Published February 5, 2017
Published by Ichiban Books LLC
WINNER of Paterson Prize for Books for Young People
A fourteen-year-old boy who feels gutless and guilty when he cannot save his family from the devastating 2011 tsunami in Japan must reclaim his power and forgive himself.
Read an excerpt below
1. Have you ever blamed yourself for something that happened because of what you did or failed to do? What happened? How does it feel to carry around guilt? Does it help to blame yourself? How did you resolve your guilt?
2. Could Kenji have saved Momo? Why did he think he had been gutless? Do you think he was gutless? Read the part about Survivor Guilt under Author’s Note above.
3. Do you sometimes disagree with or get mad at members of your family? What if you lost your family like Kenji? Would you regret some of your actions or things you said? Should you be grateful to have your family?
4. Toru and the soccer boys bully Kenji. Have you ever been bullied? What happened? How did you react? Have you ever bullied anyone? Why? What do you think about bullying? How can you stop it?
5. Stable Master tells Kenji that the mind is as strong as the body. Do you agree? Why or why not? Have you ever wanted something so badly that you made it happen? What role did your mind play?
6. What was your opinion of sumo before you read Gutless? Did this book change your perception? How? Why? What do you think of sumo now?
7. The first time Kenji and his uncle go wall climbing, why does Kenji ask the instructor to belay him instead of Uncle? What significance is there that the second time they go climbing, Kenji has his uncle belay him?
8. After Kenji has gone through rigorous sumo training, he says he will never take someone’s accomplishment for granted. Name three successes people you know have achieved. What did they do to realize those feats?
9. After the tsunami, Kenji hates surfing. Yet at the end, he tells his uncle that he surfs and is excited to open a surf shop. What made him change his mind?
March 10, 2011
THE GOOD LIFE
Kenji Shimane’s hands ached to slice through the sparkling blue water and paddle out to the deep sea to catch a wave. Gazing out at the ocean on a chilly March day, he could feel his belly rubbing on his smooth surfboard. He ran his hand over his chest, hoping to feel his wet slick body, but instead, he felt his fleece top.
“Kenji-kun,” his mother cried out from the other end of the gift shop. “Could you take everything off this shelf and wipe it down?”
It would be months before the water would be warm enough to surf on the northeast coastline of Honshu, the main island of Japan, but he dreamed anyway.
“Hai, hai,” yes, yes, he answered.
He wended his way between aisles filled with seashells painted with their resort town’s name, wind chimes, and dolphin pendants until he reached his mother. Black streaks smudged the knee-length apron that covered her tangerine-colored sweater and jeans. Her ponytail swung when she lifted a large snow globe of their historical downtown street.
“I’ll get that.” He grabbed it out of her arms and set it on the counter. Cold months meant cleaning when no tourist would stroll into their shop for gifts and souvenirs everyone expected back home. During the summer, the crucial time for their business, he wanted to surf from sunup to sundown, but customers constantly moseyed in and out of their beachfront store, restricting him from riding the waves as much as he wanted. He hated the necessary task of cleaning, but there was no surfing in the winter.
“You’ll have to wash each globe then clean the shelf.” Mother smiled and pointed to a bucket of soapy water and some rags.
“You want your pay, right?” she asked.
“Thank you,” she said brightly and disappeared through the doorway that led into their home behind the store.
He glared at the bucket. “Don’t think about the drudgery,” he said to himself. “Think of the new board I’m going to get this summer with the money. And tomorrow’s Friday, so the weekend’s coming up.” There was a lot to look forward to. He was scrubbing the last shelf when his seven-year-old sister, Momo, bounded up to him.
“Oniichan”—Older Brother—”I’m done sweeping the front of the store. I want to wrestle.” She danced on her toes and clapped her hands. “Sumo, sumo, sumo,” she chanted.
He couldn’t help himself and laughed. Her plump cheeks, her grin, her excitement over every little thing always made him want to grab her, spin her, and throw her up in the air, but there was no room in the store. He didn’t like sumo, but he could never say no to her.
“I guess no one’s going to come buy anything,” he said. “I’ll finish this tonight. It’ll be dark soon, so we can’t play too long.”
Momo giggled, slipped on her jacket and shoes, and shot out the door to the beach. Kenji tossed on his windbreaker and trotted after his sister, the damp, frosty air biting his face. The sun had no strength to warm him. The smell of ocean smacked him, and he beamed. By the time he caught up with his sister, she had found a piece of driftwood and was digging a circle in the firm sand large enough to fit a small car. He nodded to show his approval of her sumo ring.
“Your circle is getting to be the right size and actually round, not like a squished bug you used to draw,” he said.
“I never drew squished bugs!” She threw herself at him.
He fit his hands under her arms and lifted her off the ground.
“Spin me, spin me!” she begged.
Seven years younger than him and half his size, she was so light, it was like twirling a kitten. He spun her around and around, and her little body flew horizontal to the ground. She screamed with joy. He whirled her until he became dizzy and had to let her down.
“Let’s wrestle!” she shouted.
“Chotto matte,” wait a minute, he said. He bent over, his hands on his knees, until he felt stable again. “Ready.”
“I’m Hakuho.” She puffed out her chest. Hakuho was the second Mongolian to ever hold the highest rank in sumo.
“He’s awfully big. It’s hard to take down someone his size.”
“That’s why I’m going to win.”
Momo beat him into the ring and mimicked a professional wrestler. She took her position at one end of the ring, spread her feet wide, squatted, then alternated lifting her legs to the side, stomping each foot hard on the damp sand.
Kenji crouched at the opposite side of the circle from her, put on a fierce face, and tramped his feet on the ground to make as much noise as possible. He waited for her to move. As soon as she sprang up, he charged. He was small for his age, surfing in areas away from the bigger boys who kicked him around if they thought he was trying to ride their wave, but he was huge compared to his sister. He could have easily tossed her to the ground or pushed her out of the ring, but he let her thrash him around.
“Ahhh, ohhhh,” he grunted. After a few minutes of pretending to be whipped around by her, he let her shove him over. He rolled on the sand and gasped for breath as if he had fought with all his might.
“I won, I won!” Momo ran around the beach, her hands high in the air.
He laughed. They wrestled until the sun dipped over the mountain, and the breeze bit into them.
When they got home, he asked Mother where his father had been all day.
“He’s been busy negotiating a loan in Yonshima. The bank wants all sorts of records.”
