Some 40 students and staff from Tohoku University recently participated in an overnight study tour of Minamisanriku, a coastal city that was badly hit by the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake of 2011 and the devastating tsunami that followed.
Organized by TUFSA, Tohoku University's Foreign Students Association, the tour was a chance for international students to see first-hand the recovery efforts of the city. For many, it was their first time in a disaster affected area.
"Even though I've been living in Sendai for almost two years, I'd never realized how bad the tsunami was until I went to Minamisanriku," said Chaoyi Zhou, a Mechanical Engineering student from China. "All the scenery and landmarks we saw along the way seemed like they were telling sad stories about the disaster four years ago."
Not all stories were sad, though. Local vendors at Sun Sun Market, where the students had lunch, shared inspiring anecdotes of strength and perseverance, such as that of the florist who rebuilt her business after her original shop was lost to the waves.
"I was amazed that her business is still going on. People living in temporary houses need food, warm clothes and a whole bunch of basic stuff. But they are still buying flowers," said Russian student Okhlopkova Evdokiia. "I think that fully represents an appreciation of beauty which helps Japanese people stay strong and keep believing in a brighter future."
Through the non-profit organization OGA for Aid, the students spent a morning farming green onions with Miyagi Green Farmers, a business committed to reviving and creating a sustainable future for Minamisanriku's agriculture industry.
"Going to Minamisanriku is no longer about heavy lifting and clean-up work. It's about revival," said Chanon Pornrungroj, an Advanced Molecular Chemistry student from Thailand who is also an advisor to TUFSA. "If you look at the problem right now in the city, all the young people have left. There are no jobs. The first thing they need to do is bring back their economy."
And to do that, they need their youth. "The younger generation should be encouraged to go back there because Minamisanriku needs them," said Md. Jamil Sahrif, who is studying economics.
The 2-day tour wrapped up on Sunday with a pasta lunch and a series of workshops in which the students and the local community collaborated on activities such as singing, dancing and craft making. Together, they produced some artwork reflecting everyone's hopes for the city's future.
"What impressed me most was a picture which a girl painted. It was the Earth and an airplane. But the marvelous thing was the airplane was carrying the Earth on its back," said Shunki Ishikawa, one of several Japanese students in the group. "I asked her what it meant and she said it is a transporting system in the future when human beings can fly to another planet which is like the Earth, and people can enjoy such universal trips.
"So even though Minamisanriku suffered a catastrophe four years ago, and even though the tsunami washed lots of things away, those kids' bright future visions were still strong."
Throughout the weekend, the students had group sharing sessions to exchange thoughts and observations. Their own cultural diversity made for some interesting discussions. And while there is little doubt that the students learnt a lot about Minamisanriku, the weekend also provided the opportunity for TUFSA members to get to know each other better.
"I had the chance to meet wonderful people," said Brazilian Architecture student Larissa Tami Shinohara, referring to her fellow Tohoku University students. "People who have different cultural backgrounds and ways of thinking, but with the same strong will to understand what is happening in the region."
TUFSA hopes to be able to build on the experiences gained from this trip, to organize a more impactful study tour next year.
"This trip was just a scratch on the surface. We wanted our students to know what's going on there," said Chanon. "We are going to reflect on what we saw and what we did, and if we can get more people interested, we can go there again and do more meaningful things."
Tohoku University Foreign Students Association (TUFSA)