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Friday, December 30, 2011

Tsunami Survivors Share Experiences

Hi there...

Here's a story I saw in The Japan Times a few months ago, but didn't feel like posting until now. I'm not sure why!

Yanada Asaka, 15, and a high school student from Kamai-shi (Kamai City), Iwate-ken (Iwate Prefecture), ran as fast as she could toward a hill for two kilometers while also urging elementary school kids along when the massive tsunami wave(s) engulfed her hometown back on March 11, 2011.

As a survivor, Yanada participated in the Tohoku Future Leaders Summit held this past October 28-30, 2011 at the National Olympics Memorial Center in Tokyo.

The summit/camp was organized by the Global Fund for Education Assistance and supported by Japan's Cabinet office and the Ministry of Education, Cultures, Sports, Science and Technology. They have formed the Beyond Tomorrow project to support the young victims of the disaster who, despite great adversity, did not lose hope and continue to embrace a dream to give back to society in the future.   

Yamada believes that Japan's cities need to be rebuilt with well-thought out evacuation protocols and clear routes and signs as key aspects to reducing the impact of future calamities.

She says: "As a junior high school student, I could bear it, but I thought it was too much for seven to nine-year-olds to run for two kilometers (that quickly to get high enough to survive the tsunami)."

Yanada was one of 70 high school students from Miyagi-ken (Miyagi Prefecture), Iwate-ken and Fukushima-ken (Fukushima Prefecture)o take part in the program to discuss how to rebuild and revitalize their shattered hometowns.

Students were divided into 10 groups to prepare four-minute presentations on the final day, with some of them staying up until 3AM locked in a heated discussion.

Yanada's group, which was chosen by judges as the best among the 10 groups, proposed that more direction boards showing evacuation routes be erected, and they must be easy to understand for first-time visitors and foreigners.

Her group focused on preparing for evacuation because it may be impossible to relocate all houses and other structures to high ground from coastal areas, according to a male student. "When a tsunami comes, all we can do is evacuate," he says.

To be better prepared for a disaster, all quake-prone cities should hold emergency drills more often and should involve people of all ages.

Other groups made proposals on creating jobs in the Tohoku region, the area hit hardest by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami and later the lengthy evacuation order due to radiation concerns from an out-of-control nuclear reactor in Fukushima-ken. The plan calls for revitalizing the agricultural sector, providing emotional support for quake and tsunami survivors and sharing their experiences of the disaster on websites.

The proposals were presented to national strategy minister Furukawa Motohisa (surname first) in November, 2011, and while none of these ideas may ever see the light of day, Tsubouchi Minami (surname first), executive director of the Global Fund for Education Assistance, says she hoped the students will one day become leaders of Japan and put their ideas into action.

"We hope to support the students (from Tohoku) until the point they can take leadership roles and contribute to the country in a broader sense, not just for Tohoku's reconstruction," Tsubouchi says.

The Global Fund for Education Assistance is supported by young executives such as James Kondo, head of Twitter Japan, Iwase Daisuke (surname first), executive vice-president of Lifenet Insurance Co., and Oisix Inc. founder and chief executive officer Takashima Kohei (surname first). The fund provides full scholarships for 10 university students a year from the Tohoku region.

The emphasis is on nurturing young leaders because "we were concerned that there is a lack of young people who can take leadership roles in Japan in the first place," Tsubouchi says.

"But the students who were forced into an unimaginable situation are more likely to stand up for other people and take actions to make a difference," she adds.

The students were chosen from among 222 applicants between 15- and 18-years-old who survived the quake. Some lost family members in the disaster.

Abe Naho (surname first), 18, lost her mother in her hometown of Kesennuma-shi (Kesennuma City), in Miyagi-ken, one of the hardest-hit areas. Abe and her mother evacuated to a school on a hill, but the tsunami swallowed them up nonetheless as they tried to run from the sea.

"It was so dark in the muddy water that I couldn't see anything, and there was so much water pressure that I couldn't move my arms and legs," Abe explains. "I tried to bear it, but soon I couldn't breathe. I gave up hope of living while swallowing the muddy water."

However, she said, a miracle occurred. She was pushed to the surface by a car in the water. Unfortunately, the miracle didn't extend to her mother.

"I can't feel happy at all by the fact that only I survived," she says with regret. "If we had gone to a shopping center like my mother had suggested, we might have both survived. If we had run in a different direction, or if I could have been able to grab the hand of my mother who was only a meter away from me."

In the ensuing eight months, it has only been now that Abe has been able to talk with teenagers with similar experiences, explaining why the camp was a great opportunity for her to share her experience and discuss with other teens what they can do to rebuild Tohoku.

"There was no chance for me to talk about the disaster with high school students. So the best thing was that I met people who were in a similar situation and made friends with them," she states.

Abe said she is determined to contribute to the Tohoku reconstruction, especially after participating in the program. Her dream is to work at a hospital in Miyagi-ken as a clinical engineer after studying at a university in Tokyo and dedicate herself to helping others.

Meanwhile, Sugawara Sayaka (surname first), 15, says she appreciates the opportunity to learn what she should do to help rebuild the region. "Before the program, I didn't know what to do on my own even if I wanted to. I used to think, 'I'm only a high school student.'"

Sugawara, who survived the tsunami slamming into Ishinomaki-shi (Ishinomaki City), Miyagi-ken, says she wants to help people who have suffered a traumatic experience like she did.

"I want to discover a lot of things only I can do, and gain more than what I have lost in the disaster."

Files compiled by Andrew Joseph

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