Times were tough. The store was busy during high season, but not like it was before 2008.
“Go wash your hands for dinner,” she told the kids. “Your father just pulled up.”
“Papa! Papa!” Momo greeted their father at the door and wrapped her arms around him. He dropped his bags on the floor, kneeled, and squeezed her back.
“What did you bring?” she cried.
Kenji smelled their favorite dorayaki—two thick pancakes with sweetened bean paste in the middle—and his mouth began to water. Father opened the top of one of the bags.
“Dorayaki!” She clapped and jumped around. The dorayaki shop in their town of Shiroumi closed with the tourist season and would not reopen for a couple more months. “Can I have one now?”
Mother laughed. “All right. I’ll wait a few minutes before serving dinner. Let me warm them up.”
She stuck the bag in the microwave. After the oven pinged, Momo dug her hand into the bag, snatched out a treat, and bit a large hunk off. Her mouth looked like a chipmunk’s cheeks full of nuts. Kenji couldn’t help laughing. He, too, rustled his hand in the bag for one. Everybody munched, their eyes smiling, their mouths busy.
Mother had made potato croquettes for dinner, Kenji’s favorite. He figured that she was making up for all the cleaning he was doing this winter for the gift shop.
The family was seated at the table in the warm kitchen before Kenji said, “I want to buy the new Yakuza video games.”
He took a mouthful of hot, soft, deep fried, breaded mashed potato. Ummm. Mother always made them with plenty of butter, meat, and milk.
“No!” his father barked, his hawk nose looking sharper than usual.
Momo’s eyes flicked up in surprise at their usually gentle father.
“Why not? I’ve earned the money.”
“You’ll have nothing to do with the mafia!”
“They’re just games,” Kenji argued. “Everyone has them. You said I couldn’t have them when I was younger, but I’m fourteen, now.”
Father clunked down his chopsticks and shook his head. “They’re brutal men. There shouldn’t even be games about organized crime. Killing, drug dealing, human trafficking. It’s shameful.”
“Aren’t they getting into legitimate businesses, now?” Kenji asked.
“I wouldn’t believe a word they said. They’re criminals. Don’t even think about getting those games.”
Kenji puffed out a frustrated breath. He would have to play the games at his friends’ homes.
“It’s my money,” he grumbled and chewed on the rest of his dinner, but it tasted sour now.
“Can we go to Tokyo during spring break?” Momo asked. “I want to climb the Tokyo Tower and go to Disneyland.”
The parents glanced at each other. A corner of Mother’s mouth twitched. Father drew his lips into a hard line.
“Maybe,” Mother said.
“That’s what you always say, and we never go.” Momo pouted.
She was right. No matter how many times Kenji and his sister had asked to see the capital city, their parents hedged. Ultimately, they never went. What did they have against the city? He felt sorry for his sister. Tourists flocked to their town. A section of downtown was famous for the original buildings that had housed famous artisans who had produced woodblock prints, carved wooden dolls, and painted scrolls. Visitors raved over the cultural beauty of the place, but after a relaxing vacation, they went back to their exciting lives in cities with concerts, huge recreation centers, and stores with the latest cool shoes. Momo had seen kids having fun in the cities on TV, and she wanted that experience. He would have argued for her, but he had just lost his own battle, and he didn’t want to fight more when he knew the outcome would not be favorable.
“We’ll consider it,” Father said.
“That means we’re not going.” Momo tilted her spoon and let her miso soup dribble back into her bowl.
“Watch your manners,” Mother said softly.
Sand had wedged under Kenji’s collar from wrestling with his sister, and he wished he could take a bath right after dinner, but he finished cleaning the store first. Their house was one of the quaint structures visitors gawked at. Quaint meant that it was old, had no shower, and wires had to be strung along the walls to get satellite TV. He only took showers at school after gym classes. The only thing new was a section of red tiles on the roof to fix a leaky spot. The rest of the tiles were brown, but the red ones had been on sale.
Sitting on the cedar stool in the washing area of the room designated solely for bathing, he scrubbed himself clean and poured buckets of hot water over himself to wash away soap scum before plunging into the deep tub.
He scrunched himself into a ball, sucked in a large breath, held it, ducked under the water, and counted. By the time he had counted to sixty, his lungs began to burn. He had practiced a year before he could hold his breath for a full minute, and he gritted his teeth to get to a minute and ten seconds. If he fell in the ocean while surfing and his board caught on a coral or a rock, he needed time to unbuckle his ankle leash. A minute might not be enough. But after another three seconds, he jerked his head out of the water and gasped in a huge breath of moist air.
He needed more practice.
The next morning, Momo readied for school by buttoning her white and silver coat. She pretended to be a dolphin by raising her arms over her head and wiggling her body.
“Okay, Flipper, don’t forget your scarf.” Kenji wound the peach-colored wool wrap around her neck. Peach was her favorite color since her name meant peach.
Kenji threw his Nike pack over his shoulder and
enveloped his sister’s hand in his. Momo swung her arms wide and skipped to keep up with her brother.
They traveled away from the ocean through the historic downtown area. The streets were full of children heading up to school. Once they reached the concrete staircase that shot up to the top of the hill where his junior high school was, Momo grabbed the steel banister and began climbing. After two flights of stairs, they were at Momo’s elementary school built into the side of the hill.
“Learn a lot and get smart.” He let go of her hand at the sidewalk that led to her classroom.
She waved goodbye.
He had taken three steps up the stairs before he heard her scream. When he spun around, he saw her sprawled on the sidewalk and felt a jolt in his chest. He jumped down the steps, ran to her, and crouched next to her. “Are you okay? What happened?”
“You creep! You meany!” she shouted at a boy who appeared to be a few years older than her, trotting to the school entrance. “He knocked me over.”
The boy slowed down, half-turned to her, yelled, “Sorry,” kept going, and disappeared into the building.
“What a brat.” Kenji lifted Momo up. “Let’s see.” The palms of her hands were scraped but not bleeding. Her clothes had protected her knees from the concrete. “You look all right. How do you feel? Do you want me to walk you in?”
She waved again and joined the other kids scurrying into the school. Kenji waited until he couldn’t see her anymore then sprinted up thirty steps to his school.
* * *
At 2:46 that afternoon, a warning siren shrieked and made Kenji drop his pencil on his trigonometry assignment. The squawking loudspeaker made his stomach turn over. How bad would it be this time? He listened to the principal on the speaker.
