Masahiro Oka was warned to expect the worst.

A friend had told him that the scene at Tsukihama beach in the port city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, northeast Japan, was "sheer destruction."

With the roads cut off by the massive tsunami, Oka arrived on foot in his hometown on March 12, 2011, a day after the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake. The sight before him was as promised: destruction all around.

Masahiro Oka stands near the site of his previous home on Tsukihama beach in the town of Kitakami, Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan, on Feb. 3, 2023. (Kyodo)

"I thought that at least something would be left," said Oka, now 70. "All the homes were gone except for the foundations of the buildings."

At a loss what to do, he walked through the ruins of Kitakami district, only to see his granddaughter Kokoro, just 7 years old, lying on a hillside. He called her name. No answer. So he clutched her tightly in his arms and sobbed inconsolably.

Thinking "she must be cold" but unable to move her body to shelter, Oka removed his own sweatshirt and slipped the garment onto his dead granddaughter.

Forced to leave her overnight, Oka took refuge at a temple and went to retrieve Kokoro's body the following day. But her face somehow looked different from a day earlier. "I don't think I wanted to believe it...I thought this really can't be Kokoro."

But Eriko Okuda, 58, a relative who thought of Kokoro like a daughter, confirmed what they both knew already. Oka said, "I asked her, 'Hey, is that really Koko (Kokoro's nickname)?'" Okuda replied, "Yes, it is." "It is, isn't it," Oka acknowledged. He had no choice but to accept reality.

Subsequently, the bodies of Kokoro's 1-year-old younger sister Iroha and their mother, Oka's eldest daughter Hiromi, 32, were found. Oka's wife, Katsuko, who was then 56, his second daughter Emi Oikawa, 29, and her daughter Atsuki, 1, remain missing and presumed dead.

The five family members other than his wife are believed to have died after evacuating to the city's Kitakami General Branch, which was a designated evacuation center in Tsukihama engulfed and destroyed by a huge wave.

Masahiro Oka, who lives by himself in post-disaster public housing in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan, arranges photos of his family in this photo taken on Feb. 3, 2023. (Kyodo)

It had been Oka's daily routine to receive a boxed lunch made by his wife and leave the house early each morning for his job as a construction worker. But with that routine forever ended, Oka could no longer find meaning in going to work.

He took a leave of absence and instead started searching for the three missing family members, including his wife. "I couldn't move on without any trace at all of their remains."

Not only did he search Tsukihama but also all of the surrounding flooded areas. He returned to work after around six months but continued his search on his days off.

And he was still searching in the summer of 2015, four and half years after the disaster. He participated in search activities across the Kitakami River from Tsukihama. Upstream, there was also Okawa Elementary School, where 84 children and teachers were killed. Oka understood that even if he found something, the chances were slim he could recover any remains of family members. Even so, he held onto the feeling of "just maybe."

About a half year later, in February 2016, Oka was able to move from a temporary housing unit to post-disaster public housing built on elevated ground in Tsukihama. It was close to where he had found both his granddaughters, Kokoro and Iroha. "I wanted to feel that I was by their side," Oka said about his desire to move into the new housing complex.

Masahiro Oka is shown in this photo taken on Feb. 3, 2023. (Kyodo)

"I stopped my search right around this time," he said. More than 2,500 people still remain missing in the affected areas from the 3/11 disaster. "But the number of unaccounted-for people in newspapers has stopped decreasing. I don't think (finding remains) is a possibility anymore," he said.

Oka's feelings of resignation have gradually intensified, while he also had to confront the reality of being on his own when he left temporary housing and settled into his new life.

"I had been living a temporary life, so I didn't really feel it, but I thought that now I have no choice but to go on living alone."

Now living alone, Oka makes an offering of freshly cooked rice at his family's Buddhist altar each morning while offering his greetings to the departed.

With his wife Katsuko, who always prepared his lunch, no longer alive, he then makes himself an "onigiri" rice ball before leaving his apartment.

Previously a construction worker, Oka has made the switch to farming. When he returns in the evenings, he has a drink with his meal. Then it's off to bed. Such is a day in the life of a man who lost six family members to the 2011 Tohoku disaster.

The atmosphere was lively when his family was still around. When his eldest granddaughter Kokoro would complain about not wanting to eat her rice, Oka would beckon her to follow him into the kitchen. "Come," he'd say.

Masahiro Oka is shown in this photo taken on Feb. 3, 2023. (Kyodo)

They would mix rice with vinegar, and Kokoro would roll it into bite-size pieces. She would break into a wide grin once she tasted it. "Little kids like to make things themselves," Oka fondly recalled, the corner of his eyes softening.

Oka cherishes these memories of his grandchildren. Although he had waited nearly five years to move from the city's temporary housing to his current residence, he was determined to do it. "I wanted to spend the rest of my life in my hometown so I wouldn't forget a single memory of where my family and I shared our time."

While Oka tries to hold on to his pre-disaster memories, he has no post-disaster memories to speak of. He is on autopilot. Every day, which should present hardship, becomes a repetition, and time has flown by as he plays out his daily existence. He tells himself, "'It's okay to go easy.' I've also come to terms with living alone."

Kokoro, whose name in Japanese means "kind heart," would have turned 20 this year if she were still alive. "She'd have been such a beauty! We might even have drunk together," Oka said. Asked if she would still feel close to him, Oka joked, "I have some doubts about that one. She'd probably be like the kids today calling me 'old man.'"

When Oka drinks at home, he often opens the sliding door of the connecting Japanese-style room and gazes at the photos of his grandchildren arranged in front of the Buddhist altar from the living room. The altar is blue, the same color as the clothes his eldest daughter Hiromi, Kokoro's mother, liked to dress her and her youngest daughter Iroha in. "I went all out," Oka said with a bashful smile.

Lately, an episode he often recalls is when Kokoro ate sashimi (raw fish slices) for the first time. "I put her on my lap and fed her. She wolfed down half the plate and said, 'This is great, more, more!'"

Oka knows that Kokoro tried sashimi as a toddler, but he is unsure when it actually occurred. "Was it 3, 4, or maybe 5 years old?" He finds himself losing track of the clothing his grandchildren used to wear, too, even though he chose the blue color for the altar himself.

"Immediately after the disaster I had such vivid memories but they have grown hazy. It's age...age," Oka muttered, looking down sadly. Still, his feelings for his family are the one thing that has not deserted him, he says.

"I cry while I drink alone at night. When that happens, I have no choice but to drink till I can settle down."

Masahiro Oka is shown in this photo taken on Feb. 3, 2023. (Kyodo)

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