Alaska News

Hometown U: Tsunami lessons for Alaska

The gripping moment for UAA senior Marin Lee came in a grocery store, watching locals shop for dinner.

"They were so ordinary," she said, "just like me, doing something so every day."

Lee grew up in Homer, making the Japanese coastal town feel even more familiar. "It was small, about the size of Soldotna."

But their faces caught her; she saw no self-pity, no wallowing. "The grace with which they carried on, living their lives after such a great tragedy … that was most inspiring for me," she said. The visit will remain a shadow that travels with her always, she said.

The town was Rikuzentakata. The tragedy was the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. A killer wave launched by the quake reportedly reached as high as 133 feet, traveled inland up to six miles and killed almost 16,000 people and destroyed nearly 300,000 buildings.

This, in a nation that has always prepared for the worst.

Lee and nine UAA classmates traveled there in May for a one-week summer course, GEOGRAPHY A490: Tsunami lessons from Japan.


By their own accounts, the students came away deeply schooled in three lessons: the awareness Japanese have for the inevitability of natural disasters and their personal responsibility to be ready; unquenchable resilience in the face of grave loss; and deep respect for one another and for the chance to be alive.

Two UAA professors taught the course: Hiroko Harada, who teaches Japanese language and culture, and Dorn Van Dommelen, geography. They partnered on their brief journey with 12 students from Iwate University in Morioka, Japan. Grants from the Japan Foundation for Global Partnership and the U.S.-Japan Council's TOMODACHI Initiative covered all travel expenses.

UAA has a forever link to Rikuzentakata in the memory of Monty Dickson, a 2009 UAA graduate who was teaching English there when the tsunami struck. In his memory and honor, UAA is home to the Montgomery Dickson Center for Japanese Language and Culture, also funded by a grant from the Japan Foundation for Global Partnership.

For junior Cole Murphy, a key moment came at the Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto that houses the statue of a Dainichi Nyorai Buddha. The statue was created over the course of a year by Japanese art students and 10,000 others affected by the tsunami, chiseled from the wood of 30 Rikuzentakata pine trees that had been uprooted by the tsunami and washed back to shore.

The art students had transported the pine to Kyoto, and painstakingly shaped the statue, saving shavings and placing individual pieces in silk pouches as gifts for visitors. Their actions had so much intent, Murphy said, "that it brought tears to my eyes."

Resilience and respect resonated everywhere they went. "We say Alaska Native languages have 30 words for snow," Lee said. "The Japanese have nine words for respect."

Amie Smith was a nontraditional student on the trip, age 35 and a mom of three. After working to help her husband through medical school, now is her time for pursuing an education. As an international studies major, Smith aims for a career in diplomacy. She would like to find a way for the Japanese sense of being prepared, as well as their capacity for prevailing through hardship, to be transmitted globally.

Smith marveled at Japanese innovations concerned with survival. One example: Simple park benches are designed to become human shelters during an emergency.

Joseph Sasis is Filipino and a computer systems engineering junior at UAA. His dad lived and worked 10 years in Alaska before he was able to bring his family here in 2007.

Sasis has witnessed natural disasters in the Philippines. "People experience typhoons and landslides, and their cities are destroyed. Then the Red Cross comes, and they rebuild. That's it."

But in towns like Rikuzentakata, the community is committed to building a better city that can withstand an even greater disaster. They call their project "normalization," a concept similar to universal design, where way-finding, living and visiting will be as safe and welcoming as they can possibly make it.

Indeed, flat areas of town, so vulnerable to the 2011 wave, are being elevated 60 feet by moving earth from a nearby mountain. The pipeline for transporting the soil is called "Bridge of Hope."

An experience they all mentioned was the visit to the Tokyo Rinkai Disaster Prevention Park, a big warehouse-like building in a park setting. Inside, visitors start their journey by elevator. Before long, they feel an earthquake. As elevator doors open, they walk through a simulated disaster scene. For the next hour, computer tablets they carry invite them to make decisions based on events they witness right before them.

At the end of the simulation, they find out from their tablet score if they survived the first 72 hours, or were lost to the disaster.

Admission is free. The game matters. The takeaway: Be prepared.

But the survival impulse goes even deeper, Cole Murphy said. After the 2011 disaster, the Japanese word ganbappeshi became commonplace. It means, "endure," "bear up" and "do your best." In Rikuzentakata, it is used as a sign of personal and communal endurance and spirit.

Murphy, who called the trip "a life changer," explained that it also means, "We are everyone for ourselves, and for each other."


They want this for Alaska.

Kathleen McCoy works for UAA where she highlights campus life in social and online media.

Kathleen McCoy

Kathleen McCoy was a longtime editor and writer for the Anchorage Daily News.