Moral Low Ground


‘The Moral High Ground’: Japanese Fisherman Drove Boat Directly Into Tsunami to Save Island

Susumu Sugawara and Sunflower, his trusty fishing boat, have together been navigating the waters off the Japanese island of Oshima for 42 years. They’ve seen a lot of big waves before, but nothing like the tsunami that devastated the northeastern coast of Japan last month. Still, when everyone was scrambling for higher ground following the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that rocked Oshima on March 11, the salty old fishing captain ran the other way– toward Sunflower and the sea. “I knew if I didn’t save my boat, my island would be isolated and in trouble,” he told CNN.

Sugawara and Sunflower headed out to sea. As they passed the fisherman’s abalone boats, the 68-year-old bid farewell to them, apologizing that he couldn’t save them all. But there was no guarantee he’d even be able to save himself from nature’s awesome fury. When the first wave rolled towards them, Sugawara was shocked. Many times he’d encountered 5 meter (16 foot) waves; this one was four times that size. “My feeling at this moment is indescribable,” he told CNN. “I talked to my boat and said you’ve been with me 42 years. If we live or die, then we’ll be together, then I pushed on full throttle.”

The veteran fisherman described what happened next: “I climbed the wave like a mountain. When I thought I had got to the top, the wave got even bigger. I closed my eyes and felt dizzy. When I opened them, I could see the horizon again, so I knew I’d made it.”

Others from Oshima attempted the same incredible feat in their boats. None are known to have survived. Indeed, it was like the scene in “Forrest Gump” when Jenny, Gump’s shrimp boat, was the sole survivor of a wicked Gulf Coast hurricane. But instead of all the shrimp he could catch, Susumu Sugawara found himself gingerly navigating back to his devastated island in total darkness, the fires raging in the town of Kesunnuma three miles (5 km) away his only guide.

From that day on, Sugawara and Sunflower have been making hourly trips to the mainland. According to CNN, the pair were the only lifeline to the mainland for the first two weeks following the catastrophe. Without them, Oshima would have been completely cut off. Sugawara doesn’t ask his passengers for money if they have none; those who can afford to chip in 300 yen ($3.50) for fuel.

Tadaomi Sasahara, owner of Oshima’s supermarket, told CNN that he gave away all the food in his store. Islanders, he said, shared what food they had in their homes with each other. Sasahara’s now making runs to the mainland with Sugawara and Sunflower. “Everyone used to look out for themselves on this island,” he told CNN. “But after this, the whole community is now helping each other.”

From great tragedy often comes great heroism, and Susumu Sugawara and Sunflower will certainly be remembered among the heroes of what was one of Japan’s darkest hours.

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