This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on March 16, 2015
The Pacific Ocean in the Tohoku region looks so calm today (2015), but the massive tsunami four years ago washed away many lives and countless valuable items.
This is a fishing float which was washed ashore on the west coast of North America. It was returned to its owner through the cooperation of volunteers in Japan and the U.S.A.
“For me, this is more than a thing. It’s a miracle that it has come back to me like this.”
Every one of the vast number of items that disappeared into the ocean carries its memories.
There are people who have been returning some of those items to their rightful owners. A search is made for the owners based on limited clues so that the items full of memories can come back home. These activities are delivering strength to people in the stricken areas to help them carry on and move forward.
“I’m Jason Hancock. A good friend of mine in Portland, Oregon, has in his possession the gate of a shrine of Northeastern Japan. I was surprised and happy to know that they realized what they were finding wasn’t trash but in fact important pieces in people’s lives. On this episode, I want to take a look at efforts being made today, as well some reunions of people with items they thought had been lost forever.”
(Jason Hancock: Reporter)
Sendai City in Miyagi Prefecture.
Four years ago (2011), about 800 houses in the Arahama district along the coast were washed away by the tsunami.
Many utensils used in daily life and other items remain buried today where they were carried by the tsunami.
Efforts to dig up those items and return them to the owners are still going on. A collecting initiative launched the year after the disaster and held every two months is now in its third year.
Volunteers from Tokyo and Chiba are working here together with local Sendai residents.
“Everyone, please gather around.”
After searching for about one hour, they have collected more than 40 items.
The key volunteer organization behind this activity is KIDS NOW JAPAN, an NPO based in Sendai.
“There’s a name on it…A child’s?...What is it? Hmm…Either Daiki or Hiroki. We want to return it if the owner can be found.”
The name is faint and incomplete, but relying on little clues like this, they try to locate the owners.
“We’re not collecting trash. Although some of it is, of course, like plastic bags…”
(Atsunori Nagayama: Representative KIDS NOW JAPAN)
“Some things may not be needed any more, but there are treasured items as well?”
“That’s right. We’ve been doing this for the last four years because we want to find things that were full of meaning in people’s lives, rather than just clearing up. We don’t call this debris but pieces of life, pieces of memory, or pieces of someone’s history.”
“Coming here today, it was a little more emotional than I thought it was going to be. They’re looking for pieces of history and things that belonged to someone, and what they’re actually doing is returning history and returning memories to people that have lost it; they thought that they had lost everything in the tsunami and the earthquake. But because of efforts like this group, piece by piece, little by little, they’re returning back memories and history to people that thought they were gone forever. So it’s actually quite a beautiful thing to see these efforts and to meet the volunteers.”
The activities carried out by Nagayama and his team are not limited to Japan. A great volume of flotsam has ridden the currents and travelled far away across the Pacific.
This is a simulation showing how items washed away float across the ocean.
Around one year after the disaster, some debris started being washed ashore on the west coast of North America. Other items were carried down south in a clockwise direction, and it’s been discovered that they can travel as far as the coast of Hawaii.
“Millions of tons of debris were washed away and many items eventually reached the west coast of North America on the other side of the Pacific. I felt that anything with a name on it should be returned if possible.”
The flotsam includes a lot of fishing gear and items from daily life.
When you look closely, you can see that some items carry clues as to their rightful owners, such as names or marks.
Last year (2014), Nagayama visited Canada and the U.S.A.
He gave speeches explaining that the flotsam includes many precious items that are imbued with memories for the tsunami victims, and he asked for the audiences’ cooperation in returning them.
The office of the NPO that Nagayama and his team have set up is in a building near Sendai Station.
“Hello. May I come in?”
They have established a network with overseas volunteers in order to help bring back the flotsam found in North America and Hawaii.
They regularly contact each other and exchange information.
“I’ll visit and investigate it myself over there, and then I’ll contact them.”
“That’s great. This is a little bit off the subject, but I was working on the website the other day and I realized that we have 153 pictures, 153 items on that site. It’s amazing!”
The man at the other end is Kevin Easley, a dentist living in Alaska.
Kevin’s hobby is beachcombing. He enjoys collecting flotsam such as drifting logs that wash ashore.
Since the disaster in Japan, however, Kevin’s view on flotsam has changed considerably.
Jason wants to hear about it.
“How’s it going?”
“Let me just get started with the questions that I want to ask you. So why did you start collecting these things? How did these thing come into your life, or into your possession?”
“When I went beachcombing that following year, I had heard, they had reported that these things were going to be showing up on our beaches, and so I was interested to see what might show up.”
When Kevin first found items washed away by the tsunami, he did not think of returning them to the owners. However…
“There was a little bit of a transformation when I actually found, for example, that helmet that had the characters, which I thought were a name, and a number on it. And then I really started to imagine: ‘I wonder if this person is alive, of if this person would want this back?’”
