A look back how earthquake shaped friendships
Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan -- Saya Onodera was only a few days away from graduating the 6th grade at Oshima Elementary School when a magnitude 9-earthquake, followed by a massive tsunami, struck her hometown of Kesennuma City, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan. Fortunately, her school sits on higher ground, and the students were spared. Her school became an evacuation shelter for several months afterwards, with the students pitching in to help their neighbors, many of whom lost their homes, livelihoods, and in some cases, family members.
Today, Sept. 11, 2014, marks the three-and-a-half year anniversary of the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami that damaged much of the Tohoku area and took nearly 20,000 lives. The world was inspired by the resiliency of the people of the area in the hours, days, and weeks immediately following the disaster and continues to be impressed with their efforts at rebuilding today.
Forward-based Marines in Okinawa were some of the first to deploy as part of the U.S. response with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, a massive effort known as Operation Tomodachi. One of the communities the Marines of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit aided was the island of Oshima, in Kesennuma City, Miyagi Prefecture, very close to the epicenter of the earthquake.
Oshima, situated at the foot of Kesennuma Bay, became a natural barrier for the rest of the city, taking the brunt of the tsunami and being divided in two as the waves went through the center of the island. With no bridge to the mainland, the ports destroyed, and the bay filled with debris preventing ordinary vessels from traversing the area, Oshima became isolated for a couple of weeks with little food, water, and no electricity or fuel. It was to this situation that the Marines were called in.
Onodera’s first memory of the Marines was her surprise that that they were there. Her father explained what they were doing, and when the 31st MEU departed the island on April 6, she went down to one of the smaller ports to bid them farewell with hundreds of other islanders. “I was full of gratitude,” she said later, “for what the U.S. Marines did on behalf of Oshima.”
Shortly after the Marines left, I contacted Oshima to invite some of the children to participate in a homestay program in Okinawa that summer to spend some time with the Marines and their families, as a way to give them some relief and hope for the future. Onodera, who later became the class president at her school, later visited Okinawa twice in 2013 as part of the program, and stayed with two different Marine Corps families.
She admitted she was “both excited and nervous” at the same time when she learned she would be participating, fearing “her ability to converse in English” might not be good enough.
Her fears were unnecessary it seems. The host families “warmly welcomed” her and her classmates, which made her “happy,” and showed her the “power of people-to-people relations.”
Today, her classmates are “doing great.” Oshima is in the process of getting the bridge the islanders had long desired from prior to the disaster. It is expected to be completed in March 2018, and will help to reduce the isolation of the island.
However, the impact of the disaster on the community and the Tohoku region as a whole remains large. Numerous families remain in temporary housing. The population of the island has also declined by about 300 people due to those who had to leave for work or education-related reasons, or who wanted to escape the memories of the disaster or feared another tsunami. Several people are also without gainful employment.
“Through the experience of the disaster, I learned that life is treasure and relationships are so important,” Onodera said. “We should be very grateful for everything we have.”
Onodera’s future dream is to be someone who is a “human bridge” for her island. She wishes to “pay back” the Marine Corps for everything the Marines have done for her and her community. To do this, she is going to “continue studying hard, and become work as an interpreter or translator” in the future.
The resilience she and her community have shown to date leaves me with no doubt that she will realize her dream, and that the Japan-U.S. relationship will be even better off because of her.
Eldridge, a 24-year resident of Japan, served as the political advisor to the Forward Command Element established at Camp Sendai by 3D Marine Expeditionary Brigade during Operation Tomodachi, and has continued to visit Oshima on a regular basis.