“A large earthquake has been detected out in the ocean. Aftershocks are expected. Take precautions.”
The math teacher unplugged the space heater he used in drafty spots to prevent fire in case it tipped over. “Take cover!”
Kenji and the other students slid out of their seats and had barely crouched under their desks when the ground began to move. He gripped the legs of his desk, gritted his teeth, and tensed his toes in his sneakers as the floor rumbled under the soles of his feet. His pencil fell onto the floor with an eerie click and jumped about, sending a shiver up his back.
The girl next to him let out a small cry.
The boy across the aisle swore.
Kenji’s pulse raced. The shrimp tempura in his stomach from lunch threatened to come up, but he swallowed and tried to calm himself. He always wondered if this was the big one, the one that would send walls crashing down on him.
A half minute of shaking felt like an hour. Then the world was stable again.
He blew out a breath and crawled out from under his desk. Some kids’ faces were ashen. One boy stayed under his desk, his eyes closed.
Everyone hated earthquakes.
The teacher stood up from behind his desk, swallowed, and said, “That was just a small tremor, so we’ll stay in the classroom, but stay prepared.”
Kenji made an anxious face to his friend Sho. Aftershocks were unpredictable. He didn’t know if there would be more. All he could do was stay alert and keep working on his math problem to distract himself from thoughts of dying. Wired nerves prickled the back of his neck, but he picked up the worksheet that had slipped onto the floor, placed it back on the desk, and took his seat. He retrieved his pencil from the floor and went back to calculating the lengths and angles of triangles. He was finishing his last assignment when another alarm sounded, and a second announcement blasted from the main office.
“A tsunami warning has been issued. Our school is a designated tsunami shelter. Stay in your classrooms. Do not leave the school until further instructions.”
The school, being high above the town, was in no danger from a tsunami.
“I wonder if my grandmother will climb up here,” Sho said. She lived a few blocks from the ocean at sea level near Kenji’s home on the beach.
“We have the seawall, so even if she doesn’t, she should be all right,” Kenji said.
Sho nodded back. “Even so...I’m worried.”
Knowing he was violating the school rule against using cell phones, Kenji dialed his mother. “Have you heard about the tsunami?”
“Yes. Thanks for your concern.”
He heard affection in her voice. “Are you going to come up here?”
“I think the seawall will protect us, but just in case, we’ll come up to your school as soon as your father gets back from his errand. We’ll pick up Sho’s grandmother and your sister on the way.”
“Okay, see you then.”
He hung up and told his friend what his mother had said. He figured if the seawall protected the beach, his family was in no danger, but he still fretted. The ocean was powerful.
“Good,” Sho said.
At 3:15 when school ended, thirty minutes had passed since the aftershock. Kenji, his tension unwinding, began reading Blue Exorcists manga comic book. He was caught up in a fight between his favorite character and a demon when the teacher got up and peered out the window. Kenji paid no attention to him until he heard Sho ask, “What is it, Yamanaga Sensei?”
Kenji looked up and saw his teacher’s mouth drop and his eyes bug out. Kenji rushed to the window and turned white.
“Shinjirarenai!” Unbelievable, he cried.
The rest of the class dashed to the window.
Hundred-foot waves, as wide as the beachfront, blackened the horizon and sped straight toward the town. He had never seen the ocean roil like that, even on the stormiest day. No ten-foot seawall was going to hold back these waves.
“It’s huge!” Kenji rasped as if the tsunami had sucked out his vocal cords.
“No!” One girl cupped her hand over her mouth.
“Hidoi!” No way, Sho screamed. “My grandmother will never make it!” He clutched his head in his hands.
The sea that Kenji had surfed thousands of times had turned from beautiful blue to sickening gray and rolled like a curved sheet of steel. Even from this distance, he felt the hardness of the water. The cold and heartless sea would suck up everything in its path, shred it, and spit it out. He gripped the windowsill so hard that he thought his fingers would crush through it.
“My parents are still down there. Momo’s at her school,” Kenji muttered.
He hadn’t worried about Momo because her school was two stories above sea level, but he now saw that the monster waves were far taller than where the elementary school was located. Saying the words out loud sent a bolt of alarm through him and woke him up from shock. “What can I do? I can’t just watch them die!” He slammed his hand on the windowsill.
A girl glanced over, her face terror-stricken, and began to cry.
The teacher raised his palms to the class. “Everyone, calm down. We’re safe up here.”
“Yes, we’re safe, but my family isn’t.” Kenji blasted out of the classroom and dashed down the corridor.
His teacher raced after him, shouting, “Kenji, stop!”
Kenji’s belly shrunk as hard as a piece of coral. How could he save his family? Think, think! His stunned brain couldn’t come up with a plan. His hands clenched in tight fists. He didn’t know how fast the tsunami was traveling, but eyeing the waves, he figured that he might have five minutes before it hit the coastline. He slapped his head for ideas, but none came to him.
“Kenji, don’t go out there.”
Ignoring his teacher, he banged open the outside door and ran. He had reached the steps that dropped down to the town when a hand gripped his arm and stopped him.
“You’re going to get yourself killed!” Yamanaga Sensei’s face was red, and veins on his forehead stuck out like spider legs. “You have to stay here.”
Kenji jerked his arm to shake him off, but the teacher dug his fingers deep and held on. “We’re powerless against forces of nature.”
“Let me go!” Kenji thrashed his body around. Hurry, hurry! The tsunami was speeding toward his family! His heart jumped around in his chest like a caged rabbit, and he threw his weight down the steps with as much force as he could. The math teacher clutched the iron railing with his free hand and leaned back to keep Kenji from falling down the stairs.
The tsunami was reaching land! Kenji watched in horror as the angry ocean rose up like a cobra ready to strike. His throat closed up in fear. A flock of birds rose and flapped their wings frantically toward the sky. Dogs and cats ran up the hill. The water moved as fast as race cars, yet the air was dangerously still.
When Kenji surfed in the tube in the center of a wave, he loved being one with the sea, filling his nose with the briny scent as a curtain of water wrapped around him. He tuned out the rest of the world and heard only the roar of the swell, but the growl of the tsunami was different. It was deafening in a vicious, violent way. He saw it, heard it, and felt the terror in his spine.
