in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster.

Biden, now president-elect, visited Natori five months after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami struck.

“He was a very kind person,” recalled Kyuichiro Sakurai, now 80 years old. “America will become a kinder nation (under his administration).”

Biden, the first high-ranking U.S. official to tour the disaster-stricken area, visited a temporary housing complex named Mitazono Daiichi Danchi on Aug. 23 of that year.

His trip was connected to the U.S. military’s “Operation Tomodachi” aimed at helping to restore Sendai International Airport in Natori after the facility was inundated by tsunami.

“We will stay here as long as you guys need us, and we will help you,” Biden told residents at the housing complex, many of whom had lost family members in the towering tsunami that engulfed the region on March 11.

Biden, who lost his first wife and an infant daughter in a car crash in 1972, told the residents, “I understand what you are going through very well.”

Sakurai vividly remembers his conversation with Biden at an assembly house, saying, “He was very gentle.”

He recalled that the residents of the 128-unit housing complex all gathered around Biden to gawk at him while keeping a respectful distance.

Biden chose to break the ice by approaching the crowd to shake hands and hug each of the residents, Sakurai said.

“His smile was unforgettable. He encouraged me and said, the going gets tough but hang in there.”

When the disaster struck, Sakurai was living in the city’s Kitakama district close to the airport.

Most homes in the district were swept away by the tsunami. Approximately 50 residents of the 400-or-so population perished.

Sakurai served as a district headman and one of his daily tasks was to identify the remains of people killed in the disaster. Some people were disfigured beyond his imagination.

He eventually wore himself out mentally and developed insomnia. 

Sakurai now lives in disaster restoration housing in the city, but he said he still takes medication to calm his nerves.

“Ten years have passed since the disaster, but there still are people whose mental faculties have not been restored,” Sakurai said.

Under the Biden administration, Sakurai expects the United States to develop “friendlier relations with other countries.”

He added that he hoped Biden, describing him as empathetic, “will bring about the spread of the spirit of mutual help in Japan.”

Miyagi Governor Yoshihiro Murai also was buoyed by Biden's victory in the U.S. presidential election.

“I am happy that (Biden) will become the next president of the United States,” he said at a news conference on Nov. 9.

Murai, who greeted Biden at Sendai International Airport nine years ago, said the president-elect “has a strong connection to Miyagi, and I hope he takes the leadership in strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance.”