My grandfather and my father were fishermen. On March 11th, 2011, they took my two older brothers fishing with them. I followed them to the pier, as I usually did. I had just enough time to bow to them and wave good-bye before I scooted home to collect my books and lunch box, and race to school before the commencement bell rang.
That morning, my mother reminded me that she planned to take my grandmother to the hospital for a special test. She promised to be home before my classes ended. In my haste, I forgot to bow farewell to my mother and grandmother and had to rush back. My oversight almost made me and my three friends late for our first class.
Most of the men wore rubber boots when they were on their ships, but that was not the case on our fishing vessel. My grandfather forbade the wearing of street shoes of any sort, even rubber boots, and raised my father in his manner. My father, in turn, taught my brothers the same. They all wore the soft-soled footwear of scuba divers. When he was young, my grandfather and father went barefoot, but, as my father grew older, he convinced my grandfather that it was wise, and comfortable, to have dry feet.
As he always did, my father handed me his precious rubber boots to carry home. At the end of the day, when I spotted his ship sailing into the harbour, I would snatch up his bright blue boots and scurry down to the dock before my brothers had time to tie the lines.
“No matter what,” my father would say to me often, “I’ll come home to dry boots!”
Then, he would smile at me, his black eyes glowing. It was the only time that I ever saw him display his true feelings for me.
At 1:00 pm on the afternoon of March 11th, the school principal reminded all students that we were being dismissed early, at 2:00 pm. He and the teachers had a meeting. When the bell sounded, I found my friends and we walked together to our cozy homes in the small fishing community.
We chatted about the homework we had to prepare for the next day, what our mothers would prepare for dinner, and, of course, boys. Our thoughts were always muddled with school work and boys, such are the thoughts of teenage girls waiting to become women.
As we reached the home of each of my friends, we said good-bye and the remaining girls would carry on down the street. Every morning I was greeted three times with “Good morning, Akemi” and at the end of each day I heard “Good-bye, Akemi” three times, as each one joined or left our small group. The four of us had been friends from the days we were born. I would not be surprised if I heard that each of them had said “Welcome, Akemi!” the day I was born. I was the youngest by three days, and our house was the last one on the street.
Ours was a happy home nestled amongst other one-story homes of people who earned their living from the sea. Every family had at least one fishing vessel, and most had sons and fathers to man them. We all knew one another and, except for one or two who were crotchety by nature, we lived together in a community of mutual respect and support. We celebrated together, and we grieved together.
By the time I arrived home from school, my mother and grandmother were having afternoon tea. I smiled at my father’s bright blue rubber boots sitting just outside the door, kicked off my shoes to land neatly next to the boots, and shoved my feet into my house slippers. As I entered the living room, I gazed at the clock on the wall. It was 2:30 pm.
“Hello grandmother. Hello mother.” I greeted each mother with a respectful bow.
“Akemi, put your books away and have some tea with us,” my mother said. “Your father won’t be at the dock for at least an hour. There’s no need to run with his boots just yet.”
It was not often that I was home early enough to have tea with my mothers. For me, it was a rare privilege to have girl-time alone with them. I asked my grandmother about the test that she had had at the hospital.
“Ah! It was nothing, as it turns out, but it is always best to have certainty,” she answered.
Before anyone could speak another word, we felt a rumble and the house began to move. Earthquakes were not uncommon in our area, but they were usually of small consequence. Regardless, the houses on our street had been built to withstand the usual shaking.
We had only recently learned that the last major earthquake in the Tohoku Region was in the year 869. The shaking did not dissipate as it usually did. As a matter of fact, it intensified.
“Akemi, grab the radio and get outside. Now!” my mother said, rising to assist my grandmother. “Come, Mother,” she said and helped my grandmother out into the street.
I grabbed the portable radio that my father had given to me for my birthday. It always sat on the shelf beside the front door. When we were safely outside, I turned the dial to the emergency alert station. All of our neighbours were in the street, the ground still shaking. Warning sirens were blaring. It took several minutes to find the radio station, and by that time, people were getting into their cars and trucks and driving away from the village.
