3.11 - Student Voices (Part 3)

By Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

On March 11, 2011, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck off Japan’s northeastern coast, triggering a tsunami that devastated the region. In this collection, some of our current and former students reflect on their experiences supporting recovery efforts and carrying out research in the affected Tōhoku region.

Summer activities in Ogatsu, MiyagiEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

My summer after sophomore year...
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My summer after sophomore year was spent in a city called Ogatsu in Miyagi prefecture, Japan. I was an intern at a summer camp facility working to bring energy back to a region still recovering from the 3.11 disaster.

My interest in the internship came, in part, from my own background. My mother's family is from Kobe, a city scarred by the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake. Through summers spent at my grandparents' house, I had seen the lasting damage natural disasters can have on even the liveliest of cities– the image of shuttered shopping streets and stories of how Kobe used to be are prominent in my memory.

Ogatsu, Miyagi, JapanEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Ogatsu is a city...
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Ogatsu is a city that is both tucked back in the mountains and nestled against the sea. I spent several days during my internship meandering the forests and searching for lookout points over the vast ocean. I would walk the dim and serene forest until it opened up to a dramatic cliff with waves crashing several meters below.

Sea urchin fishing in Ogatsu, MiyagiEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

On other days...
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On other days, early in the morning, I would walk down the hill where the intern house stood, toward the shore where our neighbors were peeling and packaging sea urchins for the market. Ogatsu is a fishing village and in the summer, urchins are a big seller. If I asked, I could sit in the urchin assembly line and learn the ropes. I would sit in my rubber boots with my hands in the salt water, putting my brain in overdrive to try to understand the thick Tohoku dialect being spoken to me.

Ogatsu, Miyagi, JapanEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Very often...
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Very often, the topic of conversation would end up at 3.11– how much easier it used to be to go shopping, before main street got completely erased by an ocean wave; how much livelier the local community used to be with children around; shared fear and worries about how or whether Ogatsu would recover. This was in 2018, 7 years post-disaster.

Ocean view from OgatsuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Something that I ended up thinking...
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Something that I ended up thinking about a lot was the ocean, both because it was always in view and because it was always being talked about. The ocean in Ogatsu is beautiful, and it is well-loved and well-utilized. At the same time, it is what brought irreversible destruction to the city that had thrived off its gifts for generations.

Ogatsu on a stormy dayEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

I remember a few people told me...
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I remember a few people told me the same thing about the ocean, that they had become afraid of it. I remember sitting with the old woman living next door and looking down at the shore below together. She seemed sad when she told me that on stormy days, she won't dare look that way, that it is too terrible to bear.

Evening view of the ocean from OgatsuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Ocean view from OgatsuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

I took photos...
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I took photos of the sea's different expressions– pale, pink mornings and blinding, blue afternoons; grey, wet days and angry, turbulent ones. The different scenes were beautiful, but I could not shake the fear that had been shared with me by the Ogatsu residents I'd met.

Ocean view from OgatsuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Standing at the edge of a forest...
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Standing at the edge of a forest at the top of a rocky cliff, looking out at an incoming storm, I tried to imagine how that day might have felt. I'm certain it's impossible for me to truly know.

Sky Russell and sea urchinsEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

About the Author

Sky is a 2020 graduate currently living and working in Tokyo. She spent two summers in Japan through the Reischauer Institute's internship program, amassing a range of momentous experiences like peeling sea urchins, building architectural models, photographing elderly folks, and making countless friends along the way. 

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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