Since then, Kevin’s beachcombing hobby has changed into an activity to collect items and try to return them to their rightful owners in Japan.
Images of more than 100 items Kevin has found are posted on his website so that they can be easily seen in Japan.
Kevin has visited Japan twice and he’s been present when items have been returned. Seeing the delighted smiles on the owners’ faces, he became even more enthusiastic about searching for flotsam.
“That’s amazing. So why do you continue to do these things?”
“I felt like what I’m doing really makes a difference in their lives. I think every time I go on a beach - even once all this stuff gets buried and washes away, and I may not ever find anything - I think every time I go to a beach, I’ll probably still want to kick around and see if I can find something with Japanese characters on it! It’s really amazing!”
“Yeah, that’s great!”
December 2014. Nagayama is on his way to an owner’s place with a piece of flotsam.
It is the type of float that is used for aquaculture. It bears the character ‘zen’, meaning ‘good’. It was found by Kevin in Alasaka, and he asked Nagayama and his team to deliver it to the owner.
It had been discovered that the owner is still living in Minamisanriku. But where exactly is he?
“Aren’t we standing in front of the house? Well, this kind of thing happens! We heard the oyster shack had been washed away, but didn’t know the house had gone, too.”
It often happens that the owners had their house washed away and they are no longer living in the same place. They hear from a neighbor that the owner’s living in temporary housing nearby.
“Hello, I’m Nagayama who rang earlier.”
“Thank you for coming all the way out here.”
The float’s owner is Gennoshin Abe, who used to be a fisherman.
“This is your float which traveled 7,000 kilometers. We’re so glad it came back to you.”
“Do you remember it?”
“Oh, yes. I wrote this!”
(Gennoshin Abe: Fisherman, Age 80)
Abe cultivated oysters and scallops for more than 30 years using this float. However, the tsunami swept away all his fishing gear and he had to stop working.
“I never imagined it’d travel to the other side of the world!”
The character “Zen” on the float was Abe’s trade name. It used the first character of his father’s name, Zendayuu. Abe lost everything in the tsunami, so the float is the only item he has to remind him of his late father.
The owners of the items of flotsam being returned live in a huge area that stretches about 500 kilometers from north to south along the Pacific coast.
The next destination is Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture, 150 kilometers north of Sendai.
They finally arrive there at dusk. The owner this time is a local box-lunch caterer.
“Oh, my goodness!” Wow!
The item that’s come back is a plastic tray that was used for box-lunch deliveries.
“We used these for a long time, I suppose it must have been 14 years or so. All of them were washed away by the tsunami. Not a single one was left. Not one!”
(Masahide Saito: Box-lunch caterer)
Saito started his box-lunch catering shop 14 years ago. They had 50 of these trays at first and as they gained more customers the number increased to 150. It is not too much to say that this tray represents a precious memory of his shop’s growth.
“How good of it to come back! The return of this tray really encourages us to move forward. Thank you so much for bringing it!”
Six months after the disaster, Saito reopened his business at a temporary plant. The tray brings back memories of when he started the company.
He is now working hard in the hope of increasing the number of trays again.
Nagayama and his team have recently received this volleyball that was found in Alaska. It bears the name of a girl who was perhaps the owner and some messages.
Nagayama guessed it might have been presented to the girl to commemorate her graduation.
He eventually came up with an elementary school’s name after inquiries made to company volleyball teams nationwide.
Jason joins Nagayama as he heads to the place to try and find out what kind of situation the owner is in now.
“So what are you going to do today?”
“Well, you see, it’s like this. We’ve found out that apparently the 5th graders of Tanohata Elementary School presented volleyballs to their seniors who were graduating. However, in this kind of case, the first thing we have to do is check whether the owner is alive or not. We also have to find out whether the owner might get into a panic when they receive the item because it brings back bad memories of the disaster.”
Some owners do not wish to have their items returned. So arrangements must be made with great care.
This is the elementary school the volleyball owner may have attended.
The principal introduces Nagayama to a teacher who has been working there since before the disaster.
“It says ‘to Kaho’ and the name ‘Kotomi’.”
(Noriko Oashi: Principal)
“And the name ‘Kyoka’.”
“It must be them.”
“Yes, I’m sure it’s them. I think those are the names of children who were members of the volleyball team at the old Raga Elementary School before the schools were consolidated. Because their grades are different…”
(Rimiko Hatakeyama: Teacher)
“Ah, so it wasn’t a present from 5th graders to a 6th grader?”
“No. They were members of the junior sports-club association. It was only a small school before the consolidation, so everyone at the school was a member of the association.”
“I see! So that’s what happened.”
It has been discovered that the owner of the volleyball belonged at one time to the local junior sports-club association.
