Tsunami survivor trades life in Japan for Idaho

Tsunami survivor trades life in Japan for Idaho
Norio Abe, right, talks about his experience after last year's earthquake and tsunami. His grandaughter Miyai Abe Griggs, center, was tasked with convincing Norio to move to the United States and live with his son Norimasa Abe and daughter-in-law Tsukiko Abe in their St. Anthony, Idaho home. (AP Photo/The Idaho Post-Register, Monte LaOrange)
ST. ANTHONY, Idaho (AP) — Norimasa Abe sent his daughter to Japan with two return plane tickets and one simple instruction: Bring your grandfather back to Idaho.

Norimasa Abe knew his father would resist. Worried about Norio Abe's health and faltering mobility, he'd been trying to convince his father to come live with him in St. Anthony since long before the March 2011 tsunami struck Ishinomaki.

But while the home that Norio Abe built on a hillside in Ishinomaki, Japan, after World War II survived the disaster, it suffered significant damage. With winter coming, the family was convinced their patriarch should relocate to eastern Idaho's cold but tsunami-free high desert.

So in December, Norimasa Abe played the most persuasive card in his hand: his daughter, Miyai Abe Griggs.

"If I went there, probably he wouldn't come," Norimasa Abe said. "Miyai went there, so that's why he listened."

Today, more than a year after the tsunami killed almost 4,000 Ishinomaki residents, Norio Abe lives in St. Anthony with his son and daughter-in-law, Tsukiko Abe. He likes being around his family, and he's impressed when he sees Abe Griggs driving her husband's truck, which is bigger than anything he's used to seeing.

But even at 86, he's a little restless.

"It's so quiet here, he's kind of bored sometimes," Abe Griggs said.

Norio Abe didn't know about the tsunami until he saw fish in the streets.

At 85, he slept through the disaster, only waking to make sure a dresser in his home didn't fall over during the earthquake that preceded the deluge. Earthquakes are common in Ishinomaki, a coastal city with a population of about 160,000, so Abe didn't think much of the tremors.

He lived a secluded life, alone on a wooded hill above most of the city, in the same traditional Japanese home that he built a few years after World War II. It was a quiet home — quiet enough that the wreckage happening below it didn't disturb an old man's sleep.

When he awoke, he took a walk down the hill to buy some groceries. It was then that he saw fish on the roadways, stranded when the tsunami receded.

"Where did these fish come from?" he asked himself, as interpreted last week by Abe Griggs. "Did they come from the river, or did the ocean come really this far?"

A 'command center' in the living room

Abe Griggs' December trip to Japan was her second of the year. In October, she went with her father and brother to find Norio Abe and make sure he was safe.

Until they saw him with their own eyes, they'd heard precious little of how he was faring in the tsunami's aftermath. In fact, for 10 days after the tsunami hit Ishinomaki, they didn't know whether he was alive or dead.

Norimasa Abe moved to the United States 30 years ago, his career path ultimately carrying him to St. Anthony, where he works as a clinician for the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections.

The family still counts about 30 close relatives in the city, one of the hardest hit by last year's disaster. Suddenly thrown into crisis, the family converted the living room in Norimasa and Tsukiko Abe's St. Anthony home into what Abe Griggs called a "command center."

They made phone calls. They sent out messages on Facebook. They watched television. They worried.

One by one, they tracked down each family member — amazingly, all alive. Norio Abe, who wasn't a big fan of the telephone, much less Facebook, was the last one accounted for. The Abe family finally talked to someone in a city office who confirmed seeing him alive.

Still worried, the family later decided they needed to see Norio Abe for themselves.

They just showed up.

Norio Abe had no idea his son and grandchildren were coming to find him. He'd been living on a diet of government-commissioned rice balls and groceries he could find at the nearest convenience store.

A government agency was charged with providing basic services to the elderly, but Norio Abe wasn't really happy about that, either.

"He's a pretty independent individual, and so he didn't really appreciate that assistance," Abe Griggs said. "There were people to help him, but he didn't want the help."

Isolated as ever, Norio Abe had given up hope of ever seeing his son again. Then the man from Idaho was there, unannounced, on his doorstep.

"Oh, am I dreaming?" he asked Norimasa Abe. "I didn't think I'd ever see you again."

Abe Griggs said her grandfather's home was still in disarray seven months after the tsunami. The roof was damaged and leaking badly. Worse, the weather was turning cold, and Norio Abe didn't want to use a heater for fear it would cause a fire.

When they returned to the United States, the Abes grew more worried about Norio Abe's well-being. But he still wanted to stay in Japan. It was his home.

All he knew about his son's home in St. Anthony was that it was cold and far away. Eastern Idaho didn't sound like the kind of place he wanted to live.

"It seemed like a very scary, faraway place, so he wasn't really too keen on the idea," Abe Griggs said. "But he didn't have anybody else to take care of him, either."

Finally, Abe Griggs' persistence paid off.

"He probably just realized I wasn't going to give up," she said. "Finally, he was just like, 'I give up. You win.'"

Norio Abe arrived in St. Anthony just in time to celebrate Christmas. The whole family is looking forward to the warm season and a chance to show him Yellowstone National Park, the Teton Mountains and some of the area's other gems.

Thanks to Tsukiko Abe, he eats regular, healthy meals now. He's gained weight, and Abe Griggs said he seems to be moving much better.

He's getting to know his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He's adjusting better than expected, even though he's a little frustrated because he's used to finding stores and activities within walking distance and not very many people speak his language.

"Anyway, I'm glad he's here," Norimasa Abe said.

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Information from: Post Register