Kesennuma, Japan (AFP) March 17, 2011
Hideo Chiba firmly believes that hard work can be uplifting. So the 70-year-old baker has busied himself with a smile, cleaning up his house and shop ravaged by the killer tsunami.
"Whatever will be will be," Chiba says with cheerful confidence, his cheeks flushed after hours of heavy lifting and stair-climbing, as snow blankets the mountains of debris outside the two-storey building where he lives and works.
"People say 'How can you smile like that?' I just tell them, 'None of my relatives died.'"
Chiba lives in the devastated Japanese port town of Kesennuma, where homes were razed, huge commercial fishing vessels swept into residential areas, and cars flipped up against buildings in Friday's monster quake and tsunami.
His attitude exemplifies the stoicism displayed by Japanese people since the twin disasters -- from the calm and orderly evacuation centres, to the dozens of workers bravely battling the emergency at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant.
The stocky grandfather considers himself lucky to have a place to clean up at all. Many of his fellow business owners lost their shops to the waves. Some of them were lost to the tidal surge themselves.
When the 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit, Chiba was running errands. He tried to return to his bakery, but the immense wall of water was already crashing into the streets of Kesennuma, and he sprinted to a shelter on higher ground.
Had he been in the store, Chiba admits he might have ignored the tsunami warning and kept working, as past alerts had never resulted in any significant change in the sea level.
He now realises serendipity was on his side, but fears that other local residents may have been blase and paid the ultimate price.
"Many people might have not evacuated, thinking that nothing major would happen. Not here," he said dolefully. So far, police say the natural disaster has left more than 12,000 people dead or missing.
Chiba's pastry shop Briant suffered extensive damage -- he estimates the cost at 20 million yen ($250,000).
A large 3.5-million-yen oven was flipped on its side. A glass show case worth 3.2 million yen is smashed on the floor. A marble desk that cost one million yen was destroyed. The list goes on.
Chiba says he will need to overhaul the building's air conditioning system, an elevator and three mixers, as well as his storage facilities. Refurbishment of the storefront may cost as much as five million yen.
"I had everything prepared for White Day," he said wistfully, referring to a day celebrated in Japan on March 14 -- Monday -- when men give sweets and gifts to women in return for their Valentine's Day chocolates.
Chiba says he is unsure when he will truly start thinking about renovating his store, considering the money involved and his advancing age.
"We don't know when we will receive power and water and telephone service. It's hard for me to decide when or whether I will be able to reopen," he said.
But a glimmer of hope rests with his son, who works as a baker in Tokyo.
"I will talk to him about what he wants to do in the future and then decide," he said, suggesting that his son could someday take over his business.
In the meantime, Chiba is determined to at least completely clean up his residence, on the second floor above his store.
"If you work hard, you lift your spirits, I think. I have done so much cleaning, I am all fired up. There is no end to cleaning this," he said.
"I don't have fresh water to clean my hands. But I will go on."
earlier related report
Japanese living far from home are anxiously scanning newspapers, Twitter and Facebook for news of friends and family after last week's devastating earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear crisis.
Engineers are struggling to bring the situation at the Fukushima nuclear plant under control, dousing overheating reactors with water to avert a meltdown in an emergency that has caused grave concern in Japan and beyond.
The disaster, the country's most serious crisis since World War II, has seen Japanese expats frantically trying to make contact with relatives, support each other and raise money to help their compatriots.
Australia has one of the world's largest Japanese expat communities, with over 70,000 registered as living in the country, according to its embassy in Canberra.
The Sydney Japanese School said it had been a difficult time emotionally for staff, parents and children, but that they had received tremendous support from the community with fund-raising activities in full swing.
"The images of the Japanese earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck in Japan have been most terrifying," said deputy principal Allan Meadows.
"It is only made worse when we know that our school community is directly affected, with many teachers, families and friends -- past and present -- coming from the devastated regions of eastern Japan."
He said there were staff members whose parents' houses were swept away in the tsunami, and knew of at least one relative of a teacher who was killed.
"Some teachers have been doing it really tough. The uncertainty is the worst," he said.
It was a similar story at the Taipei Japanese School in Taiwan. Several teachers' houses have been damaged by the tsunami that devastated swathes of Japan's northeast, swallowing up whole towns and villages.
Meiko Kobayashi, a Japanese writer living in Singapore, has spent hours on Facebook and Twitter trying to get in touch with family in her homeland.
"As far as I know, some people went back to be with the family but most are staying put," she said of the city-state's Japanese community, comments echoed by Yosuke Tanaka.
"We are not going back home, but we watch TV and websites for news about Japan," said the marketing manager for Albirex Niigata, a Japanese football club based in Singapore.
Some expats have faced agonising days of being unable to contact loved ones in the devastated region, where the number of confirmed dead from the twin disasters now stands at 5,178 with thousands more missing.
Eri Osawa, 33, a teacher at a Japanese school in Kuala Lumpur, said while her family was safe, she cannot reach two friends in Sendai.
"I sent numerous emails to them but till today I have had no response," she said through tears.
Osawa, who comes from Chichibu near Tokyo, said two other friends have left their homes in the capital due to concerns over radiation from the plant, which sent levels rising in the capital -- although not to dangerous levels.
"I feel very sad and I am worried about the radiation," Osawa said.
Naka Nakayama, who works for the Japan Team of Young Human Power, a non-governmental organisation in Phnom Penh, expressed the frustration and helplessness of many Japanese in distant countries.
"We are all worried and just trying to figure out what we can do to help," he said.
"I'm so worried about those who are missing and have suffered because of the disaster."
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