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Sagaya Sugawara, 4 years after

March 9, 2015


FOUR YEARS AFTER: Tsunami survivor who could not save mother finds role in life




It was still morning, but Sayaka Sugawara already felt it was “a special day that I will remember forever.”

She had attended a graduation ceremony at her junior high school in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, said goodbye to her classmates of the past three years, and returned home.

Then the ground started shaking.

That “special day” was March 11, 2011.

Sugawara felt that she lost everything that day when the tsunami triggered by the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake destroyed her home and killed her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.

Now 19, she overcame her misery, sense of insignificance and a perceived lack of compassion from others by returning to what she always loved to do: write.

As a third-grader in elementary school, she won a prize for an essay about her grandfather’s pottery hobby. In junior high school, Sugawara put her thoughts together in a speech and became vice president of the student body.

However, her losses from the disaster took a toll on her sense of worth.

In May that year, she entered a senior high school in Sendai. Her classmates who were not affected by the quake and tsunami seemed to blame the fact that she lived near the ocean for her plight.

Unable to concentrate on her studies, her academic marks plummeted. Although she lived in a dorm, she had no one to talk to because the other students did nothing but study.

As Sugawara felt smaller and smaller, her grandfather, who had avoided the disasters because he was at work, told her: “You can get together with everyone again when you die. Let’s do what we can right now.”

In June that year, she wrote a composition about her experience in the disaster.

“From the standpoint of other people, I might be a pitiful senior high school student, but I do not feel that way,” she wrote.

In her composition, Sugawara described how she was swallowed up in the cold, dark water that engulfed her home and had no idea how long she was in that situation; it felt like anywhere between five seconds and a minute.

She managed to survive by grabbing a piece of rubble. Soon, her mother was carried to the same point by the water, but she became trapped under debris.

The daughter desperately wanted to free her mother, but the debris was too heavy to budge. Thinking that a second tsunami would strike at any moment, Sugawara said, “I love you, Mom,” and fled.

Her grandmother and great-grandmother also died at the home.

However, Sugawara’s composition did not focus only on what she had lost.

“Because of that experience, I have been able to gain new opportunities,” she wrote.

One such opportunity was the chance to talk about her experiences abroad, which helped her find a purpose in life.

At the Summer Davos event held in 2011 for young people and orgnaized by the World Economic Forum, Sugawara met a student who survived the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China.

“Japan is lucky because rebuilding is happening quickly,” the Chinese student told Sugawara.

Sugawara said she then realized that people around the world were living in places much colder than the temporary housing provided to evacuees in the Tohoku region.

She also wanted disaster victims in Japan and abroad to become acquainted and find opportunities to help each other.

Soon thereafter, Sugawara was involved in establishing the group Hand Down Tohoku with other senior high school and university students who had experienced the disaster in 2011. The group’s goal is to have members pass on their experiences to others.

Over the past three years, Sugawara has talked about her experiences about 60 times. But she has faced new problems because of those speeches.

One university professor who heard Sugawara speak asked her, “I heard this speech was about disaster management, but have you studied hazard maps?”

Sugawara plans to study such topics after she enters university in spring 2015.

She said her current knowledge may be too insufficient for those listening to her speeches to gain specific and beneficial information about disaster management techniques.

“Because Japanese are very serious, each individual seeks perfection,” she said. “But everyone has different things they can do or are good at. Even if one is an adult and the other a child, if they cooperate there might be more things they could do together.”

Sugawara said she has overcome the tendency among perfection-seeking Japanese to avoid taking that important first step.

At her speeches, some audience members place their heads on the table and fall asleep. But other children have said to her, “I bought a whistle for disaster management.” Another said, “I will stop making excuses to my mother.”

Sugawara laments that her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother will not be with her when major events occur in her life, from entering university, to finding a job and getting married.

But her determination expressed in the composition she wrote three months after the disasters has not changed.

“I feel that I want to gain through the remainder of my life the same amount of things that I have lost,” she said.




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