The huge waves bashed the seawall down, as easily as Kenji could flick a piece of paper, and exploded onto the beach. People, their faces painted with anguish and panic, scampered desperately toward the hill. He narrowed his eyes and searched for his parents but couldn’t tell one face from another. Their screams speared him in the gut as if he was being filleted like a fish.
He stood helpless and afraid, his jaw clenched so hard that his teeth felt like they would crack. No, no, no! He watched his house, the home he had lived in all his life, the home his parents worked so hard to preserve, the home where he played with his sister, smash into tiny pieces. Red tiles from the roof patch job cracked and flew up in the air. The sea advanced, swallowing everything. Including his parents. His heart felt stomped on and shredded. His chest felt beaten, and he couldn’t breathe.
Cars flipped up and smashed down on top of trees, houses, and other vehicles. Boats whirled in the waves as if they were being flushed down a toilet. Trees, ripped out by their roots, shot through the water like torpedoes. Power lines snapped. The snarl of the waves, the boom of smashing cars, and the shattering of houses reverberated in his head. He felt dazed.
His teacher’s hand began to slip. Kenji twisted and wrenched until he was free. He leaped two steps at a time toward his sister’s classroom. I have to save Momo! Even though it was his duty to keep her safe, he hoped the elementary school teachers were already herding the students for higher ground.
A woman carrying a baby and moaning with fright struggled up the stairs. Her eyes concentrated on the concrete steps, and she didn’t seem to see him.
An elderly man, puffing for breath, used the railing to pull himself up. He eyed Kenji, opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out as he gasped for air.
A young man pumping up the stairs like an athlete, his face shiny with sweat, yelled, “Go back up!”
But Kenji kept running down. He was almost at Momo’s school when the fast moving ocean reared up like a cement wall in front of him. He dove sideways and reached for a tree. He had barely wrapped his arms around it when water rammed him so hard that it spun him around to the other side of the trunk. He instinctively held his breath. The seawater tasted bitter. The ocean hurled at him as if he was standing under a broken dam. When he surfed, he had been tossed around underwater but never with such ferocity. Objects slammed into him, knocked him around, and threatened to rip him from the tree.
When he saw splintered wood and metal sheets propelling toward him, he pressed his face into the tree to protect himself. Something hit him, and he felt a sharp pain on his arm, but he hung on. Bark jabbed his fingers. His lungs burned. He was running out of air, but he couldn’t let go of the tree and risk getting swept away. He clamped his jaw tight. Just a few more seconds, a few more seconds. Ten seconds later, he couldn’t hang on any longer. His lungs screamed for oxygen. He was about to suck in water. He had to let go and take his chances with making it to the surface.
He was about to kick up when the sea suddenly stopped its charge. He couldn’t believe how the ocean swirled around him and began to retreat. He was out in open air not a moment too soon. He gulped in huge gasping breaths. Yokatta! Thank goodness. He was okay. He was alive.
He slowly unwrapped himself from the tree and stood. Still reeling from his fight with the tsunami, he leaned against the tree and looked down at his hometown of Shiroumi. What lay before him was nothing like the town he had grown up in. The monster waves had flattened everything in their path for miles. Pieces of walls, cars, and boats floating on several feet of water covered the town. The stench of sludge filled his nostrils.
He cast his eyes to Momo’s school. The roof was gone and a few walls remained standing. Directly below him, the remains of his home stuck out above the water.
His parents had waited too long.
His stomach jerked up to his throat. If he hadn’t been frozen with fear, had thought and run faster, been strong enough to fight the tsunami, maybe he could have saved his family. As soon as the tsunami warning hit, he should have sped into town and made his parents flee. He should never have waited for the monster waves to appear. His parents had harped on him to study more and get smarter. If he had listened, if his mind hadn’t been paralyzed with terror, he would have come up with a plan to save them. If he would have lifted weights or been on the soccer team, he might have been able to break away from his teacher’s grip and reached Momo in time to grab her and climb to safety. If he had been a tougher swimmer, he could have swum to his house and helped his parents. All that surfing and he still wasn’t good enough in the water.
He had let them all down because he had been gutless.
He pushed off from the tree and staggered toward the stairs. His athletic shoes and socks had been ripped from his feet by the torrent. The world spun, and he held onto the rail until his equilibrium stabilized.
Kenji’s teacher ran down the stairs. “I can’t believe you made it. I watched you get caught in the crest of the tsunami.” The math teacher looked stricken and relieved at the same time. He took off his jacket and wrapped it around Kenji’s drenched shoulders. “Your arm’s bleeding. Let’s go up to the school.”
Kenji looked down, saw blood on his jacket, and felt the pain and the cold. “How could this have happened?”
“The Japan Meteorological Agency reported a 9.0 magnitude earthquake forty-five miles out in the ocean that caused the huge tsunami.”
“I have to go...to look for my family.”
“It’s too dangerous.” Yamanaga Sensei gazed at the town with sorrow and wiped away a tear.
Kenji took a step down the stairs, but his knees buckled, and he stumbled. He pulled himself up by the railing, leaned against it, and lifted his bare foot to take another step, but his leg refused to move.
“Come with me.” His teacher put his arm gently around Kenji’s waist and turned him around. “You’re in no condition to do anything.”
Kenji was powerless to stop his teacher from tugging him up the steps.
Back in the school, students wandered the halls with cell phones in their hands. Some were talking, some were crying, some held their phones to their ears with scared looks on their faces. Kenji tugged out his cell, but it was dead, ruined by seawater, and he stuck it back in his pocket.
“What if they’re injured?” Kenji said. “I have to help them.”
Yamanaga Sensei’s face crumbled. “Come on, let’s go to the infirmary.”
Kenji was too exhausted to resist.
At the infirmary, the school nurse rubbed the back of a sobbing girl and held out a pill. “Take this.”
Once the girl had taken the medication, the nurse had her sit in a chair with a glass of water. The nurse then turned her attention to Kenji. “What happened to you?” she asked in a soft voice.
“I cut my arm.”
The stout-looking woman in a white uniform ran her eyes over him. “Let’s take a look. Sit here.” She gestured to a chair. “How did this happen?”
Kenji suddenly felt cold and began shivering. His teeth chattered, and he couldn’t answer.
“He was caught in the tsunami when he ran down to help his family,” his teacher explained.
“You should get out of those wet clothes.” She handed Kenji a robe and sealed her lips in a firm line, but her eyes filled with tears. She turned away.
