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Reporters Get the Human Stories from Victims of Japanese Earthquake & Tsunami


Two women walk through the rubble and devastation on March 20, 2011 in Rikuzentakata, Japan.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Reporters covering disasters like the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan must get two essential components: The big picture, which includes things like the number of dead and injured and the extent of the damage, and the human story of individuals struggling to survive in the most adverse of circumstances.

Both are necessary. A story without the big picture lacks context; a story without real people in it has no heart. All the statistics and numbers in the world will never have the impact on readers that just one real human story can have.

As reporters reached the areas in Japan hardest hit by this disaster, those human stories began to emerge. This Associated Press article, using interviews from Japanese broadcaster NHK, includes the following:

In Rikuzentakata, a port city of over 20,000 virtually wiped out by the tsunami, Etsuko Koyama escaped the water rushing through the third floor of her home but lost her grip on her daughter's hand and has not found her.

"I haven't given up hope yet," Koyama told public broadcaster NHK, wiping tears from her eyes. "I saved myself, but I couldn't save my daughter."

A young man described what ran through his mind before he escaped in a separate rescue. "I thought to myself, ah, this is how I will die," Tatsuro Ishikawa, his face bruised and cut, told NHK as he sat in striped hospital pajamas.

This Los Angeles Times story describes a Japanese housewife struggling to make sense of the destruction.

Haruo Endo, 58, stood on her porch pulling towels from a clothesline Sunday afternoon, surrounded by wreckage and sadness and loss in a vain attempt to impose order on the sea of chaos.

A homemaker, she had been in her car nearby when the earthquake struck. She heard the warning siren wail and raced for higher ground. The next thing she remembers, she was watching images of the disaster unfold on her tiny dashboard TV.

"I lived here 20 years and never imagined such destruction was possible," she said, reaching down to comfort her anxious grandchild. "We have insurance, but I don't know how much it will cover. Our cousin used to live just there [down the street]. They're still alive, but their house is gone. The sea just took it away."

And this New York Times story tells of 49-year-old English teacher Yamada Koichi, who puts on a brave and even cheery face as he helps others left homeless by the tsunami, until he is asked about his own family.

"I am from Miyakogi village," he said, a seaside hamlet north of the Daiichi reactor. Although he lives in Koriyama with his wife and daughter, his 80-year-old father and 76-year-old mother live in his childhood home, about a mile from the beach.

Mr. Koichi has heard nothing from them since the earthquake. It is too dangerous, he said, to go back and look for them.

"Maybe my home is gone," he said. His face crumpled, and he covered his eyes with his hand. "We have no information because the mobile service is not good. We don't know whether they are alive or dead."

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