Driver Yamono pointing where the water line was when the tsunami hit.
Driver Yamono pointing where the water line was when the tsunami hit. - 
Listen To The Story

Kai Ryssdal: Last we heard from our correspondent in Japan, Rob Schmitz, he'd taken a wayward taxi ride into Sendai at the heart of the earthquake zone. Today, Rob brings us the story of that taxi company: family-owned and destroyed by the tsunami.

Rob Schmitz: When I get into his taxi, Riyiko Yamano flashes a big smile. At first I think it's because of the rather interesting name of his company: Smile Smile Taxi. But I quickly realize this short 63-year-old smiles all the time: He smiles while he's making a turn signal, when he's shifting gears, and even as he's barreling down the wrong way of a one-way street into oncoming traffic.

Schmitz: Slow down, slow down, slow down!

Yamano keeps on smiling as he slams on the breaks and swerves the car onto the shoulder. A car accident is the furthest thing from his mind. We're driving to Sendai, where he's lost friends, co-workers, and business -- and a nervous smile is all he's got left.

Riyiko Yamano: I'm not sure Sendai's economy will recover. I'm worried that from now on, I'm not going to have enough money. I'll have to cut what my family spends on food, I guess.

As we approach Sendai, we listen to the radio. The host reads a list of homeless shelters that still have room. We drive by grocery stores with lines a mile long. Yamano takes us to Smile Smile Taxi's headquarters. There's not much to smile about. Two drivers are missing, and a third of the company's taxis are damaged beyond recognition from the tsunami.

But anyone who came here today to sit around and mope is going to have a problem with Emi Satoh. She navigates a cell phone call while barking orders at her drivers. She's the only woman at Smile Smile Taxi, and it's clear she calls the shots.

Emi Satoh: I think some people have given up on everything. But we've gotta keep going, we've gotta keep looking ahead.

Satoh was in her first-floor office when the tsunami crashed into the building, forcing her underwater. She swam to the stairway and crawled upstairs. She and her staff spent the night on the second floor asking for help via Twitter. Outside, the company's gas tanks exploded, one by one over a sea of debris. Despite the state of things, Satoh's already managed to snag a permit for a new gas tank so that business can begin again.

Satoh's father is known here as Boss Satoh. He owns Smile Smile Taxi. He encourages his workers to eat some lunch. On the menu today: noodles boiled over an open fire pit with lumber scavenged from the tsunami debris.

Boss Satoh: The instant noodle warehouse around the corner was hit hard by the tsunami. All the goods were washed over here. My crew picked hundreds of packages out of the water, and that's what we've been living on for days.

The sake factory next door was also hit. The crew at Smile Smile has neatly arranged a few hundred bottles of castaway sake outside their office. By the looks of it, they've already tapped into the stash.

It's a festive mood for a family business that's suffered so much loss. Boss Satoh estimates there's around $10 million worth of damage. I ask him if he can count on the government to help him.

Boss Satoh: So far, there's no help at all. I lost everything. All I've got left is my guys. And there's nothing more I'd ask for. All the guys are dealing with losses at home and missing relatives, but they decided to come to work to rebuild this business. I'm so thankful for that.

Boss Satoh is crying. He lets the tears roll down his face without wiping them. He doesn't want his guys to notice. But the guys around the fire see what's happening, and they quiet down out of respect. But after a minute, one of them cracks another joke. And everyone, including Boss Satoh, starts laughing again. There's a lot of work ahead, but the guys at Smile Smile Taxi are ready for it.

Reporting from Sendai, Japan, I'm Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

Follow Rob Schmitz at @rob_schmitz