The highlight of the HOPE For Tohoku Benefit Concert and Reception held last Saturday March 17th was the stories shared by by two highschool students from Tohoku about their survival of the tsunami, losing their family members, and their aspirations for the future. The two youths, Masahide Chiba and Sayaka Sugawara, are a few of the fellows from BEYOND Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization which provides leadership development and educational support to the young victims of the March 11th Tsunami in Japan.
The incredible sories shared by the two youths are below:
Masahide Chiba - Ofunato, Iwate
It is strange to think back on the day before the earthquake and tsunami. Even though it was only 4pm, the sky above the school courtyard turned a deep crimson, and a large flock of birds flew over head. If only I knew at that point that something was different. I still think of that moment often.
March 11th, 2011, 2:46:18pm. When the earthquake hit, I was playing club sports at school. The students were getting agitated because we had never felt the ground shake so much before. We were even smiling a bit -- secretly, we were excited that something out of the ordinary was happening. Little did we know then how much grief was actually awaiting us.
That day I was not able to get in contact with my family who lived 50m from the ocean, but assuming that they safely evacuated to the back hills, I spent the night at the school without much worry. The next morning I walked home, through Sanriku Railway tunnel for about an hour. When I came out of the other side of the tunnel, I was met by a landscape with no buildings. But based on reports I heard that morning, I had been prepared to see this level of destruction. What I was not prepared for, however, was the reality that lay within this destruction.
My mother and my grandmother were dead.
When I heard that they died, I did not know what to think. I went to the hill next to my house, and when I saw my mother’s leg in our car, images of her face flooded my mind -- memories of her from the day before, of my childhood -- and thinking how much she must have struggled, I could not help but cry in agony. Even when I put my hands on her face, the warmth of my hands just dissipated; there was nothing I could do to ever bring back the warmth.
The cremation was very painful. I was heartbroken because I knew that we needed to have the cremation, but every fiber within me did not want to have it. I could not bear to have my mother’s body turn into ash in the flames.
The days afterwards I struggled to find meaning in life. People would ask me if I was “alright;” I had no idea what being “alright” even meant -- so I just smiled and said yes. Everyday I furiously cleaned away the rubble. I heard that my mother was swept away by the tsunami because she was trying to save my brothers’ and my school materials by bringing it to the second floor. I couldn’t sleep at night, blaming myself for my mother’s death. If only something were different about that morning.
The reason I am still here, that I am still living, is that I want to contribute something to my hometown and its recovery -- for my mother and my grandmother’s sake, for my family’s sake. I now believe that joining the recovery efforts is my life mission; it’s why I survived.
My hometown of Ofunato thrived on its fishing business, and as such, I think that it is necessary to improve the traffic network of fish and manufactured goods. With a better network, Ofunato can become not what it used to be, but even better -- a town that is better prepared for disaster, a town that is easier to live in. Having this goal in mind, I want to study construction engineering at college.
As a survivor, there are many things I feel that I must do. But it is just as important for others to continue to remember the earthquake and tsunami, and to not let it fade away in their memories. Currently it is expected that an even larger earthquake will hit Japan in the near future. This is why it is essential that we learn from this past earthquake and tsunami. By sharing our experiences widely, we may not be able to prevent an earthquake from occurring, but we will be able to ensure measures for quick evacuation, appropriate reactions to earthquakes, and minimized damage. If we are able to accomplish this, we will have truly learned our lessons from the past.
With my mother’s memory beating strongly in my heart, I want to create a world where no child has to ever experience the grief that I have.
This is my first time visiting the United States. This is my first time visiting the United States. I am very interested in how people overseas would respond to my story. I hope people who heard my story will share their feelings and thoughts to the world. I will be more than happy if everyone here could share this story. Thank you very much.
Sayaka Sugawara - Ishinomaki, Miyagi
I lost my family to tsunami. I currently live in temporary housing with her grandfather in Ishinomaki. I studied English in Canada this summer and plan to study in Switzerland next month.
March 11th was my middle school graduation day. It was the day that my classmates of 10 years were to begin embarking on a new journey, a day that was meant to remain as a happy memory.
The earthquake hit when I came home. It was a level of shaking that I had never felt before. The earthquake cut our power, so I was not able to receive information through the television. By the time I heard there was a tsunami coming and started to evacuate, it was already too late -- I heard a ground-shaking boom, and in an instant my family and I were swallowed whole by the tsunami, along with my house. As I was being swept away with the rubble and black water, thoughts rushed through my head: “This is it. I’m going to die.”
After being swept away for a while with the rubble, I heard my mother calling my name from underneath the debris. When I cleared away the rubble, I found my mother, pierced by nails and tree limbs, and a broken leg. Her right leg was stuck, and even though I tried my best to clear the debris, it was too heavy and too big. I wanted to save my mother, but I knew that staying there I would be swept away again by the tsunami. Do I stay and save my mother? Or do I run to safety? - I chose my own life. It was a decision that makes me cry to this day. When I left my mother I told her many times - Thank you, and I love you. It was the most difficult moment of my life to turn away from my mother who implored to me, “Don’t leave me.” There was so much more I wanted to tell her. But I had to leave; I swam to the lower school and spent the night there.
There were many, many more difficult experiences after that moment. There were days that were so difficult that I thought of a suicide. There were days that I wondered why life is so cruel, and I cannot even begin to count the number of times I cried thinking about my family. Through this tsunami, I lost so much of my life.
But there are things that I have gained because of this experience. And I believe that the more effort I put into it, the more I can gain. People may look at me and pity me, but that is not how I see myself. I have an aunt and grandfather who support me. I have friends who give me helping hands. I am given opportunities now because I have gone through this tragedy. I am confident that I am able to overcome any challenge life may throw at me. And I am able to empathize with those who have also suffered a great loss.
This is why in the future I hope to help other children who went through similar travesties. I would also like to participate in international volunteering organizations to give back to all the countries that helped Japan in this time of need.
I know that there will be many more challenges ahead in life. But I want to stay proactive, finding the ways in which I can help others so that I can give back as much as, if not more than, what I have lost.
BEYOND Tomorrow gave me a chance to meet with friends in similar situations. I also met a number of leaders from different fields who gave me invaluable encouragement through the program. From this month, I plan to study in Switzerland as a BEYOND Tomorrow student ambassador. One day I hope to be able to say “The unfortunate tragedy shaped the person I am today.” – so I will continue my endeavor.
It has been a year since the disaster, and now I am walking down a new path. My hope strongly that more people remember this disaster and think about it. I feel lucky that I have a chance such as today to share my experience with the people in the United States. I will always keep in mind my precious country and home town, and share my experience so that this memory will never fade away.