He struggled out of his wet pants and shirt and put on the robe.
The nurse sniffled and faced Kenji again. “You’re lucky to be alive.”
Kenji bit his lips to keep from crying.
She took his blood pressure and checked him over before working on his arm. “The laceration isn’t serious, so I’ll use some butterflies to close it up. The hospitals are going to be full with serious injuries, so I’ll take care of what I can.”
The antiseptic stung, but Kenji clenched his teeth and remained silent. Once she was done, she opened a cabinet, shook out a pill from a bottle, and handed it to Kenji. “Take this.”
Kenji shook his head. “I feel okay.”
“It’s for infection.”
He took the antibiotic with some water, lay down on one of the two beds, and covered up with a blanket. From there, he saw Yamanaga Sensei in the hall, holding his phone to his ear and muttering, “Pick up, pick up.” After a minute, he slapped his phone closed in frustration.
Kenji saw Sho walking by and called out to him. His friend’s eyes were red, and he wiped his nose with his sleeve as he entered the infirmary.
“What’s happening?” Kenji asked.
“They’re saying that this is one of Japan’s worst disasters. No one knows how many people are dead.”
The lights suddenly went out, and the boys glanced around.
“We’ve lost power,” the nurse said. “Our gym will be used as a shelter, but it’s supposed to be cold tonight.” She shook her head.
“There won’t be any heat,” Kenji said.
“Since I live up the hill, I’m being sent home.” Sho shuffled out of the room, dragging his backpack on the floor behind him as if it were filled with stones and too heavy to carry on his back.
“Kenji, you can stay here and rest awhile,” the nurse said.
“I’m not stupid,” Kenji growled. “You think my family’s dead.”
“I don’t know. Let’s keep calm.”
Kenji sat up and tossed aside the blanket.
“What’re you doing?” she asked.
“I’m going to look for them.”
“You can’t, it’s not safe. Anyway, I’ve sedated you.”
“That pill you took. You need to stay here.” She thumped his shoulder softly and gazed at him with sad eyes.
“I need to find them.”
He tried to stand, but his legs felt rubbery. The nurse guided him back on the bed. He wanted to search for his family, but his eyelids became heavy, and he fell asleep.
May 20, 2011
After living in his school gymnasium crammed into a space smaller than a soccer field with two hundred people for almost ten weeks, Kenji was ready to go live with his uncle in Tokyo, even if he couldn’t remember him. Kenji’s space had been next to a family who had looked after him. Their seven-year-old daughter, Namiko, had been in the same second-grade class as his sister. Watching the little girl reminded him of Momo. He liked Namiko, but his belly clenched every time he looked at her. Lucky for her, she had been sick on the day of the tsunami and had been at the doctor’s with her mother. Her father’s office was up the hill above the town.
“I’m so glad you’re going to live with your uncle,” Mrs. Sakai, Namiko’s mother, said. Tears filled her kind eyes. “I’d been afraid that you might end up in an orphanage.”
He had feared the same thing.
She was dressed in plain blue slacks and a beige sweater that, like everyone else in the gym, she had picked from mountains of donated clothes. She worked in the elementary school office, which had been relocated in the high school.
“I’m sorry I have nothing to give you for a going away present. Only this.” She pressed an omanju treat—sweetened azuki beans wrapped in rice paste—into his hand. “Take care of yourself.” She folded her lips together to keep from crying.
Kenji managed a raspy thank you out of his tight throat.
Mr. Sakai, wearing donated brown pants and a white shirt, was ready to take off to his optometry office. He squeezed Kenji’s shoulder. “Ganbatte,” hang in there.
Sadness crushed Kenji’s throat. All he could do was nod. He had eaten dinner with the family every night. Mrs. Sakai had sought out cough drops when he caught a cold. Mr. Sakai had given him a free eye exam. They had tried to be like a family to him.
Namiko, being a child and not having to follow proper etiquette, threw herself at him and hugged him. Her little body was smaller than his sister’s, but her embrace was as fierce as Momo’s had been.
“I’ll miss you,” she cried.
How he wished she was Momo. He swallowed, blinked back tears, and patted her on the head. He cleared his throat and choked out, “Be good.” He waved to her as the family reluctantly left.
Right after the tsunami, the homeless survivors had lain on their sleeping mats in the large open room. Later, partitions arrived, and people were able to divide the gym into quarters just large enough for a family to lay out their mats. Those able to find anything worth keeping from their homes or businesses boxed them up and stacked them in the corners of their tiny domain.
On a Friday morning in May, the place was mostly empty and quiet. A baby fussed on the other side of the gym, and a mother cooed back. People who still had work they could go to were gone. Kenji smelled the aroma of cake the shelter women were baking in the school kitchen with food supplied by the government. Everyone had tried their best to get along and help each other, but Kenji was glad to be getting out.
A lot of the survivors had drawn pictures on their partitions. Namiko had drawn pink and red teddy bears on theirs. Momo would have drawn dolphins. He could see his sister lying on the floor on her stomach, filling pages of paper with dolphins swimming, flipping in the air, or paddling backward out of the water. He had bought her an old video of Flipper, and they had watched it together. She loved the movie so much that he had suffered through it a hundred times. She had loved dolphins as much as he had loved surfing, but he no longer loved surfing or dolphins.
A man on the other side of Kenji had painted a window looking out to a field of flowers.
Kenji never drew on his cardboard.
Some of his friends had already moved to other cities to live with relatives. Most of the government’s efforts in the first months had gone to searching for survivors, removing the dead, flying in medical help, food, clothing, fuel, clean water, and diapers. He had been as happy as the mothers to get diapers because babies cried when their diapers needed to be changed, and there were plenty of crying babies with stinky bottoms.
The next best day had been when roads had been repaired enough to allow rescue trucks to get through with chocolate and other treats. He had celebrated with a mouthful of sweets. Another good day had been when the power came back on, and the women in the shelter didn’t have to cook over firewood anymore. Kenji had happily joined everyone, raised his arms, and shouted banzai.
Many waited for temporary housing the government had promised. They were small, boxy, prefabricated structures, but at least those people would have a place they could call home. Kenji wondered if he would ever have a home again.
He picked up his backpack. There wasn’t much in it: a pair of shorts, a pair of jeans, three T-shirts, a sweater and a jacket. New underwear, socks and toiletries had been delivered within a week after the disaster.