Defying the protests of my grandmother and me, my mother dashed into the house to grab her car keys and our purses, while I helped my grandmother into the car.
“Where are we going mother?” I asked.
“I don’t know, but we need to get away from the water,” she said. “The shaking went on too long. Depending on the location of the epicenter, this area could receive high water. It is too dangerous for us to stay here. We are too close to the sea.”
“Akemi,” my grandmother said, “sit next to me. While your mother drives, we must pray for our men.”
Grandmother placed her hands on her knees, closed her eyes and lowered her head. I did the same. Then we began chanting our prayers for the safety of our men. It was only when my grandmother stopped to lick her lips that I remembered.
“Father’s boots!” I cried out, “Mother, stop the car. I have to run back for father’s boots!”
“Akemi, hush,” my mother snapped. “We have more important things to think about. We have to get to safety.”
She swallowed hard, as if to stifle a sob.
“We can only pray that your father survives to fuss about his boots.”
Her last remark was like a slap to my face. I knew we were in danger, but the degree of danger had escaped me until then. I clasped my hands, bowed my head and prayed with all my heart that our men would come home safely.
Mother headed out of the city, driving south toward Fukushima and Tokyo.
“We’ll be safe in Tokyo,” she said.
Before we reached the Yamagata turn-off, we heard the first reports on the radio of a tsunami heading straight for Sendai and the surrounding coast.
“We must get away from the coast,” mother said turning west across the island, toward Yamagata.
Fortunately for us, our fishing families were some of the first families to evacuate from Sendai, and when we turned west, the traffic lessened for a while.
Mother wanted to drive through Yamagata, but she had to stop for gas, and grandmother wanted to use the toilet. I helped my grandmother, while mother filled the car with fuel. By the time mother turned the car back onto the road for Tsuruoka, the traffic was heavier and erratic. Drivers were panicking and no longer following traffic rules. Everything was chaos and honking.
Mother’s knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel. Grandmother and I continued to chant quietly so Mother could focus on the traffic.
Mother began to relax once we were west of Nishikawa and started the assent into the mountains. We were no longer on the main highway and the road was narrow and windy, but Mother continued to drive through the mountains, and onto the main roadway to Tsuruoka.
We often made the two-hour drive from Sendai to Tsuruoka to visit my mother’s sister and her husband. Their son and I were the same age and, when we were young, we spent many a happy hour together playing and exploring. That day, it was well past the meal hour by the time we arrived at the home of my aunt and were greeted warmly by her family. The drive had taken many more hours than usual.
We hastened into the house to watch the news broadcasts. Images of devastation to the east coast streamed across the screen. Except for the television, my aunt’s house was silent.
The broadcasters told us that at 2:46 pm, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake occurred 231 miles northeast, off the coast of Tokyo at a depth of 15.2 miles. The earthquake caused a tsunami with thirty-foot waves that inundated the city of Sendai, decimating miles of shoreline, reaching ten kilometers inland. Video clips showed the surge of ocean devouring the city and surrounding villages, businesses, homes, transportation systems, agricultural and park land, churning everything it collected “into a kind of tsunami soup,” one journalist said. Some showed ships forced over the sea wall, others crushed under bridges, cars grouping together like bits of crumbs collected by a broom. Reports of damage to the Fukushima power plant were terrifying. We could only imagine what happened to people and animals unable to escape the grasp of the gigantic harbor wave.
The Japanese government had declared a state of emergency, and evacuation orders had been issued for citizens living in the path of the tsunami.
“Mother, if the water was so powerful to move that freighter,” I said, pointing to the television screen, what could have happened to father’s vessel?”
“If ships were far enough out to sea, they would have ridden the waves as if in a storm,” the broadcaster said, as if in answer to my question. “However, if they were close to land, or in the harbour, they didn’t stand much of a chance.”
I looked at my mother, my eyes widening with fear.
