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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Disaster Orphans Face the Future

Jan. 30, 2017

Almost 6 years have passed since the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. More than 18,000 people were killed or remain missing, and about 1,800 children were orphaned. Many of them are still struggling to find meaning in life.

Late last year, some of the people who lost their parents in the disaster gathered in the city of Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture. Most are students at colleges or vocational schools.

They visited an organization that offers support to the orphans. It collects donations to provide tuition assistance, as well as academic, career and life counseling.

When the disaster struck, these students were still in middle and high school. They lost their parents and their homes in an instant. The experience left them with a deep sense of sadness.

Yosuke Takahashi, a 3rd-year university student who receives counseling at the organization, is thinking about his post-graduation career.

He needs to include an account of his background in his job applications, and he’s not sure how to describe his life since the earthquake.

“I need to talk about my experiences, but I’m still not sure how to...although I can’t avoid talking about it,” he says.

Yosuke once lived in the coastal town of Minamisanriku.

Seven members of his family lived together, but 5 of them died in the tsunami: his parents, his older brother, and his grandparents.

All of the family photos and other mementos were washed away. His family's grave is his one remaining connection with them.

“Even though I know I can’t really hear their voices, it feels like I can. When I have a problem, I come here to listen to them. I want to keep working hard, so that someday I have good news to tell them,” says Yosuke.

After the earthquake, Yosuke stayed with relatives and friends. But when it came to making decisions about his future, he was on his own. Now, he’s decided to take some time to reflect on the path his life has taken.

He writes everything down on a mind map. He makes notes about baseball, listening to music, and similar activities. They aren't that different from what any other student might write.

“I'm afraid that people might see me as especially tough, or only as someone who's endured great misfortune. But I don't feel that way,” he says.

Among the students supported by the donations to the organization is a young man who has battled the same demons.

He's on his way to making his dreams come true.

Kohei Osaka is a 4th-year university student. He has found a job in Tokyo, far from his hometown.

He lost his mother and older sister in the 2011 disaster, and his home was destroyed. His father passed away 3 years later. Now he is preparing for life on his own.

“People around me died, and I lived. I didn’t know why, but I survived, so I am going to try to live life to the fullest,” he says.

A year ago, when he started looking for work, Kohei thought of his hometown and wondered what the meaning of his survival was.

Before the earthquake, Kohei’s parents ran a photography studio in the shopping district in the coastal city of Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture.

But the whole area was swept away in the tsunami, and the town was totally destroyed.

Afterward, former residents of the district began to return home and start the difficult task of rebuilding.

“Some people wanted to go back and start to rebuild the town. I thought that helping them would be a good thing for me to do,” he says.

But someone suggested another path.

It was his older brother, Takuro. After the earthquake, Takuro decided not to take a job he had been offered in Tokyo. Instead, he returned home and took over his parents’ photography studio.

“I wanted to do something I liked but I couldn't. I regret that. So I just want him to live as he wishes,” he says.

Encouraged by his older brother, Kohei decided to look for work in Tokyo.

Kohei and Yosuke, with similar backgrounds, met at the organization's office. Yosuke asks Kohei for advice regarding his job search.

“I don’t think I can boast that the earthquake made me tough,” says Yosuke.

“Rather than giving a performance about your life and your tragedy, just be who you really are,” advises Kohei.

“Wow, it’s a relief just hearing that. I think I had been feeling that I had to prove that the tragedy had made me grow up,” says Yosuke.

As he reflects on his life since the earthquake, Yosuke realizes there are some special people he really wants to see.

Foster father: "Welcome home."

Yosuke: "It’s good to be back.”

After the earthquake, some friends of Yosuke’s parents took him into their home. They cared for Yosuke for 2 years as their own.

His foster mother, Mieko, treasures photos of Yosuke taken at a coming-of-age ceremony.

Foster mother: "This one is cute.”

Yosuke: “I like the one of the 3 of us the best.”

Foster mother: “You like it?”

Yosuke: “Yes.”

“When I lost my family, I felt like I’d permanently lost anyone who could take care of me, but now I feel strong enough to keep going, because I’ve found people who will always be there for me,” says Yosuke.

Later, Yosuke is able to write about his background in an application for the first time.

He decides to have someone from the career counseling office at his university take a look at it.

“When I was in high school, I lost my home and my parents to the quake and tsunami. But the experience gave me the opportunity to meet people who've become precious to me," his application says.

It continues, "I don't want to waste the support and love they have given me. I will be optimistic and take on life's challenges.”

The teacher responds, “It shows me that you’ve been through a lot. You’ve learned that depending on others is important...You’re who you are today because of that.”

“There’s still a long way to go, but I feel like I can see the path better now. I just need to have the confidence to walk that path. I will do my best,” says Yosuke.

As he comes to terms with his own identity and his past, Yosuke is getting a clearer picture of what he wants from life.