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Friday, June 22, 2012

Harrowing Tohoku scenes shock U.S. high schoolers

Staff writer

Seeing how last year's tsunami toppled breakwaters and houses up and down the Sanriku coast in Iwate Prefecture was a sobering moment for visiting U.S. high school student Katie Kirstin.

News photo
Traditional culture: Students from Roswell High School in Georgia learn calligraphy at Tohoku Gakuin High School in Sendai on June 13. JAPAN FOUNDATION

A native of Casper, Wyoming, where even the biggest tornadoes pale in comparison with the March 11 disasters, Kirstin said the scene along the railway tracks was so shocking that she started crying.

"When I came here, people were (no longer just) numbers or statistics. They were actual people" who lost their lives that day, said Kirstin, 17, who along with 45 other American high school students offered silent prayers on June 13 beside a train swept off the tracks by the waves.

Kirstin was among 100 U.S. high schoolers who traveled to Japan on a 14-day trip as part of "Kizuna Project," a youth exchange program backed by the Foreign Ministry that kicked off June 12.

The project is intended to support Japan's recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake by sending 1,000 high school students from disaster-affected areas in the Tohoku region to the United States on a 15-day trip, while the exact same number of American students visit four of the region's devastated cities, including Sendai and Kuji in Iwate Prefecture.

In addition, both Tokyo and Washington hope the program will foster a greater interest among Japanese students to study in the United States at a time when fewer are opting to study abroad.

The first of three groups of visiting students to Tohoku had been studying Japanese in the United States and many recalled feeling overjoyed when they first heard news of their selection for the program, as it represented their first overseas trip.

But witnessing the disaster-struck areas and reconstruction efforts brought home the enormity of the catastrophe, and students also visited temporary accommodations, farms and schools to hear survivors' stories firsthand.

Hearing one man recount how he managed to survive despite being swept away by the towering tsunami made a deep impression on Sarah Replogle, 16, an "anime" fan from Muncie, Indiana.

"I do not know how you would be able to function after that," said Replogle, who attends Muncie Central High School. "How do you tell stories like that without crying?"

Many of the students said Operation Tomodachi, the humanitarian relief operation launched by the U.S. military in the early days of the tragedy, helped raise awareness about the plight of disaster victims in Tohoku among Americans.

But some said the initial impact started to fade once the operation ended and media coverage about the victims and recovery efforts waned.

"Subconsciously, we felt that everybody had healed and that the people affected had recovered and their life just went on," said Virginia Steindorf, 18, a senior from Roswell, Georgia, who has been studying Japanese since age 5.

"But coming here, you look at the desolate landscape and you realize nothing has recovered."

At the same time, the visiting students said the trip made them feel far more connected to Japan after experiencing the country's present-day reality, rather than just its pop culture, and some voiced optimism over Tohoku's recovery.

"I would like to come back to see the board in place," said Kirstin, referring to a message of support the students painted and erected in the city of Kuji.

"I would love to come see it someday and all the progress they will have made by then," she said.

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