“Father was on his way home,” I sobbed. “He would have been close to land, maybe in the harbour already!”
“Shush, now,” my uncle said. “Let’s not be hasty with our conclusions. Anything could have happened. When we see them again, they can tell us about their adventure.”
In an unusual show of emotion, he patted my arm as if trying to assure me that nothing terrible had happened.
My grandmother was overcome with worry for our men. We went to the temple and prayed, then hurried back to my aunt’s house to watch more news coverage.
As the days passed, we learned that the earthquake was the fourth-largest to be recorded in more than one hundred years, and the largest quake to rock Japan. More than twenty thousand individuals were killed or listed as missing. Eventually, the Japanese government estimated that approximately five million tons of debris had been swept off-shore. Seventy percent of the debris was presumed to have sunk. One and a half million tons continued to float on currents swirling in the Pacific Ocean.
We contacted the rescue crews and the coast guard, anxious to hear news about our men, but none came. After weeks and months of waiting, we accepted the loss of our men and remembered them at the temple.
My uncle told us that it was pointless to return to Sendai. It was unsafe, and our home had been destroyed. He insisted that we stay with his family, and that I be enrolled at my cousin’s school.
My grandmother’s sadness made her ill, and she died before the end of the year. With her last breath, she expressed joy that soon she would be reunited with her dearest husband for all eternity.
When my mother suggested that she should find employment, my uncle offered to use his connections to help her find the best job.
“Tsuruoka is a small city, but it has a good economy,” he said. “Surely, we will find something suitable for you. But, you needn’t worry if you don’t find a place. Your sister and I will take care of you. You will always have a home with us.”
Then, he made me promise to stay in school and do well.
Every day, before I left the house for school, my mother and I would pray for our men and grandmother, remembering their faces and the love we had for them. And always, at the end of each prayer, I envisioned my father standing in his bright blue gum boots and wished that I had gone back for them.
My mother and I have nothing by which to remember our men. We have only the few items we carried away with us in the car. If only we had my father’s boots…
Mother and I continued to live with my aunt and uncle for several years. When I graduated from school in 2015, my uncle suggested that my cousin and I travel to Canada for two years. He thought we would benefit from learning to speak English and spending the first two years of our university studies somewhere different.
“You must broaden your experiences and see how others live, so that you will know which career is most suitable for you. That is what I did and look where it’s got me. I started out life as the son of a fisherman, and now, . . .”
He waved his arm to indicate the lovely home in which he lived, well-appointed and expensive, with a view over a quiet valley.
“Now, I have a well-paying position,” he said, “with one of the most profitable companies in Tsuruoka, a beautiful home, and everything we could want. I have never regretted my overseas experience. In fact, I found it inspirational!”
In the summer of that year, my cousin and I travelled to Calgary, Alberta, where we had found lodgings with a kind husband and wife whose children had grown and moved away. They lived near the University of Calgary, and they helped us find an ESL program close to their home. Our hosts were excited to help us learn English as our second language and encouraged us in our university studies.
My cousin and I were happy in those years, mostly because earthquakes were unheard of in Calgary.
We found the transit system to be a convenient and efficient-enough way to reach both the university and the ESL school. Public transit gave my cousin and me a modicum of independence. I like to think that independence lessened the burden on our hosts.
The two years passed quickly, and soon my cousin and I were thinking of our return home. We were excited to share our experiences and our knowledge with our family, especially my uncle who had great dreams for us.
Our host husband encouraged us to watch the news to broaden our worldly understanding, and our use of English. One evening in the early summer of 2017, my cousin and I were watching the evening news. My cousin insisted that he should hold onto the remote control. That evening, because he was slow to turn off the television, we saw the beginning of the next program, a primetime news magazine.
My thoughts had already left the news behind and had drifted toward my home in Sendai. I envisioned my father, standing outside our house, proudly wearing his bright blue gum boots.
Suddenly, I gasped and straightened on the sofa, rubbing my eyes in disbelief. I could not believe the sight before me: two photos side by side, each featuring a bright blue gum boot.