He picked his way slowly between the partitions to the gym window to watch the recovery process, which moved slower than a crawling turtle. He watched bulldozers scrape the beach, and frontend loaders scooped up smashed cars that had crashed into each other like a highway pileup and dropped them into dump trucks. The air was filled with the beep beep beep sounds of trucks backing up. The force of the tsunami had crushed buildings together, leaving wreckage everywhere and clogging roads. For weeks, Kenji had watched men and machinery untangle boards, metal scraps, furniture, and pieces of wrecked homes to make paths wide enough to haul in heavy equipment.
He wondered when the workmen were going to remove the large yacht perched on top of a two-story structure that used to be five stories and the red sign dangling from a steel tower.
Sho tapped him on the shoulder. “We’re going searching, want to come?”
Kenji opened his mouth to ask why Sho wasn’t in school but remembered that a town memorial for those who had perished was being held today, and there was no school. He shook his head, glad that he wouldn’t be around for more grieving. Sho knew he was moving to Tokyo, but Kenji didn’t tell him that today was the day. Parting meant awkward goodbyes and sadness, and he didn’t want to feel worse than he already did. He just wanted to leave the devastation behind.
Even if he were staying, he was tired of heaving chunks of concrete and lumber and shifting through warped paper, mucked-up clothes, banged-up toys, broken computers, and filling boxes with photos, documents or anything that might be a keepsake for someone.
He had hunted through his own flattened home. He couldn’t imagine where everything had gone. Not even beds or cabinets full of merchandise remained, but under some rubble, he had found a photo that his mother had tacked on their bulletin board along with checklists for their next order for the store.
On New Year’s Day, Kenji, with his family, had climbed the two hundred steps to the Shinto shrine at the top of a tall hill to pray for good health and fortune for the new year. His family, along with every family in town, had followed this Japanese tradition for as long as he could remember.
In front of the old wooden shrine, they had someone take a picture of them. His mother wore her silver and plum silk kimono, the one she wore for weddings, graduations, and special events. Even his father, who usually wore a suit, had on a kimono. Momo, of course, wore a peach-colored wool dress under her coat. Kenji wore dark trousers, a blue shirt, and a heavy sweater. He stood in front of their father, and Momo stood in front of their mother. Everyone smiled. They had been happy. He couldn’t imagine ever being happy again, and it was his fault. His ineptness, his slowness, his gutlessness was the reason he didn’t have a family.
When he found the picture, his heart felt like a surfboard had whacked it. In his mind, he played his last night with his family for the millionth time. His parents had given him everything they could afford, bought him a surfboard, even an Xbox, but he had been selfish. He wanted a Yakuza game. Father did not approve. Kenji had argued with them during their last dinner. Every time he thought about that night, he was gripped with guilt. He should have been a better son. A better son would have figured out a way to save them.
The photo paper was wavy from having been soaked, but because all his pictures had been on his phone, which had been wrecked, this was the only remaining memento of his family, and he was thankful to have found it. He liked looking at the photo, but the memories it brought back made him feel as if he was pinned on the ocean floor; no matter how he fought to regain control, he couldn’t breathe.
“Kenji?” One of the men who managed the school shelter had come to get him.
He took one last look at his town then wrenched himself away from the window. He didn’t want to leave the only place he had known, but he was glad to get away from the ocean. The water he had so loved repulsed him now.
He picked up his backpack and walked outside to his ride. The humidity on a warm spring day coated his skin, and he tasted salt, reminding him of the times he had surfed.
He recognized the young volunteer driver. She had been a tour guide when tourists used to come to Shiroumi.
“Hello, Kenji, I’m Makiko.” She smiled at him.
“Hi,” he mumbled.
Once he was in the car, Makiko shifted the car into drive and stepped on the gas. He refused to look back and kept his head rigid and forward. He was afraid that if he glanced back, he could not contain his sadness, and his heart would explode. He hoped that once he was in a new city these overwhelming feelings would leave him.
They drove in silence until they had left the coast and were winding through the forest on a twisting two-lane road.
“I know it took a while,” Makiko said, “but you’re lucky your uncle found you.”
Kenji didn’t feel lucky at all.
“There are so many people looking for their relatives,” she continued. “The government is so overloaded with 16,000 dead and 6,000 injured.”
He told himself that he was glad to be leaving, but the lump in his throat didn’t melt for two hours. He swallowed over and over as he watched the clear river water tumble and rush alongside the high mountain pass. To push away the memories of his family and his friends playing in his head, he concentrated on naming the trees that thickly covered the ground: bamboo, cedar, pine, maple.
They finally hit the freeway and whipped past towns and farms. Every now and then, a bullet train zipped past them, making him feel like they were standing still.
After another three hours without much conversation, they coasted into Tokyo. He stared out at the strange sight and tried to wet his mouth, which had suddenly gone dry. His hometown of Shiroumi, a town of 3,000 people, had spread over miles of land, leaving peaceful gaps between neighborhoods. He had seen pictures and movies of Tokyo and thought that he knew what to expect, but the city wasn’t merely a bigger version of the small cities he had been to. The buildings in the capital city seemed to squeeze together, separated only by streams of cars. The hordes of people packed into a small space seemed to press against the car, and he took quick shallow breaths.
“Tokyo is so crowded,” Makiko said nervously. She gripped the steering wheel hard and flicked her eyes between the road and the GPS on her dash. “We’re close.” She veered off the highway, turned several corners, and stopped in front of a modern apartment building.
Kenji had lived in a neighborhood that had scarcely changed over hundreds of years. Tourists had flocked there to browse through shops like theirs, in wooden buildings darkened by age and weather, to sleep in rooms not quite square, to walk on worn floors, to experience the old Japan. There was nothing historical about the district that now surrounded him. Glass and cement. Polished and slick.
Kenji unclipped his seat belt, opened his door, and stepped out. Humid air blasted him, but instead of the smell of salt, exhaust fumes churned his stomach. He hoisted out his backpack and let it hang from his hand.
The shiny glass entry door slid silently open, and a man stepped through. He had bleached blond hair roughed up in the latest style, and a black soul patch under his lip, and he wore skin-tight jeans and a long-sleeved shirt.
Kenji stared at his uncle in shock. His father had always been clean shaven and wore ironed shirts. There wasn’t one man in Shiroumi who colored his hair or grew facial hair. He wondered what his uncle did for work. He didn’t look like a salaryman working at a boring office job. Maybe he taught martial arts or was a music agent or a rock singer. Life with someone like him would surely be different from his life in Shiroumi, and he felt a prick of anxiety.
