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Rising From the Rubble: A Little Girl’s Journey of Perseverance After a Once-in-a-1000-Year Earthquake

Last updated on 03/31/2024

Editor’s note: This story was published with Columbia University in the City of New York

For an unforgettable portrait of a family experiencing a life-changing earthquake

It has been months since 11-year-old Miho Ouyou left Japan. To be exact, 36 days have
passed since the once-in-a-1,000-year earthquake, the Tohoku earthquake, forced her to
leave her home with her mother and brother. Now, she wakes up in a cold sweat on a tour
bus stopping at a gas station in New York, awakened by the familiar nightmare of the
groaning sound of metal and screams. Then come flashbacks to the tsunami that followed
the earthquake, like a giant dragon swallowing houses and people within seconds, of
furniture flying outside the balcony, and of roads cracking open. She remembers all
vividly. It sounds like a music box with a broken twisting handle, and the voices of her
classmates, screaming “Help me, help me” playing non-stop in her mind. It does not
matter how hard she tries to press a delete button on these memories, they never fade
away. They assail her like a shadow wherever she goes.

“I got you some food!” The voice of her 13-year-old brother brings her back to the
present. He and her mother have come back with beef jerky and a pack of chips from the
gas station shop.

As the short restroom break ends, all the tourists come back to their seats. The bus starts
driving to their next destination, Niagara Falls.

Miho looks outside the window and remembers another day that was cloudy, just like
today. On March 11, 2011, she watched the sky from her classroom window, waiting for
time to pass by. Fifty more minutes, she counted, until school is over. Minute by minute,
she checked the clock on the wall. She was bored by the lecture given by her
unenthusiastic social science teacher.

Suddenly, she heard a whisper, “an earthquake,” – a voice that marked the beginning of
her life-changing journey.

At 2:46 p.m. that day, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck the northeastern side of Japan.
This event began with a strong earthquake off the country’s main island, Honshu, causing
widespread damage. The main quake was followed by more than 5,000 aftershocks, and
it initiated tsunami waves. Its impact extended to Hawaii, generating a Pacific-wide
tsunami.

Nobody was prepared for the earthquake.

The hazard map that was created by government agencies to predict these disasters was
based on around 200 years of history of earthquakes. But the Tohoku earthquake turned
out to be a repetition of an event that happened in A.D. 869 – a time period that wasn’t
considered in the map-making. The ancient earthquake was about 50 times more
energetic than expected by the hazard map, said Dr. Christopher Scholz, a Special
Research Scientist in Seismology, Geology and Tectonophysics at Columbia University.


But the earthquake that no one predicted, that no one saw coming, inevitably shaped who
I am and who I will become.

I am Miho Ouyou – the 11-year-old girl who was on the bus. The earthquake is the reason
why I am here today at Columbia University writing my story.

I looked around my surroundings on the bus. All I saw were adults and children eating
and laughing. But only I was lost in the moment, like living in a different world at a
different time.

My time still stopped on March 11, 2011. And nowhere did I feel that more than the day
we visited Niagara Falls.

The sound of water flow and the misty fog in the air brought back memories of our last
family trip here, but this time our dad was not with us. He stayed in Japan because of his
work; he needed to be there for the other employees.

With a feeling of emptiness without him by our side, we took pictures like other tourists
and took a look at the falls.

But I could not fully enjoy the moment or the view. Instead, the beautiful natural scenery
made me feel a sense of fear.


With the strike of a natural disaster, life changes like flipping a coin. One day you are
having a peaceful family meal by the ocean. The next thing you know you are dragging a
suitcase in a foreign country, 5,300 miles away from home.

A natural disaster can come suddenly. When it rages, oftentimes, dogs do not bark nor do
birds fly. There is silence.

March 11, 2011 was the same.

In my class, I felt my chair and desk start shaking, and my friend whispered to me, “Do
you think we can get off from school early?” We occasionally experienced small
earthquakes in Japan, and at first, everyone assumed this was one of them. However, as
the earthquake grew stronger, we realized this one was different.

As my teacher instructed us to hide under our desks, I squeezed myself under my small
wooden desk that barely fit my body. I held the legs of the desk. Slowly as the quake
intensified, I found it difficult to hold onto it. My best friend was drifting away from her
desk, and I extended my hand. We held tightly to each other. And thought this would
stabilize us, but the classroom floor was like a surfboard on ocean waves. Within
seconds, I was lying on the floor swaying, hit by desks and chairs. My legs were numbed.
“Help me, help me,” I heard voices of my other classmates who were being shaken and
hit under their desks.


I saw pencils and notebooks falling off desks and jumping off the floor. I crawled and
tried to get back under my desk again. But it was just too difficult. The earthquake was
followed by another without a break.

No matter how much we screamed for help, no help could come.

“Here you are!” I heard the voice of our tour guide. She ran to us and started to chit-chat
with my mom.

