IN THE CROWDED TSUNAMI SHELTER set up in an abandoned elementary school, the three girls stood out. They had blushing pink cheeks and cute bowl haircuts, but those didn’t make them particularly noticeable. It was the kimonos. They wore bright red kimonos, with long sleeves and high hems like girls used to wear in the early 1900s.
They claimed that they were – and with their similar round faces, certainly appeared to be – sisters, aged seven, nine and 11, and it seemed that they were orphans. In the chaos of the first few days after the disaster they had set up their little corner and managed by themselves, but after life in the shelter settled into a routine, it became clear that the girls had no family to look after them. Despite this, they were always cheerful: laughing, dancing, playing tricks on the other children.
Eventually officials began arriving, registering people, trying to figure out who was dead or missing and reuniting family members who had lost each other. That was where I became involved. I happened to be at the shelter helping a friend deliver a van-load of shoes sent as a contribution from Yokohama. I overheard a counsellor asking the little girls their names.
They were Wako, Rako and Shiko. “Quite unusual,” commented the pretty young counsellor from Tohno, while the girls giggled. “And your last name?”
“We don’t have a last name!” they announced and started giggling again.
“Well, where do you live?” she continued.
“In a zashiki,” they replied.
“Zashiki” can be translated as “living room”, but it could be any kind of room anywhere. It’s not specific. The counsellor tried the names of all the local villages, but the girls shook their heads every time. They had even less to say about their family. They couldn’t remember their mother, father or grandparents. They had always lived together, just the three of them, nobody else. Finally the flustered advisor withdrew, announcing she would return the next day with a car to take them to a new home. Clearly they were on their way to an orphanage.
I was intrigued. For one thing, those kimonos were different, verging on weird, something you would see in period TV dramas like Oshin, the tale of the poor 1920s working-class girl, but never in modern times. And the first names, they were peculiar too. The aid worker, inquiring according to the manual, had overlooked obvious clues. I removed myself from shoe-distribution duty for the rest of the day and stayed behind at the school, waiting for her to leave. I thought I’d have a crack at figuring out who these girls really were.
By early afternoon the officials had moved on and the shelter had quietened down. I beckoned to the girls and soon I had them seated around me on the outside steps, where we could bask in the sun, its warmth welcome after the bitter chill of the week of the tsunami. I started with their names.
At seven, Wako was the youngest. “Wako – what sort of name is that?” I asked.
“Wa is peace (和),” she replied and it was not unexpected. It was really the only kanji character that would work with a name like that. I went on to ask about hobbies and it turned out that she loved nature. Wako whipped out crayons and a notebook and drew some quick sketches. Ferns and susuki pampas grass, the rising branches of a keaki elm, green river rocks, a waterfall, pine trees teetering on a cliff. She was a talented little romantic.
Next was nine-year-old Rako. The Ra, she informed me, was short for Raku or joy (楽) and you could see the rationale behind it: if you pronounced the character in full, her name would have been Rakuko, which might have been a mouthful. Mature for her age, Rako loved things artistic. She told me how she liked to sit formally in the tea room showing off her red kimono and was already practising calligraphy and archery. On the spot she composed a haiku.
Finally, Shiko. Eldest of the three, she carried herself with an air of responsibility. Her name turned out to be substantial, incorporating Shi for funds or capital (資). It was the kind of name you would expect to find more in China than Japan, but these days parents name their children all sorts of things. There was a case some years ago in which the courts intervened, banning the naming of a child Akuma, or Demon (悪魔). In any case, Shiko certainly lived up to her name. A thoroughly material girl, she knew that she liked money. She carried a purse. She needed money to look after her siblings and furthermore, she wanted to buy pretty things to go with her kimono and perhaps a ribbon for her hair. I gave her a 1,000 yen bill, watching as she folded it gravely and committed it to her purse. I could see that Shiko would only save; she would never buy anything.
Then: to learn more about their background. “If you’re not from this area, where are you from?” I asked.
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