“Turn volume up, please,” I asked my cousin.
He aimed the remote control at the television and the speaker’s voice became louder.
“On March 11, 2011, a catastrophic tsunami slowly and methodically swept into the coast line of northern Japan, devouring coastal villages, marinas, towns, cities and one nuclear power plant – Fukushima. Some twenty-thousand people died or disappeared, at the time of the tsunami, and a further two thousand individuals died from post-disaster health conditions. The tsunami’s flow devoured ships – large and small – automobiles, trucks, cars, buildings and anything else in its wake. The powerful surge absorbed plastic bags, refrigerators, tires, trunks, clothing, and more, including at least one pair of gum boots. The debris roiled together, dancing, twisting, snagging, dragging, forming fluid balls of man-made flotsam riding wide and low in the currents of the Pacific Ocean. Some rode north, some rode south, others, like wayward pilgrims, rode the currents bound for the Americas.” The journalist paused, staring into the camera. “Some of the roving debris fields floated aimlessly for almost two years before finally finding landfall along the west coast of North America. During that time, the masses became breeding grounds for all manner of sea life, including barnacles, clams, small fish, seaweed and the like.”
The journalist ended his summary of the disastrous event that destroyed the life I had loved, and smiled into the camera.
“We have heard a number of stories,” he said, “about the tsunami and its consequences since that fateful day in 2011. I hope you’ll bear with us as we bring you one more – very unusual – story. It’s a story about two blue rubber boots.”
Side by side photos appeared on the screen again.
“The labelling on the boots indicates that they come from Japan, and the characters stamped next to each of the labels suggest the name of the owner. Unfortunately, some of the stamp has faded so we can only presume they are identical. The boots are the same size, and one is left, the other right. For the sake of this story, we will presume they are a matched pair.”
The camera zoomed out, showing more of the studio from which he was broadcasting. Seated at a table with him was a handsome young man who appeared to be better dressed for beachcombing than business. His hair was long, dark and wavy, and he had a neatly-trimmed beard. Between the two men sat a computer monitor.
“With us today,” the journalist continued, “we have Pat Chen, of Prince Rupert British Columbia, and Ollie Douglas, of Auckland, New Zealand. Ollie is joining us via Skype.”
Pat grinned and dipped his head in acknowledgement. The journalist gestured toward the monitor that showed an eager Ollie waving back, then returned to his studio guest.
“Pat spends his time combing the beaches of Haida Gwaii collecting material that he uses in his unique sculptures. Ollie works as a freelance environmentalist and recently participated in a project that took him to Henderson Island in the South Pacific.”
His gaze took in Pat and the monitor.
“Welcome gentlemen. Now Pat, tell the viewers how you came to find your blue boot.”
“Haida Gwaii is one of the most pristine exhibits of nature in North America,” Pat said. “I spend my summers combing the beaches. Most of the stuff I pick up is man-made rubbish. In my own way, I try to keep the shoreline clean. Once in a while, I find an interesting piece of naturally-decaying debris. If it speaks to me, I ask the Haida Nation for permission to remove it. I never know what will evolve until I’m inspired by the spirit within. Everything has a spirit, you see.”
The journalist leaned toward Pat as if to speak, but Pat cut him off.
“I’m sorry. I wandered off topic.”
The journalist relaxed, and Pat continued.
“In August 2015, I was beachcombing near the Blow Hole at Tow Hill when the vivid blue of one of the boots caught my eye. It was suspended from a piece of gnarled drift wood. Small razor clam shells dangled in strands like pearl buttons caught up in a web of Belgian lace. The clams are indigenous to the area, you see.”
The journalist nodded.
“I knocked the boot lightly with the back of my hand and watched two quarter-sized crabs scoot out of its mouth, drop like parachutes to the soft sand and scurry away.” Pat smiled in recollection and scrubbed his beard for a moment.
