Maui Students Affected by Wildfires Learn from Tohoku Recovery Efforts in Nonprofit Program; Knowledge Exchanged with Youth from Earthquake and Tsunami-Stricken Area

The Japan News
Students from the Lahainaluna High School in Maui listen to local high school student Yui Yamauchi, left, at the Onagawa Future Center in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, in the afternoon of March 21.

A new program connecting youth from disaster-stricken areas in Maui, Hawaii, and in the Tohoku region of Japan was launched last month. Eleven students from Lahainaluna High School in Lahaina, Maui, which was devastated by wildfires last August, were invited to areas in Miyagi Prefecture that had been sites of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

The TOMODACHI Kibou for Maui Program hopes that the students from Maui will be encouraged to rebuild Lahaina through their visit to the Tohoku area — 13 years after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami — and interactions with Japanese youth who worked hard to rebuild their communities. I covered the activities that took place on March 21 during the students’ seven-day stay in Japan.

“When the mountains die, the sea dies.”

On the morning of March 21, the fourth day of the program, Yuma Mori introduced this old local saying to the group of students that got off a bus at the Momonoura district in the city of Ishinomaki, on the Oshika Peninsula. Yuma, who had moved to the area after the earthquake, runs a forestry business with his wife, Kayoko, and focuses on the utilization of forest resources.

Momonoura, which faces the sea, was home to 165 people in 68 households before it was struck by the tsunami, Yuma said. There are now 16 people living in nine households. Many of the fishing villages on the Oshika Peninsula are located along the intricate coastline. The Momonoura district is one of them, where people made a living by following community rules, such as not entering the fishing grounds of neighboring villages. Yuma explained that these communities, locally called Hama, are like the Hawaiian term ahupua’a, which refers to the land, the community, and the people who live there.

Oyster cultivation thrives in this region. Nutrients from the mountains which flow into the ocean are essential for growing delicious oysters. Yuma and Kayoko are engaged in thinning and other maintenance work in the forests they manage with the aim of improving the marine environment.

Differences over seawall

The students went into the mountains and walked through the Moris’ well-tended thinned forest. At the port, they visited a seawall that was built after the tsunami. The students pondered the decision of the residents, who had lived with the sea, to build a huge seawall.

“What do you think is the power of life?” Kayoko asked during the last program of the morning, a workshop to make room sprays with the scent of Japanese trees. She continued, “For me, I think it is the connection between nature, community, and myself. What is your vision for the future of Lahaina? I want you to think about it, put it into words, and send it out.”

In the afternoon, the students moved to Onagawa, a town neighboring the city of Ishinomaki. Onagawa was hit by the tsunami that recorded a maximum height of 14.8 meters. Almost everything was washed away. The death toll reached 827, or about 8.3% of the population at the time. The town’s reconstruction plan aimed to “create a town that we can be proud of for our children 100 years later.” The elderly, who had long played a central role in the town, did not interfere in the planning process and instead let the younger generation take an active role in the project.

From the observation deck on top of the Onagawa train station, which overlooks the reconstructed town, the students looked east, towards the sea. There was no seawall to block the view, as there had been in Momonoura. “We discussed how the people of the town should reckon with the sea,” explained Taiki Goto, a local resident who served as a guide to the students: “The ocean is an intrinsic part of our daily lives. Our answer was that we want it to continue to be a part of our daily lives.” The students saw that the decision to build barriers varied from region to region.

Instead of erecting a wall, the people of Onagawa took measures in protecting themselves by designing their town at three different heights. The fishing port, which borders the sea, is on Level Zero, and the area on Level One, which is 4.4 meters above sea level, is where banks, stores, and other facilities necessary for daily life are located. Level Two, which is 18 meters above sea level, is a residential area. The town’s layout reflected lessons learned from the disaster 13 years ago, when many lost their lives while trying to save their children and the elderly who were still at home.

While listening to Goto, the students solemnly stared at the sea.

TOMODACHI Initiative

This first-ever program was administered by the U.S.-Japan Council, a nonprofit organization that seeks to strengthen Japan-U.S. relations through private-sector exchanges and other activities, with funding from the Japanese government. Odyssey, a non-profit corporation supporting Tohoku recovery efforts, worked in cooperation with the U.S.-Japan Council on the Japanese side, and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii on the U.S. side.

The last program of the day was an exchange between four Japanese youths from the disaster-stricken areas who participated in the TOMODACHI Initiative and students from Maui.

The TOMODACHI Initiative, promoted by the U.S.-Japan Council, is a program fostering the next generation of Japanese and U.S. leaders by sharing the spirit of Operation Tomodachi, the relief efforts conducted by the U.S. military and Japanese Self-Defense Forces after the Great East Japan earthquake. With the cooperation of the Japanese and U.S. governments, the U.S. Embassy in Japan, and many companies, more than 300 diverse programs have been implemented, including study abroad programs and cultural exchanges. The TOMODACHI Kibou for Maui Program is one of them. More than 10,000 participants, or alumni, have taken part in TOMODACHI Initiative programs.

“I was 4 years old when the earthquake struck, and the tsunami destroyed my house. Today, I believe I am the closest to you all,” said Yui Yamauchi, a sophomore at a local high school and one of the four alumni. “As I practiced what I had learned in the U.S., I have made connections with many people in my town and have grown to love it even more. I hope that when you return to Hawaii, you too will take action and love your town.”

Miku Narisawa, co-chair of Odyssey, is another alumni. In July 2011, four months after the Great East Japan Earthquake, Hawaii Rainbow Kids Project was initiated to invite students from the Tohoku region. Narisawa was one of the 150 students that participated in the program. For Narisawa, who guided students to various locations in Tohoku this time, it was a favor that took over 10 years to return.

Given ‘a lot of hope’ for Lahaina

The Japan News
Eleven high school students from Maui and four Japanese youths who experienced the disaster pose for photo. Sabrina Calma is fourth from the left in the front row.

“The debris has not yet been cleaned up in Maui, and many people are still living in hotels and temporary housing,” said Yoh Kawanami, a U.S.-Japan Council Board Member who traveled with the students from Hawaii. “Seeing the remains of the police box and the monument in Onagawa, the students thought about whether to leave the damaged structures that they also see in Lahaina, what to do for disaster prevention, and to what extent the opinions of young people are applicable. In this regard, I think this program had a positive impact.”

“Being here today with TOMODACHI Alumni really inspires me to go back home and do something for my community,” said Sabrina Calma, one of the Maui students. “It’s true our rebuild[ing] is going really, really slow, but being here in this town gave me a lot of hope for the future of Lahaina.”

The students also learned about Japan’s fishing industry and engaged in cultural activities, and left for Maui on March 24. A second program with more students is scheduled for this summer.