By Lauren Katalinich
Misato Abe was home alone on March 11, 2011, when the 4th most powerful earthquake in the world since 1990 rocked her city of Minamisanriku, Japan. For five days, Misato was stranded at a shelter without electricity as she desperately tried to contact her family and hoped they were not among the 1,000 reported dead in her coastal city, where 61% of houses were destroyed in the quake.
Approximately 60 miles south in the Fukushima Prefecture, Emi Inomoto and her family, sheltered by the mountains around her house, escaped the worst of the tsunami and earthquake damage only to witness the disastrous effects of an explosion at the nearby nuclear power plant. The quake lasted only six minutes but, over two years later, the destruction in still clearly visible.
On August 5, 2013, Emi and Misato shared these personal stories in a presentation at the Johnson County Crisis Center, where the two are interning for the summer. They are here through the Kizuna Project, a Japanese government-sponsored program founded after the 2011 earthquake that sends young Japanese people abroad to help raise international awareness of the disaster and Japan’s reconstruction.
Site of former town hall in Minamisanriku
Emi and Misato spent their first 10 weeks in the U.S. at an intensive language training program in New York City before coming to the University of Iowa in June, where the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies in International Programs arranged an internship for them at the Crisis Center.
About 25 members of the public gathered to hear them tell their personal accounts of the event and the inspiring and challenging revival efforts taking place in their hometowns. In addition, the two talked about the food bank system in Japan and Japanese cultural heritage.
So far this summer, they have shared their stories with a varied mix of Iowa City residents, from presentations at a University of Iowa workshop for teachers to sushi demonstrations at the Senior Center and Oaknoll Retirement Community. Misato will make an elementary school visit later this month.
Emi says, for her, dispelling myths about Japan’s reconstruction is especially important. The radiation from the nuclear power explosion in her city caused nationwide fear mongering, with many Japanese people refusing to buy products from Fukushima regardless of whether they had been tested.
Interning at the Crisis Center has also helped Emi reverse some of her preconceptions about Americans. Before she came to Iowa, she believed most Americans were independent-minded, individualistic, and rather unconcerned with helping others in need.
“Since I arrived, that thinking was totally changed,” Emi explains. She says she notices that all of the staff show sincere concern for the clients and the volunteers are generous. “I learned that Americans have very warm hearts.”
Misato couldn’t believe the number of donations she received the first time she went to collect food drive donations at Hy-Vee. She was shocked by the “warm and generous” nature of the people she has met, but also by the severity of the situations of some of the clients of Iowa City’s Crisis Center. Misato says the experience has had a strong influence on her personal career goals.
In addition to volunteering at the food bank and serving meals to clients, Emi and Misato shadow Crisis Center staff and attend meetings to learn about the logistics of running a non-profit. Her work in Iowa has given her a new perspective on how she might use her business degree once she graduates next spring.
“There are many people who are in a difficult situation because of the earthquake,” Misato says. “Some people lost their jobs, houses, and loved ones.”
Misato now plans to work for a food bank when she returns to Japan and take what she has learned from this experience to eventually start her own food bank in her city.
Stefanie Bell, food bank coordinator for the Crisis Center, says she and the rest of the staff have loved working with Emi and Misato this summer. They were impressed by the girls' enthusiasm for learning about the Crisis Center and their interest in sharing how the same processes are done differently in Japan. “They are both just such compassionate individuals who really want to make a difference in the world. It’s been great.”
Emi and Misato will be hosting a second presentation at the Crisis Center from 5:30-6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, August 7. For more information on the Kizuna Project visit, http://sv2.jice.org/kizuna/e/what/about/.