“I wondered about the owner and retrieved the boot for further investigation, placing it reverently next to interesting shells, branches of expressive driftwood and various pieces of coloured glass that I’d already collected. Months passed before I finally found the time to sort through all of the stuff I’d collected, which also included fishing ropes, buoys, Styrofoam, hand-carved wooden boxes, and, of course, the blue boot. I wondered again at the boot’s origin. Guided by curiosity, I found myself seated in front of my computer searching for something – anything – online that might inspire me. I typed in blue boot and, amazed, read an article written by Ollie, claiming that he found a blue Welly in a field of debris that had beached itself on Henderson Island. I examined the photos and video attached to his article. Except that my boot was a mirror image, Ollie’s boot resembled the one that I’d found in Haida Gwaii. So, I fired off an email and asked Ollie whether we could compare findings.”
“That’s quite the find!” the journalist said, before turning toward the computer monitor.
I had been listening so intently to Pat Chen’s story that I had forgotten about the New Zealand environmentalist.
“And, Ollie, how is it that you found your blue gum boot?” the journalist asked.
“Ah, well, I don’t think I can wax as poetic as our artist friend, Pat,” Ollie teased, “but I’m happy to share my experience.”
I noticed that, compared to the beachcomber, Ollie’s skin was tanned, his hair brown with golden highlights, as if he had spent a lot of time in the sun. I intently listened to his words too.
“As you mentioned earlier, I am a freelance environmentalist. I keep my ear open for interesting studies, and, if I hear about something that intrigues me, I follow up. I had heard about a team setting out for Henderson Island, in the South Pacific Ocean, to study debris fields collecting there. The island is actually one of the last raised coral atolls in the world, and part of the Pitcairn Islands. Although it is uninhabited and, in general, unaffected by humans, recent media reports claimed that the island was being inundated with plastic and other debris. Henderson Island is renowned for its diverse and unique flora, as well as birds, bugs and gastropods, so it’s important that its environment be protected.”
The journalist loomed toward the computer, as if to hurry the environmentalist’s tale along.
“So, when I heard about the excursion, I contacted the organizers and asked whether I could participate. Fortunately, they found a place for me. Do you have the photos that I sent earlier?”
“Yes, they’re streaming now,” the journalist answered.
“It was pretty crazy to see the volume of debris that’s washed up on the island’s shoreline. At one point, the count was estimated at 37 million pieces. Needless to say, efforts to clear the island have been made, but it will take the world working together to ensure that the island isn’t overwhelmed again.” Ollie chuckled.
“It’s amazing how adaptive creatures can be. Someone found a little hermit crab living in a discarded perfume bottle, instead of a shell! At any rate, several days into our investigation, I found a wad of tangled fishing net snagged with shredded plastic bags, a small Japanese chest made of boxwood with “Tanika” carved on its side, and . . . one bright blue boot. The debris in that snaggle appeared more specific, and, as I began to untangle everything, I realized that it had likely found its way from northern Japan. It appeared to be part of the debris swept off shore by the tsunami in 2011. Eventually, I accumulated enough evidence to categorically state that the mass was from Japan, and the time frame fit.”
“Then you posted the article online?” the journalist asked.
“I did indeed, but I never expected to hear anything more about it. I was flabbergasted when Pat reached out to me.”
“And one thing led to another, and here we are today,” the journalist began to wind up his story. “Gentlemen, thank you for sharing your stories. That’s it for today, folks.”
The program ended and a commercial began.
I collapsed back into the sofa, stunned. I truly believed that those boots were the very ones that my father had treasured, and I wondered what to do next. From the kitchen I heard a ding and realized that dinner must be ready.
“We should set table,” I said, anxious that my cousin and I should adhere to the house rule that we were to set the table before every evening meal.
We hopped off the sofa and scooted to the kitchen to help. Over dinner, I explained to our hosts the story of the blue boots. They were fascinated and insisted that we should contact the television station.
“I couldn’t do that,” I said, feeling overwhelmed and embarrassed at the suggestion.
