Photo/Illutration Feb. 11, 2021: Sumi Hatakeyama and her son, Kosei, take a walk in front of their home in Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture. They moved there in September 2016. (Shiro Nishihata)

Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series retracing the lives of four families over the decade following the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, mainly through images to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the event that left nearly 20,000 people dead or unaccounted for. The photos depict a range of human emotions as bereaved family members and other survivors tried to comfort each other and rebuild their lives.

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A photo of a mother and her son snacking on onigiri rice balls stands out among the 5,347 images taken by an Asahi Shimbun photographer in the aftermath of the disaster that devastated coastal areas of the Tohoku region in northeastern Japan.

It's because they are both smiling.

March 17, 2011: Sumi Hatakeyama and Kosei chomp on onigiri rice balls at Utatsu Junior High School's gymnasium in Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, which was being used as a shelter for evacuees. (Shiro Nishihata)

The striking image came against the backdrop of heartbreaking scenes of distraught residents combing through the ruins of their former homes and communities and reaching out to others for emotional support in the week following the magnitude-9.0 earthquake that upended their lives.

Sumi Hatakeyama, now 46, and her son, Kosei, 14, looked content as they tucked into rice balls inside a gymnasium hastily converted into an evacuation center in Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, after their home was swept away by tsunami.

The family later relocated from the shelter to temporary housing, and eventually built a new home on higher ground. It took five and a half years to reach that point, and though their lives were drastically altered by the disaster, the warm parent-child relationship never changed.

These days, Sumi gazes at her son affectionately while silently offering prayers for his healthy growth when they sit down to eat.

Feb. 10, 2021: Sumi Hatakeyama and Kosei during dinner in Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture. Suiton flour dumpling soup and hamburger steak are among Kosei's favorite dishes. (Shiro Nishihata)


The pair were captured scarfing down rice balls at the shelter in Minami-Sanriku on March 17, 2011, six days after the earthquake. It was the first time Sumi had felt able to eat since the disaster.

When the massive earthquake struck on March 11, Sumi fled with 4-year-old Kosei to higher ground, from where she watched the tsunami engulf all that was familiar to her, destroying everything in its path.

“I could not think about anything and was simply at a loss,” Sumi recalled.

Carrying Kosei on her back, Sumi walked 3 kilometers on a mountainous road to Utatsu Junior High School, which had been taken over as a shelter for evacuees.

Although rice balls made by residents were distributed, Sumi couldn't stomach the thought of food. The sight of the tsunami swallowing her neighborhood was still too fresh. Kosei, still so young, crammed his mouth with rice balls as he sat quietly beside his mother.

“I felt so fearful, I was unable to eat,” Sumi said.

Three months after the disaster, the family moved into temporary accommodation. Sumi was delighted to have a kitchen to cook in again and determined to make “as many of Kosei's favorite dishes as possible.”

Kosei still remembers the curry dish he ate for the first time at the new abode.

“It was packed with meat and vegetables,” Kosei said. “I hadn't eaten a meal like that for so long. It was really delicious.”

Sept. 1, 2011: Sumi Hatakeyama and Kosei tuck into curry and potato salad while having dinner at their tiny temporary residence. Although it consisted of just two 4.5-tatami rooms and a kitchen in Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, Sumi called it a haven after living rough for so long. (Shiro Nishihata)

When the Asahi photographer visited them in September for the first time in six months, the mother and son were once again eating curry. Sharing the same meal at home seemed to symbolize their “happiness in daily life.”

March 3, 2017: Sumi Hatakeyama, left, and Kosei, pose in front of their new home on elevated land in Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture. Kosei has his own room, something he had longed for. (Shiro Nishihata)

In September 2016, Sumi and her son moved into their new home built on elevated ground. Looking back on the 10 years following the disaster, Sumi said a decade “sounds like a long time, but to me it passed in just a blink of an eye.”

“He (Kosei) was a clinging child, but he is now able to think and behave on his own,” said Sumi of her son’s growth.

March 19, 2019: Kosei Hatakeyama wears a tuxedo originally prepared for his piano recital performance at the graduation ceremony of the Isatomae Elementary School in Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture. He has played piano since his first year at elementary school. (Shiro Nishihata)

In October last year, Kosei became president of the student council of the Utatsu Junior High School where he took shelter. Kosei said he felt inspired to run for the post out of his experience of seeing people helping others in times of disaster.

“People who make sacrifices to help others made a huge impression on me,” Kosei said.