“Will there be any problem? Might the owner be shocked seeing this?”
“Well, her house was washed away…”
“Presumably the ball was kept at home?”
“But her family all survived, so I don’t think there’ll be any problem.”
It seems that the return of the volleyball won’t cause any trouble. Nagayama will personally hand over the volleyball that travelled to Alaska to its owner.
Another item found in the U.S.A. was returned to Tanohatamura Village last summer. It is brought out of storage so that Jason can see it.
“Is this it? “
It looks like a piece of old timber.
Part of some letters painted blue are fixed to it.
In fact it was a crossbeam on the front of a public apartment block washed away by the tsunami.
The letters are part of the name of the area: “Shimanokoshi”.
The beam was washed ashore at a seaside resort on the Hawaiian island of Oahu in the middle of the Pacific.
“What! This comes from Kahuku Beach… My university was right next to that beach! The university was at Laie Beach. That’s the next beach along, within walking distance!”
By an amazing coincidence, the beach where the beam washed up was very close to the university Jason studied at.
Because of the Pacific currents and winds, flotsam from Japan has also been arriving on Hawaii beaches over the past two years.
The beam was found on one of those beaches.
“I’ve been swimming at the beach this timber reached! That’s amazing!”
Through the generosity of the Hawaiian state government and a local airline company, the beam was carried by air free of charge and delivered to the village office.
The village decided to exhibit it at their local museum to show gratitude to the people of Hawaii and hand down the memory of the disaster to future generations.
“For me, I thought I would stand out as an outsider from the situation, but here I was in this city and I look at the map to see where the beam was found, and it was found less than a kilometer from where I went to university! So it really made me feel like even I’m connected to what’s going on here.”
In December 2014, an essay was chosen as the most excellent work in a contest involving seven northern prefectures.
The award-winning writer was Rin Goto, a 1st grader at junior high school. His essay was about a valuable item washed away by the tsunami that came back to him three years later.
Jason pays a visit to Rin in his hometown.
“Good morning. May I come in?”
The memorable item that was returned from Alaska across the Pacific is displayed on the family’s kamidana Shinto home altar.
It is a football bearing Rin’s name.
“Why do you keep it up here?”
“Well, ever since I was little, we’ve had the custom of putting anything important up there on the altar, so I decided to do the same this time…”
“Wow, this is being well looked after!”
This football floated 5,550 kilometers across the ocean, and was then returned here after an absence of three years and four months.
“What did you think when you were reunited with the ball?”
“I expected it to be very dirty, but in fact it was very clean, and I was happy about that.”
Rin shows Jason his award-winning essay.
“This is it? It’s very long!”
Rin’s thoughts were expressed in 2,000 characters.
“Can I read it?”
“Please help me I find any difficult characters!”
“The Football That Crossed the Ocean by Rin Goto, 1st Grade. All of a sudden, my house in Minamisanriku was engulfed by the tsunami... Weren’t you scared?”
“My life at an evacuation site started at a junior high school in Tome City. Mats were spread on the floor and our private area was just a space enclosed by cardboard boxes. We didn’t have any clothes, so we had to choose some from donated clothes and wear them in layers. But in that kind of everyday life, I had something I could enjoy. It was playing football with everybody using a ball we found at the school. That cheered me up a lot while living that hard life.”
Rin has loved football from a tender age, and he was a midfielder in the local football club. He was due to play in a game the day following the earthquake.
He had been practicing hard for that game using this football.
“I can’t imagine how this football travelled 5,550 kilometers, but it’s certainly true that it came back to me thanks to many miracles and many people’s consideration.
Because of the disaster, I lost a countless number of things, including my precious memories, our house, and my favorite scenery I saw every day.
I feel so sad about that and sometimes I think, ‘If only the tsunami hadn’t happened.’
There are sometimes days when I want to escape because I can’t endure the inconvenient life. But I have learned about sincere gratitude and people’s warmth. The oceans are connected and people’s hearts are connected.
My hands are still small and I’m weak, but I want to have big hands and become a strong man so that I can support many people one day. Whatever happens, I’ll take one step at a time as I move firmly forward. Whenever I get discouraged, I’ll hold this football, and remember the many people who’ve supported me. I’m sure that will give me the courage to move on...”
The warmth of people in both Japan and the U.S.A. has been firmly planted in Rin’s heart.
“I didn’t realize how much effort goes into returning each individual thing. For example, just the volleyball, it was going through different teams and coaches, and looking up names, and finding out other names, and finding out schools, and then finding the school, then the principal, then the teachers… Just to help to return one thing to the owners takes so much effort, so much more effort than I imagined. In Rin’s essay, he says that people are connected and that the ocean is connected. And I think because of the gratitude of the people who receive it, and because of the satisfaction of the people who are able to return it, both sides together creates the motivation for people to continue doing these efforts.”