“Don’t worry,” our hosts insisted, “We’ll help you!”
We ate our meal quickly, speculating what might come of the ensuing telephone call. Twenty minutes later, cold remains of our meal and dirty dishes sat abandoned on the dining table, as we four gathered around the kitchen table. In the middle of the table sat an office-sized telephone. Our host husband pressed the speaker button and keyed a number he had found on the Internet. Soon, the journalist whom my cousin and I had seen on television was on the line, and our hosts were explaining the reason for our call.
“This is very interesting news,” the journalist said. “I’d like to interview Akemi. Can you give me twenty-four hours?”
I nodded at the three pair of eyes staring at me. When our host wife told him that I had agreed to the interview, he thanked us for the call and signed off. The following day, the journalist telephoned to invite us all to Vancouver for the interview.
“The primary sponsor of my program,” he said, “has offered to pay your travel expenses.”
In the next few days, plane tickets and an itinerary arrived and within the week, we were waiting in the studio of the national television station.
I alone was invited to sit in a chair opposite the journalist. When the stage lights came on and the cameras began recording, my cousin and our hosts disappeared into the shadows. Instead of looking to them for support, I nervously twisted my hands and focussed on the questions posed to me. I told about the day of the tsunami, our harried drive to Tsuruoka, life with my aunt and uncle, and how my cousin and I had travelled to Canada to study and learn English.
“You must miss your mother very much,” the journalist said sympathetically.
“I do, yes,” I said. Suddenly, a hush fell in the studio, and the journalist smiled.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the journalist said, but I missed the words that followed.
From behind a heavy curtain that hung near the edge of the stage walked my mother, petite and proper, her shiny black hair bound at her nape, tears cascading over her cheeks. I stood, trembling, and welcomed her with an honourable bow. With our eyes, we traced each other’s face with loving caresses. My mother clasped her hands over her sobbing mouth, and I did the same, but we could not stop our tears from soaking the fronts of our clothing.
The journalist invited us to sit on a sofa that had been substituted magically for the chair upon which I had been sitting, during the short time that the cameras had zoomed in on our reunion. Contrary to our usual custom, my mother and I sat close together on the couch, so close in fact that I doubt a sheet of paper could have slid between us. Trembling with emotion, and I continued with the interview.
Soon, we were joined on the sofa by the beachcomber from Prince Rupert and the environmentalist from New Zealand, and the interview took on an almost party-like atmosphere as we talked about the coincidences and the bright blue boots.
My mother commented that the experience was like a healing for her: a time to remember the people who had died during the tsunami, or because of it, and a time to find peace. I translated her words to share them with the three men, and those who looked on from the shadows.
“Well, I’d say that very nicely sums up our time today,” the journalist replied, “Except for one thing . . .”
In that moment, someone from the shadows set a white box wrapped with a red ribbon on the table next to the journalist’s chair. He reached for the box and handed it to me, gesturing that we should open it. Mother and I balanced it on our laps and I untied the ribbon. Mother helped me open the lid and remove the stuffing. In the next moment, I sat in stunned silence, my hands covering my mouth, unable to speak. Mother’s knuckles turned white, she grasped the box so tightly. Her tried to brush away the tears that flowed freely to her chin, but they did not lessen.
As the journalist held the box, Mother and I each reached into the box and retrieved my father’s bright blue gum boots. Holding them between us, we could no longer contain a visible display of emotion. We hugged and cried unchecked. When the journalist finally caught our attention, with an indication that the interview was over, I looked up and smiled at the camera, light bouncing off my glistening cheeks.
The program ended, and the house lights chased the dark shadows away. People sniffed, dabbed their eyes with hankies, or honked into tissue. Still hugging a boot each, Mother and I rose and embraced beachcomber Pat Chen and environmentalist Ollie Douglas and thanked them for finding the boots and doing something about it. Then, we embraced the journalist and thanked him for telling the stories.
And, when we were finally released from the stage, our hosts and my cousin rushed to greet us and admire the reunited bright blue boots of my father.