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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Portrait of hope after the tidal wave of despair

By David Jones

Devastation: This picture of Akane Ito sitting crying in the ruins of the devastated city of Natori became one of the most iconic images from the Japanese tsunami

Among all the haunting photographs taken in the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami, one image became iconic - capturing the incredible scale of destruction and the resulting human misery in one unforgettable frame.

Published prominently in the Daily Mail and countless more newspapers around the world, it showed a young Japanese woman hunched in despair beside a ripped-up road, her tiny figure dwarfed by vast mounds of debris.

Rather strangely, she had removed her red rubber boots and placed them neatly beside her, but the fact that she sat barefooted amid the wreckage somehow made the picture more poignant.

The photographer who took the picture never spoke to the woman, nor even asked her name. So who was this tormented woman, with her fashionable clothes and hairstyle, and what was the story behind her anguish?

The image was so powerful that I determined to discover the answer while in Japan reporting on the earthquake and tsunami for this paper. But with tens of thousands living in homeless people’s shelters along the country’s north-east coastline, tracking her down seemed an impossible task.

However, when I had all but given up and was back in Britain, I finally found her.

I had pinned the picture to a town-hall door in Natori in northern Japan, alongside dozens of other appeals to the missing - and by sheer chance she had seen it and responded to my request to get in touch.

Her name is Akane Ito, she is a 28-year-old nightclub hostess, and her story is by turns tragic and uplifting – a testimony to the extraordinary spirit with which the Japanese are facing up to their trials.

Until the tsunami struck, Akane lived with her construction-worker boyfriend and his mother, in a two-storey wooden house in Yuriage, a fishing port nearly 200 miles north of Tokyo which was populated by some 7,000 people.

Reunion: Against all the odds, Akane found two of her 13 dogs, labrador Mei and poodle Momo after the disaster

Akane has no children, but kept no fewer than 13 dogs - including six chihuahuas - which she loved dearly and regarded as her family.

‘On March 11, I was upstairs watching TV with my dogs, when suddenly I felt this mighty earthquake,’ she recalls. ‘There seemed to be no major damage, but we were just left without water, electricity and gas.

‘It meant that we had no radio or TV, so we hadn’t a clue that a huge tsunami was about to come racing in. We weren’t worried at all because a few years ago, when we had another big quake, the tidal wave was only about 10cm high.

‘My boyfriend was at work, but his mother and I decided to drive to the nearest shop to buy batteries and water. The puppies were a bit afraid, but we told them it was OK and thought they’d be perfectly safe until we got back.

‘But on the way home, about an hour after the earthquake, people were saying a massive tsunami was coming and warned us to flee.

‘We headed to the mountain, thinking that even if a huge wave came it couldn’t possibly be as high as the second floor, so the dogs would be fine.

‘The day after the tsunami, I tried to go back for them, but the town was still flooded and I couldn’t get through. I had no idea it had been completely destroyed until two days afterwards, when my boyfriend was able to drive us there.

‘When that photograph was taken, it was about 11am on March 13. I was sitting in front of what had been the entrance to my house, in total shock at the realisation that we had lost everything and our beloved dogs were gone.

Temporary home: The hostess is now housed in a shelter where there is a special section for homeless people with pets

Akane remained rooted in the same spot for an hour, sobbing at the devastation while her boyfriend searched in another part of the town for his grandmother - who was later found unharmed in her residential home.

Given that so many people had drowned, there seemed no hope for Akane’s dogs.

Yet she has refused to give up on her adored pets, and since taking refuge in a local cultural centre, she has spent every waking hour searching for them.

She has placed adverts on every available notice-board in the ruined town, appealed via social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, and traipses the streets for miles around asking people whether they have seen any strays wandering in the rubble.
Eventually, she was rewarded.

The first dog to be found alive was May, a six-year-old female Labrador. Bedraggled and forlorn, she was spotted by a family as they wandered through the ruins of Youriage, a mile from Akane’s home, in search of missing relatives.

Despite their own loss, they took the dog home and cared for her until they spotted on of Akane’s appeals.

‘I was overjoyed when they phoned me and said May was safe. It gave me the strength to keep looking for the others,’ she says.

Then, to her delight, she was reunited with a second dog: Momo, a big, brown, female poodle. Remarkably, this one was picked up four miles away in the town of Fukurobara.

A kindly woman had rubbed down her sodden coat, fed her, then deposited her at a pet-shop whose owner placed her description on Mixi – the Japanese equivalent of Facebook. This allowed Akane to track her down.

Akane has no idea how the pair survived the great black tide of detritus that engulfed the coastline where so many humans succumbed. However, she is utterly convinced that she will find the other 11 dogs alive, so her hunt goes on.

Momo and May now live with her in the homeless shelter - where a section is reserved for those with pets.

Though some disapprove of valuable emergency resources being devoted to animals when there is so much human suffering, Akane is adamant that it is only fair.

‘For me dogs and cats are exactly the same as a family,’ she says. ‘I’ve never had a child, so I don’t know what parents feel for their children, but they say they are more important than themselves.

‘I feel the same way about my dogs – and that is why I looked so desperate in that photograph.’

Just one question remained – why, with all that dangerous debris round, had she removed her red boots?

‘It was all such a daze that I just can’t remember. They weren’t even mine – I had borrowed them from a relative.’

At this, the woman - whose harrowing image will stand testimony to the horrors of the great tsunami - nuzzled her resilient dogs and broke into a smile.



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