Survivor Narratives: 2011

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Ishinomaki: My Journey to Tsunami-Ravaged Tohoku

In December 2011 and again in April 2012, Yukie and her husband Tim travelled to Ishinomaki, a city in Miyagi Prefecture in the tsunami-ravaged Tohoku region of Japan. They heard the stories of many who had lost everything, including loved ones, in the tsunami generated by the 9.0 earthquake on March 11, 2011. The city of Ishinomaki, just 80 miles west of the epicenter, sustained heavy damage and loss of life. Of the total estimated death toll of 20,000 in Japan, approximately 6,000 people (about 30%) died in Ishinomaki. 

Yukie Ohashi.

Yukie and Tim worked with friends who have selflessly been volunteering since week one of the tragedy, a group loosely organized as “Be One Tohoku”. The group distributed bedding to temporary shelter residents, cleaned homes and businesses, hauled tons of debris, shared meals, prepared Christmas gift bags for elderly care home residents, and made Easter goodies for children. Yukie and Tim listened to horrific stories of escape and cried with people as they talked about family members swept away on that day. They gave encouragement to many with Hawaiian hugs and aloha.

Yukie was asked why she would leave Hawai’i to come thousands of miles in the cold of winter to the devastated area. Her answer was simple. She felt a spiritual calling to help those in need. Yukie’s Japanese language skills, disaster response skills, and her background as a land planning consultant made her the perfect person for this calling.

Yukie’s skills came into play when leaders of a neighborhood within Ishinomaki requested help from “Be One Tohoku” to clean and rebuild their neighborhood park. The group cleared the mountains of debris, allowing the kids to reclaim their playground. 

They also fed hundreds of starving people in massive barbeques. These were Ishinomaki people who sheltered in their own broken homes… no electricity, no water, no heat, no food. “Be One Tohoku” trucked tons of food, blankets, clothing, and other necessities from Osaka, driving many hours multiple times each week to bring life-saving resources and supplies. 

After the cleanup, the “Be One Tohoku” group endeavored to rebuild the park, but they needed expertise. The group asked Yukie if she knew anything about building parks. With her background and the help of two architect friends in Honolulu, a team united to rebuild the park. They prepared plans based on the neighborhood’s vision. 

Volunteer teams consisting of Hawaiians, U.S. Army personnel from Camp Zama in Tokyo, and local carpenters and gardeners constructed three pavilions, installed landscaping and new playground equipment, and celebrated a renewed life at a summer festival. They also played with the kids and encouraged their parents, listened to the elderly, and extended love and friendship from one Pacific island to another, both having endured tsunamis. 

Conceptual rendering of new park in Ishinomaki.

The park project is a symbol of hope and a new beginning in rebuilding lives. The people of Ishinomaki desire a safe place, a healing place, with lots of green life in their park. This park will bring residents of all ages together in a place filled with flowers to reflect the seasons, a beautiful area to enjoy and share the sense of community.

For Yukie, this is an ongoing journey. She will always remember the horrific images of an utterly devastated Tohoku. But she holds on to one image. It is an image of a lone cherry blossom tree, glowing in all its pink-ness amidst the mountain of rubble, against the dark April sky. While great sorrow enveloped the land, this solitary tree was radiant… as if to say, “People of Japan, there is hope! Do not give up, but look up!”

“Smile Tohoku Project”: advertisement.

Click here to see video the destructive tsunami in Japan in March 2011.