“Hey, Kenji. I’m Kazuo. Remember me?” Uncle smiled, his voice bright.
Kenji shook his head.
“Yeah, it’s been a while.” Uncle turned to Makiko. “Thanks for bringing him.”
She shook her head. “It’s not much, but I like reuniting people with their relatives. Hang in there, Kenji.”
Kenji knew that he should bow and thank her, but she was the only link left to his home of fourteen years, and he was afraid that his voice might crack. He looked down to the plain white sneakers that had showed up one day next to his mat at the gym. After a moment, he heard the car door close and Makiko drive away.
“Come on up,” Uncle said.
They rode up a sparkling clean elevator, large enough to hold five people standing shoulder to shoulder, to the fifth floor. Actually, it was the fourth floor, but Kenji noticed that this building, like so many others, called the fourth floor the fifth floor because shi, the word for four, sounded like the word for death. For that reason, fourth floors used to make Kenji uncomfortable, but now he knew nothing that could protect a person from death. One second a mother and father could be working in their gift shop, and the next second, the ocean could mow down the walls and crush them. Fourth floor. Fifth floor. It didn’t make a lick of difference.
They got off the elevator, and Uncle strolled the carpeted hall to the fourth door—Kenji wasn’t going to get away from the number four—and swiped a key card on a tiny lit green screen. He jammed the door handle down, the door swung open, and Kenji followed him in.
Luckily the cool air conditioned air slapped Kenji on the face and sharpened his senses, and he avoided tripping over dress shoes, training shoes, flip flops, slippers and loafers strewn all over the small foyer. The air smelled of artificial fragrance, like in hotels and department stores.
His mouth dropped when he peered into the apartment. The place was a wreck. The floor was covered with clothes, boxes, papers, and books. Not a sliver of flooring showed, and he couldn’t tell whether it was a wood floor or carpet. And his mother had thought his room had been messy! Compared to this place, his room had been as clean as a museum.
Outside the living room window, a river snaked below with a bridge suspended by a hundred wires like fanned playing cards. The summer afternoon sun streaked through the wires and reflected off the waterway.
He stepped on the heels of his shoes and left them among the other shoes.
“Hungry?” Uncle popped out of his black high-top sneakers.
Kenji shook his head. Uncle Kazuo veered left into the kitchen, picked up packets of soy sauce and empty takeout boxes from the floor and tossed them in the trash bin. The appliances looked glossy and new. Unlike his mother’s kitchen, this one didn’t look like it was ever used.
Uncle Kazuo opened the refrigerator, and Kenji saw dozens of bottles of Oronamin C. His uncle was an energy drink addict. Uncle grabbed a bottle and offered it to Kenji.
“Yeah, probably not good for a fourteen-year-old.” Uncle twisted the cap off and sipped from the bottle.
Kenji watched him drink and saw his uncle’s resemblance to his mother, the same sharp nose and long earlobes. His mother had grown a little rounder lately, but Uncle was still thin, and his cheeks looked like they were sucked in. Kenji had been in preschool the last time he had seen his uncle, so he calculated that they hadn’t seen each other in over ten years. He had remembered him as being big, but he didn’t seem that large now. Uncle was average height, with a long face. He would have been handsome if not for the bump on his nose, like his nose had been broken at one time.
In the living room, Kenji stepped over jackets, manga comic books, paper, envelopes and a box of facial tissue. He dropped his pack on top of some T-shirts and slumped down on the sofa.
Uncle’s phone rang.
“Moshi moshi,” he answered. He listened for a minute, said, “I’ll leave, now,” and hung up. “Listen, I’ve been called to work, but I bought some box meals.”
“Work? It’s Friday afternoon.”
“I go whenever I’m called.” Uncle Kazuo stretched his eyebrows up. “There’s some frozen stuff in the freezer, too, and I got you some futons. They’re in the bedroom closet. You can find some space in the living room. I’ll sign you up for school Monday.”
Kenji didn’t look forward to starting a new school, especially having just started ninth grade two months ago. The tsunami in the middle of March had struck weeks before the end of the school year. He had dreaded attending graduation for the ninth and twelfth graders. So many of the students were missing family members. He had sat in the last row and picked at a scab on his hand.
“I’ll need a school uniform.”
“We’ll do that, too.” Uncle gulped the rest of his drink and clunked his empty bottle down on the kitchen counter next to a dozen other empties.
Kenji had heard how expensive apartments were in Tokyo. He had been uncertain as to how much money he could ask from Uncle Kazuo, but judging from how modern this dwelling was, he had to be doing well financially.
Kenji ventured to ask, “Can I get a phone? Mine broke.”
“Sure. I’ll add you to my plan.”
Relieved, Kenji nodded. “Thanks.”
“Listen, I’ve got to go. Here’s a key card.” Uncle tossed it on top of the stack of manga books on the coffee table.
“What do you do?” Kenji had never known anyone who went to work dressed like his uncle.
“I’m in collections.” Before Kenji could ask any more questions, Uncle said, “I’ll give you my number. Just in case.” He rummaged through some envelopes from the floor, chose one from the electric company, wrote on the back, and dropped it next to the key card. “See you in the morning.” He plunged his hand in his pocket, tugged out some keys and turned to leave. “Oh, in case you need something.” He turned back and counted out five one-thousand yen bills from his wallet and offered them to Kenji.
Kenji’s eyes grew large. The money was as much as he had made in a month stocking inventory for his parents’ shop after school. He opened his hand, and Uncle Kazuo slapped the bills on his palm. Kenji savored rubbing the crisp papers between his fingers before tucking the money in his pocket. “Thanks.”
His uncle was unusual, dressing like a musician and having hair like a young punk, but he seemed nice enough. He didn’t know what to expect from a man like him.
“Sure.” Uncle stopped at the door and glanced back. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but didn’t. He opened the door, looked out into the hallway, and hesitated. After a moment, he pivoted back to Kenji.
“Hey...listen...” He cleared his throat and picked at his soul patch. “I’m sorry about your family.” He rubbed the doorframe with his hand. “It must be tough.” He met Kenji’s eyes. “How’re you doing? Do you want to talk about it?”
