Six delegates between the ages 12-20, along with chaperone Daniel Hwang and videographer Colby Takeda, returned to Honolulu on June 28, 2016 after spending one week in the Tohoku region of Japan as part of the 2016 TOMODACHI – Aloha Leadership Program (TALP). JASH has been sending delegates to Tohoku since 2013, and as the fourth TALP delegation, these students were appreciative of the opportunity to reunite with friends they had made through Rainbow For Japan Kids (RFJK). The RFJK program brings Japanese students affected by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami to Hawaii for emotional and physical recuperation and provides them a chance to learn about Hawaii’s unique culture while building friendships. Having heard RFJK participants’ tragic stories of loss and hardship, the 2016 TALP trip gave the delegates the opportunity to see for themselves the recovery efforts currently in place.
Their busy itinerary allowed them to meet many inspirational people and explore many of the affected parts of the Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima prefectures. After flying into Sendai, the delegates spent three days traveling through Shiogama, Matsushima, Onagawa, and Karakuwa Peninsula. The humbling effect of this whole experience was inspirational.
The delegates’ visit to Otsuchi Collaboration School was described by chaperone Daniel Hwang, “it may have been cold, grey and gloomy outside, but it was warm, friendly and inviting inside.” There, the group was provided with an abundance of fun games and activities, including a scavenger hunt. In turn, they shared the “Aloha Spirit” through Hawaiian music and simple hula hand-motions. Together, the students from both countries sang, danced, and built friendships.
The delegation then headed south to visit Daiichi Junior High School and Ofunato Temporary Housing. Our delegates were amazed by the Japanese students’ abilities to “[smile] despite going through so much these past few years.” The school principal explained the evacuation procedures, followed by a collection of songs performed by the students. Following the visit to the school, the group joined Move 4 Japan leader Atsushi Takebayashi and helped prepare and serve yakisoba meals to members of the 38 households in residence at the Ofunato Temporary Housing facility. Even five years after the earthquake and tsunami, the delegates discovered that many residents of the town still have no choice but to live in temporary housing.
Another major event during this TALP was the beach cleanup in Minami Sanriku. Our Hawaii students continued the work done by locals and previous TALP delegations in cleaning the beach, and heard powerful stories from survivors about the terrifying evacuation process of five years ago. Later that day, the delegates joined fellow RFJK students from Japan at Kamiwarizaki Camp, and enjoyed dinner and a night of fireworks.
Upon their return to Sendai, they spent the final day of the trip in Shinchi, Fukushima prefecture. They were greeted by the town’s Vice Mayor, and were able to learn about housing projects currently in development. On this final night, RFJK members from around the region joined the 2016 TALP delegates for a farewell party.
No matter where they visited in Japan, the TALP delegates were greeted with warm smiles and positive attitudes, and did their best to share aloha with these survivors. Each of the opportunities provided by this trip—to reconnect with old friends, to hear stories from survivors, to see firsthand the damage they have heard about, and to aid recovery efforts in the Tohoku region—has had a tremendous impact on the delegates, even in ways they may not yet understand. Delegates constantly expressed feeling touched, moved, and inspired by the strength of their Japanese friends. They each have applied these sentiments to their own lives, expressing the need to appreciate their family, friends, and homes.
JASH would like to send a special mahalo to Hidenori Takahashi, Yoshi Tsurumi, and Atsushi and Mayumi Takebayashi for helping to train the delegates prior to their trip and also and accompany them throughout their journey in Tohoku. Thank you to the U.S.-Japan Council’s TOMODACHI Initiative and Friends of Hawaii Charities for funding a portion of this trip and providing a life-changing opportunity for all those who participated.