Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Sendai orientations remind LHS about the purpose of the Kizuna Project

"Dr. Oaks made a good point before we left," said senior Thomas Kennedy. "We're going to Japan, we're really excited, but we keep forgetting the real reason why we're here: to support the Japanese victims through this hard time."

The team found themselves with four other high schools participating in the Kizuna Project in the city of Sendai for a portion of their stay in Japan. Today, they were found primarily on the top floor of the Miyagiken Seinen Kaikan building for further orientation.  During their stay in Sendai, the capital city of the Miyagi Prefecture, the group will visit areas where the March 2011 tsunami had caused disastrous effects in the area.

In the morning, Japan International Cooperation Center ("JICE") representative Asami Sawabe introduced standard facts and figures of Sendai and shared additional information with the group about their mission in the area as Kizuna Project participants.

"Each one of you in the Kizuna Project has a mission to help those of the disaster area," said Sawabe. "At this stage of the recovery, we need to meet the physical and mental needs of the victims. So many stories are unheard, and [the victims'] feelings need to be heard. The need to share their stories and their truths. What can you do for it?"

JICE representatives orient the four U.S. high schools (including LHS) to the city of Sendai.

The group was then reminded of the devastating effects of the earthquake and succeeding tsunami.  Sawabe shared numerous photos and videos of the natural disasters, sharing footage and documentation from areas such as retail stores, the Sendai airport, the streets, and a local port.

"I feel really compassionate, and I can sympathize. I sort of feel like I went through the traumatic experience. It's really mind blowing and hurtful, as if we were there," said senior Tom Sehon after the presentation. "Watching the police officers yell and seeing planes, cars, and plastic bottles swirl around was really devastating."

Part of the presentation included the sobering story of a local elementary school.

"I'm trying to imagine what it would have been like to have had a school where 75 [of 108] elementary school children and twelve of their [13] teachers were killed in the tsunami. I think it's very hard for us to imagine that kind of disaster on that scale," said Principal Amy Oaks. "I'm still trying to imagine how awful that must have been, and I haven't quite gotten my brain to move onto where we are going tomorrow to see the strawberry fields and local agriculture. My brain is completely stuck on the elementary school that was completely destroyed."

"We want the next generation to help us become prepared in the future," said Sawabe. "Your mission starts here in Japan."


Over the next few days, the team is responsible for creating an "Action Plan" to present to JICE about how they plan to share their experience of Japan and the lessons they have learned from the Kizuna Project with the world.  The idea behind the Action Plan is to engage the groups in proactive projects that they can share with communities both at home and around the world. Sawabe shared sample Action Plans, such as blogs, videos, slide shows, and songs.

"As students, our purpose is to share our experience here and basically share with the community what has happened from our standpoint and from the Japanese perspective," said senior Joe Encinias.

"I think a major idea we have right now would be some kind of musical performance, especially considering we're the only musical group here," said senior Caitlin Durston. "I think it would be interesting to not only use the blog we have right now, but to also extend to other types of social media to help push the musical performance or a song we right; or just to bring more attention to the cause."

Sawabe shares an example Action Plan created by a team from Indonesia,
who had participated in the Kizuna Project earlier this year.

After lunch and a brief break, the participants were introduced to Etsuko Satake, a woman who had experienced March 11 in Sendai. At the time, Satake had been a manager at Yuriage Child Care Center, a day care center for children between the ages of one to six years old.  Via translator, she shared her personal experience of the unforgettable day (as she referred to it, the "Nightmare Day"), and how she handled her role in as manager of a day care.

Satake, right, shares her experience of the March 11 tsunami as the Manager of Yuigage Child Center.

During the earthquake, Satake was off location in a meeting. She quickly drove back to the Yuriage Child Center to help her ten staff relocate the 54 children to safety before the tsunami could reach them. They quickly moved to an elementary school two kilometers away, where they stayed with the children as the disaster happened.

"I prepared for my death when the tsunami occurred," said Satake.  "I apologized to the children, thinking that I couldn't protect them from the tsunami."

Seniors Sam Martens and Jana Starks present a
present from the LHS team after Satake's
presentation. Gift giving is a common form
of respect in Japanese culture.
Satake and her staff stayed with all 54 children over the next four days as the tsunami receded and parents came to collect their sons and daughters.

"It was such an emotional moment when the last boy was picked up. I started to cry; I will never forget that moment," she said. "Every child and all of the staff members were safe."

Two years later, Satake is still figuring out how to respond to the disaster.

"Sometimes I am very encouraged to move forward, but sometimes I cycle back to being discouraged," she said. "I become warmed by people from your group, so I become encouraged again."

Although her motivation is still unstable, Satake now understands the value of human life during the traumatic experience.

"I learned that our lives are given, not controlled. They are more precious than people tend to think," she said. "Children especially are very important beings. I become warmed by young people, and I become encouraged again."

After a day filled with emotional and informational presentations, the team is ready to tackle the activities that lay ahead of them during their participation on the Kizuna Project.


  1. Wow! This is very sobering stuff. What an amazing experience you are all having. People are trusting you with their most painful memories.

  2. Everybody, thank you for doing this, from one Japanese. Hannah, thank you for the great up dates.

  3. After reading your blog today I realized you are at ground zero. Most of you have seen on tv school shootings, 9/11 coverage but now you are walking there actual site of a major disaster. May you be humbled and everyone you touch be blessed.

  4. Hannah, you are doing an amazing job. Your insights, student quotes, photos and video are allowing us to share in both the experiences of the LHS students and Japanese people. As Ms. May expressed, as a Japanese-American, thank you, thank you, thank you .

  5. Wow -- you guys are experiencing a lot! Hope you have lots of time to rest & debrief. "Our lives are given, not controlled" - so true and yet so easily forgotten. Thanks for the wonderful photos & reporting!