BY YOICHIRO KODERA STAFF WRITER
Toshiko Matsumoto, 65, far right, prays in front of her home in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, less than 2 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, on a brief return on Sept. 1. The bodies of her husband, Shuhei, and grandson, Eiji, were discovered near their home in late May. (Hiroshi Kawai)
Wearing protective clothes, caps, masks and gloves, Toshiko Matsumoto looked from her home where cedar trees were swept away in the March 11 tsunami. With little left to block her view, she could now see the sea.
"I don't like looking at the sea from here," Matsumoto, 65, said, and turned her eyes.
A transceiver dangling from her neck announced that an hour had passed since Matsumoto and other residents returned to their homes in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, for the first time on Sept. 1. They were forced to evacuate because they lived within a 3-kilometer radius of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Matsumoto's dosimeter showed radiation levels above 30 microsieverts, the accumulated total of her radiation exposure since she returned to Okuma. She called the minibus that had taken them to the town, even though she still had 40 minutes left in the two-hour visit to collect belongings. She waited patiently for the bus to take her away from Okuma, perhaps for the last time.
Her brief visit to Okuma allowed Matsumoto to try to bring a sense of closure to all the misery she suffered in the aftermath of the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. But it also gave her painful reminders of all she had lost and the current torment she suffers.
After the bus arrived in Okuma, Matsumoto headed to her home, which is uphill and a 10-minute walk from the coast. It was also less than 2 kilometers from the nuclear plant.
She had trouble walking through the knee-high grass and weeds that had grown after the town was abandoned soon after the quake.
When she finally reached the front of her home, she pulled out a bundle of incense sticks and burned them for her husband, Shuhei, 68, and her 4-year-old grandson, Eiji. They were swallowed up by the tsunami when they fled to the garden after the magnitude 9-0 earthquake struck.
Matsumoto only learned in late May that their bodies had been found. At that time, she was taking refuge at a relative's house in Chiba Prefecture. She and her sons could not search for the bodies because the nuclear accident had forced them to stay away from Okuma.
After lighting the incense in front of the house, she gave offerings for the two--a can of sweet coffee for Shuhei, which was his favorite drink, and a red miniature car for Eiji.
"It must have been lonely to be left in a place like this for three months," Matsumoto said, while putting her glove-covered hands together to pray.
She was cleaning up the mess in her house caused by the earthquake when she heard a roar around 3:30 p.m. She raced upstairs and saw a wall of water pour over the cedar trees, the height of a four-story house, that surrounded her home. She called out to Shuhei and Eiji, but received no reply. The tsunami struck the house, throwing broken trees and electricity poles into the first floor.
March 11 was Matsumoto's birthday. Shuhei was the kind of person who would realize it was her birthday usually a couple of days after the date. But on that day, he remembered it correctly and took her out for lunch at a revolving sushi bar. She said it was a real treat for her.
"(You died in the tsunami) because you did something you usually didn't do," she had said to her husband's remains, now in her apartment in Aizuwakamatsu in the prefecture. "But why did you take Eiji with you?"
It was something that kept bothering her.
But in August, Matsumoto learned what actually happened when her sister-in-law asked for details from the Self-Defense Forces member who had discovered the bodies.
The sister-in-law called Matsumoto to inform her that Shuhei was found holding his grandson. Matsumoto burst into tears.
"You tried to protect him to the end," she said to the remains. She felt slightly relieved.
When Matsumoto returned to her home on Sept. 1, she was accompanied by her oldest son, the father of Eiji.
"Fifty-five microsieverts (per hour)," her son, holding a dosimeter, shouted upstairs. "It is impossible to take out clothes (due to high radiation levels)."
When the quake hit, her son was working at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Despite the disappearance of his father and son, he has continued to work on a schedule of four days on and two days off since the nuclear disaster started.
In late August, he told his mother that he was being transferred to a section handling clerical work. He would not tell her why.
Matsumoto wanted to ask her son many things, like how much radiation he had been exposed to at the plant, and if he was getting enough sleep.
But he would never talk about the nuclear disaster. And Matsumoto said she has never seen tears in the eyes of her son, despite the loss of his child and father. He often appeared absent-minded.
He sat silent for a while in front of the remains of his father and son.
"I sometimes get disoriented and cannot tell where I am," he whispered.
Matsumoto did not know what to say to her son.
She followed him upstairs, where she spotted a black leather wrist watch, a gift her two sons and a daughter-in-law had given her on her 60th birthday.
She also found her diary. The last entry was on March 10.
The two items were under collapsed drawers. She hesitated for a bit due to the high radiation readings. But she retrieved them and put them in a plastic bag.
The last item she took from her home was a photo album kept in an upper closet. On the first page of the album was a message: "Be happy ever after." When she turned another page, she found a photo of her and Shuhei on their wedding ceremony.
Before she boarded the bus, Matsumoto looked around at what had become of her home and showed little emotion.
"I will never feel like building a home here again," she said. "I am afraid this is it."
She had never said such things when I interviewed her in late March.