• Baylor students travel to tsunami-razed Japanese city to serve — and to tell its story

    When a large-scale natural disaster happens, the world’s attention turns to that part of the globe for a time. “Pray for” trends on Twitter. GoFundMe accounts are set up for families. Governments argue over how much money to send as relief. But after awhile, other things require our attention, and life goes back to normal — for everyone but those affected.

    That’s what’s happened in Minamisanriku, Japan, one of the cities hit hardest by the 2011 tsunami. On March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake — one of the largest in world history — shook northeastern Japan and unleashed some of the strongest tsunamis the region had ever seen. In the days and weeks that followed, countries near and far felt the effects of the earthquake, and dozens of aftershocks continued to hit Japan.

    It’s been nearly six years since that day — but the Baylor in Japan program hasn’t forgotten. Led by Dr. Yoko Prefume, senior lecturer of Japanese, the program was originally just an intensive Japanese language summer program. But Prefume wanted something that would develop her students into global citizens who truly cared for the people whose language they were learning.

    “I want them to gain a sense of more responsibility, for themselves and for society,” she says. “For them to develop moral values and to become somebody who is willing to help others and contribute to larger society.”

    So in 2012 when she started Baylor in Japan, she didn’t question where she should take her students: right to the area most affected by the earthquake and tsunami. She got in touch with someone in Minamisanriku, at the heart of the tsunami’s impact, who had been collecting English picture books to donate to affected children. That year, she organized a book drive on campus; the following year, she brought a group of Baylor students to Minamisanriku.

    For three weeks, Baylor students stayed with residents in the small town. They visited local schools to play games and read with the children, trekked to areas destroyed by the tsunami that were now marked with monuments, and walked through once-bustling streets and shops in the midst of rebuilding. They helped tend to the town’s community garden, looked at pictures of the deceased and prayed for them and their families, and listened to the stories of those they left behind. And last summer, after five years of visiting the town, they worked with students of Tohoku University to create “Humans of Minamisanriku.”

    Like the popular series Humans of New York, the students’ videos take a close look at the lives of individuals who chose to remain in the small Japanese town, however daunting the task of rebuilding seemed. Tohoku students conducted the interviews so the subjects could speak freely in their native tongue, and Baylor students translated them for an English-speaking audience.

    [WATCH the full “Humans of Minamisanriku” videos]

    There’s Hiroko Haga, whose firefighter father died saving lives during the tsunami; Miwako Sakabe, who was attending a wedding when it hit and took cover in the venue’s kitchen; Sho Oikawa, who lost his house and family to the disaster and is still living in temporary housing; and Hiromi Yamauchi, who was working at the local supermarket at the time of the earthquake and tsunami.

    Why bother telling these stories? Why return to the same town year after year, when there’s so much more to see in the country? “Everybody we met, they said their worst fear was to be forgotten by the rest of the world,” says Prefume. “Then I thought, ‘It cannot be just one time we visit and feel good about ourselves.’ I felt like we had to go back to the same place so we could build trust with the local people.

    “So that’s why I kept taking the students back to the same town. … We want the rest of the world to know how resilient the people are after what they’ve been through, how strong they are.”

    Sic ’em, Baylor in Japan!

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    * Baylor Engineers with a Mission use their talents to serve others (June 2017)

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