Photo/Illutration Kazuhiko Haryu, right, and Jun Watanabe in Yamamoto town, Miyagi Prefecture, on Feb. 4 (Shigetaka Kodama)

After the shaking from the Great East Japan Earthquake stopped, Kazuhiko Haryu and other members of a local volunteer fire corps were moving along the coast, calling on residents to evacuate.

Haryu then yelled at his colleagues on a road around 800 meters from a beach in Yamamoto town, Miyagi Prefecture.

The first waves of the tsunami had surpassed the seawalls and were approaching the volunteers.

He jumped in a fire engine, but within several seconds, a muddy wave came closer and swallowed the office of his plumbing company.

He stepped on the accelerator of the fire engine with all his might, but then saw a girl standing on a road several hundred meters away.

She was wearing a junior high school tracksuit, carrying a backpack and looking at the sea.

“That’s Rui,” Haryu thought.

Rui was his friend’s daughter whom he had known since she was a baby.

Haryu stopped the fire engine.

“Jump in the vehicle, Rui!” he yelled, as he saw the tsunami in the vehicle’s mirror.

When Haryu was about to floor it again, Rui said, pointing outside the window, “Grandad is still there.”

Kiyomi, Rui’s 85-year-grandfather, was sitting still near a concrete-block wall around 50 meters away.

Haryu jumped out of the fire engine and rushed to him.

Slouching over, Kiyomi said, “I have bad legs and can’t walk.”

Haryu grabbed Kiyomi’s belt and lugged him to fire engine.

Then, at the moment he tried to put the grandfather through the door, Haryu felt a shock and everything went dark.


Eight days later, on March 19, 2011, Haryu was attending a cremation ceremony.

He had been swept away by the tsunami but survived by climbing to a roof of a warehouse.

However, 14-year-old Rui Watanabe and Kiyomi were found dead.

Several months passed, and Haryu met up with Jun Watanabe, Rui’s father, at the rear of a convenience store.

Haryu and Jun, who are now both 53 years old, have known each other since they were classmates in junior high school.

On this day, however, they couldn’t look at each other’s face.

Haryu, crying, apologized to Jun, “I should have died instead.”

Jun, with his body trembling, shouted to Haryu: “What are you saying?! You risked your life on my behalf.”

Jun is an engineering officer of the Ground Self-Defense Force. Immediately after the earthquake, he started providing logistic support at an SDF camp, where he had to stay for several weeks. 

“(Haryu) risked his life to help. I’m only thankful to him,” Jun said recently.

In 2014, Jun built a new house at a site that was a one-minute walk from Haryu’s home.

“It would be reassuring to be near him if something bad occurred,” Jun said.

They still do things together, including attending events organized by a neighborhood association. They are also joint heads of an alumni association.

And they recently went to a golf driving range together for the first time.

They never fail to pray together for the souls of Rui and Kiyomi at a Buddhist altar and burn incense in their memory on the anniversary of their deaths.


In October, the chief priest of a Buddhist temple in Yamamoto town asked Haryu to speak about the 2011 disaster to student members of a volunteer organization.

Just after the quake in a TV interview, Haryu had talked about how he failed to save Rui and Kiyomi.

But since then, he has never spoken publicly about the devastating experience.

He also had no time to be a “storyteller” because he was busy reconstructing his life after losing his house and his company in the tsunami.

However, 12 years after the disaster, his feelings are changing.

With the restoration work of Yamamoto now finished, the neat and clean townscape is a complete turnaround from the devastation seen after the tsunami hit.

An increasing number of children in the town did not experience the quake.

Haryu wondered if keeping quiet about his experience was the right thing to do. He consulted Jun.

“Please talk about it,” Jun said.

He understood how Haryu was concerned that memories of the disaster were being lost.

“I still can’t talk about my family well,” Jun said. “But I share the feeling (with Haryu) of not wanting the same thing to happen. Haryu wants to pass on his experience to young people. I want to support that.”

In November, students were sitting in a circle at a dark temple building. The graves of Rui and Kiyomi were located nearby.

The surrounding area had been designated a “disaster hazard area,” and the place was eerily quiet.

Haryu slowly started to tell the students there about how he couldn’t save Rui and Kiyomi.

He said he now thinks: “They will never come back. But I believe there is still something that I can do.”

He continues to have nightmares about the tsunami.

And he keeps asking himself what would have happened if he had started driving the fire engine just 30 seconds earlier, or if he had not let go of their hands.

Last year, his 26-year-old eldest son started working in plumbing--the same occupation as Haryu. Rui was the same age as the son.

Haryu also had his first grandchild last year.

He is the happiest when he is with his family, but he always thinks at the bottom of his heart: “I’m sorry, Rui. I don’t know if I’m allowed to be happy.”

Haryu was asked by the temple to speak about his experience again when the March 11 anniversary comes nearer.

He accepted the request.