Kenji shook his head. He’d had to meet with a counselor once a week and was asked how he felt. If he didn’t talk, he was asked to write a story or draw pictures. They had hashed the same thing over and over, the therapist telling him that he had done all he could to try to save his family, and he actually suffered from survivor guilt. He knew the counselor was wrong. He hated those sessions. He was tense before the meetings and grew colder and tighter while confined with the therapist. He never felt better after all those talks. He didn’t know how talking about his family being crushed under a tsunami could be good for him.
Uncle nodded, passed quickly through the doorway, and closed the door, leaving Kenji alone. Kenji had come with no expectations. After all, his uncle hadn’t even sent New Year’s greetings. After months of no privacy, Kenji didn’t mind being alone. He had dozens of questions for his uncle, like what had happened between him and his mother, which he intended to ask when the time was right.
The apartment was quiet, like when he used to sit on his surfboard on the ocean, waiting for the next wave. His two favorite surfing spots had sandy beaches, no rocks, and the bottom deepened quickly. In summer months, he had spent every morning surfing with his buddies, laughing and turning brown. But now he had no desire to surf again, no desire to be under tons of water. The sea had killed his family. The back of his neck prickled when he thought about the power of the ocean.
He stared out the window at tall buildings crowded across the river. So this was Tokyo. His family had never visited Uncle, and Uncle had never come to see them. Kenji had assumed that his uncle didn’t care about them, and now, he was here. He might live here, Uncle might give him money, but this place couldn’t be his new home. Home had to have people who cared about him. He wondered if anyone would ever care about him again.
He explored the modern apartment. The only decorations were signed photos of famous baseball players and sumo wrestlers framed and hung on the walls. He knew the baseball players and recognized the wrestlers’ faces but couldn’t remember all their names. The place was nothing like his old home where he played video games in his room while his mother hummed and cooked in the kitchen. Home was hearing the door buzzer every time a customer stepped in or out of the shop. Home was listening to his sister giggle.
Losing his parents had torn his heart out, but having a missing sister was like having his heart shredded daily with dull scissors.
Momo was the only member of his family who wasn’t confirmed dead. The country was still in the midst of trying to recover from the tsunami. Citizens were shell shocked.
At the school shelter, he could jump on one of the school computers and search the half dozen websites set up to find those missing from the tsunami. People who had been tossed out to sea and survived posted to say they were alive. Every now and then, even after ten weeks, someone popped up and announced that they were among the living. He wanted Momo to be one of them. In the beginning, he had clung to the possibility that she was alive, but as his optimism faded, his guilt and grief grew and threatened to consume him.
When the school principal had announced that a tsunami warning had been issued, he had been glad that his school was so high and that he was in no danger from a tsunami. He had been pleased for himself and sat around reading manga. Reading manga!
He should have run down, grabbed Momo, and had taken her back to his school right then. He should have climbed down to town and insisted that his parents escape and not depend on a seawall that had been as effective as a feather. Instead, he had felt safe in his school high above danger.
Yes, the death of his family was his fault.
His sister should have been with him now and would have been if he wasn’t so dense that he couldn’t see what was about to happen until he saw the ocean rise like a transformer. If he had acted immediately, he would have reached her in time to haul her up to safety. Instead, he had watched and waited.
He slapped himself on the head. Idiot! Wimp! He had hoped that the physical distance between Tokyo and Shiroumi would ease the pain or fade his memory, but he could recall every second of that day as if it were yesterday. Once Uncle got him a smartphone, he could check on the missing persons websites. She could still be alive, couldn’t she?
He drew his eyes away from the wrestler pictures and went back to exploring the small apartment. In the one and only bedroom, he found an unmade bed, a night table and a dresser draped with clothes. He rolled the closet door open. On the floor beneath a few hanging shirts and slacks in plastic bags with cleaner tags lay two futons, pillows, sheets, and light blankets. He left them where they were. It was too early for bed.
When he found the bath room next to the water closet, he perked up. He could take a shower right now, a shower of his very own, in a room with only one showerhead. He undressed and stepped under hot water. He closed his eyes and sighed.
For the first time in ten weeks, he didn’t have to bathe in a large room with six other males. He turned the water on as hot as he could stand—he had been encouraged to conserve hot water at the shelter gym—and let the hot water pummel him until his skin turned red. After he was done, he whistled, happy not to be dressing in a locker room.
Impressed with the gigantic flat screen television in the living room, he searched for the TV remote and found it on the coffee table under sacks of dried squid and wasabi pistachios.
“I can watch anything I want!” he shouted and waved the remote in the air. He’d had to watch what the adults wanted to watch on the one TV in the school shelter, which were usually talk shows, game shows, and the worst: cooking shows. Excitement gave way to disappointment when he saw his choices. He flicked through the channels for a manga show but stopped when he spotted Radwimps, his favorite rock band. They were followed by Gen Hoshino, another musician he loved.
The sky was darkening by the time he grabbed a box meal and chopsticks from the kitchen and switched to a show about hot air ballooning over Europe. Not having to stand in line for this meal was as great as having his own shower. He flipped off the plastic cover and saw that it was deep fried pork cutlet, shredded cabbage, and rice. He poured thick dark sauce from a small vacuum-packed bag over the cutlet, split the chopsticks in two, and ate the tangy-tasting dinner while he watched the show.
The meal had satisfied him, and he was shoving the empty box in the trash when the walls started shaking and a bottle of water fell off the counter.
Kenji immediately huddled under the kitchen table. His gut tightened, and his full stomach churned. After ten seconds of rumbling, the shaking stopped. Relieved, he closed his eyes and panted. Aftershocks from the devastating earthquake had shaken Shiroumi three times a day. He had heard that they were happening as far away as Tokyo, but somehow he had hoped that he would be safer farther away from the epicenter. He had been wrong. If the scientists were right, he would have to suffer hundreds more of these for a year before they eventually stopped.
The small tremor made him jittery. He needed to get outside.
He was lacing up his shoes when popping sounds made him look out the window. Fireworks were blossoming in the sky across the river. He smiled. He didn’t know the schedule for fireworks shows in Tokyo, but he was happy to have arrived in time to see this display. Booms echoed through the air as huge red and white lights filled the night sky followed by a shower of white drizzle like raindrops dripping down a pane of glass. The river reflected vivid colors, painting the city with optimism.
Maybe Tokyo wasn’t so bad. He left the apartment to explore the neighborhood.