Homes throughout Yamamoto, located in Miyagi Prefecture, were destroyed by the March 11, 2011 disaster. Many residents have made the painful choice of relocating rather than rebuilding, and the city’s population of 13,269 is more than 3,000 less than it was in 2010, before the disaster struck. With so few residents remaining, at night the streets are practically deserted.
Unfortunately, some thieves have seized the opportunity presented by this lack of watching eyes to carry out a string of robberies. The most recent occurred at the former location of Yamamoto’s Higashi Day Care Center.
The building itself was washed away by the tsunami, which claimed the lives of three children inside at the time. In their memory, a local volunteer group placed a number of offerings at the site, including prayer sticks and jizo. Jizo are statues of deities often placed along roads to watch over travelers, but they also serve as guardians of the souls of children who pass away at a young age, as well as fetuses not carried to term.
The jizo at the Higashi Day Care Center were produced by monks from the city of Aizuwakamatsu, a town of historical and cultural significance in Fukushima Prefecture, a region which also saw extensive damage. Five jizo were made, three of which were 20 centimeters tall, and two measuring 15 centimeters, with the size differential representing the bond between the children and their parents. The porcelain statues, along with the prayer sticks and three alters with flowers, were placed at the site of the day care center on Aug 23.
Several days later, to the volunteers’ shock, the altars, seven prayer sticks, and three large jizo had all been made off with, along with another prayer stick the group had tied to a nearby bridge. “I never imagined someone would steal offerings for children who lost their lives,” said Hitomi Kano, the appalled representative director of the organization. The volunteers filed a report with police in the nearby precinct of Watari on Sept 3.
Sadly, this was not an isolated incident in Yamamoto, where a similar theft occurred at Fumonji Temple, located in the town’s mountains. Damage from the tsunami at Fumonji was so extensive that several graves were overturned, spilling the ashes interred within them. These were gathered and shaped into a burial mound, atop which was placed a statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. In May, the 30-kilogram statue was stolen, with tracks in the earth showing it had been dragged away. Eight days after the theft was announced to the public, the statue was anonymously returned to its original location.
More secular robberies have taken place at a roadside construction site along a highway in Yamamoto, which thieves hit twice last month, carrying away a total of 149 sheets of steel. “We suspect they will try to sell them as scrap metal,” said a spokesperson from the prefectural Public Works Bureau.
The Watari Police Precinct is continuing its investigation into the thefts, and stresses that citizens should be extra cautious with their property and report any suspicious activity to the authorities. In the interest of preventing further crimes, 160 light installations have been placed in Yamamoto, primarily in the areas that sustained the greatest flood damage.
“We haven’t seen anything like this in Watari,” said the lead investigator on the case, “so we don’t know why this continues to happen in Yamamoto. We don’t understand why this keeps happening, other than that some people want to cause additional grief for the victims and survivors of the disaster.”
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