My mom is someone who loves to talk to people and build relationships with them. She
has always been like a lightbulb in the room, brightening everyone. It was the same
during the trip. Since the first day we joined the tour, she quickly became close friends
with everyone, from the dentist’s family to the old couple whose daughter was soon
graduating from Stanford and who invited us to her graduation ceremony. From strangers,
we became like a family on a huge trip. Through spending time with them, they also
learned about our lives in Japan and our situation.

At dinner, they always took care of my mom, as she always took care of me and my
brother. In a large dining room where we all had to get our own food, if there were
shrimp and seafood, my mom would help us peel the shells. As she was busy taking care
of us, a couple in their 50s put some food on plates and saved it for our mom. Another
lady grabbed beverages for her.


These little things always made us feel warm and hopeful about our future, despite not
knowing what our tomorrow would look like.

With these people by our side, the evacuation turned into something like a warm trip with
a large family.

On our other days in New York, we visited famous tourist sites, including the Statue of
Liberty, Times Square, the Empire State Building, and Central Park.

Some of the tourists visited Columbia University during their free time. But we did not
go because of transportation difficulties and because we simply felt Columbia was an
unachievable school, so distant from us. Little did we know this would become our
school.

The thought of school also reminded me of my friends back home.

The last memory we had was in that classroom. When the aftershocks slowed down for a
little, some of my classmates ran to the bathroom. They brought back rolls of toilet paper
in their fabric tote bags with their names and class numbers written in a black sharpie. We
shared the toilet paper and wiped each other’s tears running down our cheeks, mumbling
“It’s alright, it’s alright.”


In the midst of the catastrophe, we heard a familiar faculty voice giving us evacuation
instructions, but it was too hard to follow as everything still moved. Our homeroom
teacher started counting us, and we followed him in a line as he instructed. As he opened
the classroom door, we left the chaotic classroom behind.

Student belongings were scattered in the hallway. There were too many of us, and it was
nearly impossible for my homeroom teacher to keep track of every one of us. I was
scared to be away from my class and be left behind in the building. The annual school
earthquake training did not prepare any of us for this.

The school field was covered with crying students. There, as a teacher announced that we
had to wait for our parents to pick us up, my best friend instantly sighed because both of
her parents worked in a different faraway city. She had no clue when they would come.
As my mom got here from our house, which was located five minutes away from school,
my best friend and I said “See you then,” without any idea this would be our last
farewell.

Our conversations about our favorite books, TV shows, school subjects, and other friends
were all left unsaid.

“My glasses!” The scream of my brother brought me back to the present again.


One of his glass lenses fell out, and after a long search, he found it under his seat, but the
little screw that put the lens and the frame together was nowhere to be found.

The dentist who sat in front of us pulled out a dental floss and said “I will try to fix it for
you.”

Coincidentally, the same thing had happened to his son the day before. The dentist
carefully placed the glass lens into the frame and tightly tied them together with the
dental floss, while we remarked no wonder he was a dentist with those skillful hands.

His help meant a lot. We did not have medical insurance, nor did we know where to get a
new pair of glasses in the U.S.

The bus pulled up to our destination just as he was finishing the repair.

We were amazed by Washington, D.C. Everything here was on a bigger scale than in
Japan. There were guards with guns everywhere. We even found a guard with some sort
of binoculars on top of the White House.

We also visited the Washington Monument. With our tour guide’s explanation of the
history, our question of why the landmark was two different colors was solved. Our time
in Washington was a walk-through of American history.


After a long ride on the bus, now we were at another hotel in the U.S. We had already lost
count of how many places we had stayed in this country.

As we got back to our hotel after a long day of walking and touring, my mom took our
dirty clothes out of our suitcases. She grabbed the clothes and took them inside the
bathroom, turning the faucet in the bathtub on, and started hand washing them, using
soap, despite her hands being wounded and peeling after frequent clothes washings. Then
she carefully hung the clothes one by one on a hanger and the shower curtain rail.
Laundry always took a lot of time for my mom.

But she never complained, even when we did not get to help her much.

Despite how hopeless the situation was, she always showed us the positive side of life.

As kids, we did not fully understand how serious and terrifying it must have been to bring
two children to a foreign country, where you didn’t speak the language. The amount of
responsibility and stress she bore could never be fully understood by any of us.

As she walked out of the bathroom, we saw her legs covered by bruises.

When the earthquake struck, my mom was inside our condo. It was on the 15th floor and
had a 180-degree Tokyo Bay view. Each quake was a large swing on a higher floor.
Within seconds, the piano in the corner of the living room was in the center. As she fell to


the floor and saw tsunami waves rampaging in the ocean from the window, the building
made groaning metal sounds, “Squeak, squeak.”

Facing a life-and-death situation on the living room floor, she thought, “At least my
children are in school and they should be safe.” After some time had passed, she thought
again, “But I cannot just stay here waiting for my life to end.” She then picked up her
phone and some important things and crawled out of the door.

She opened the door to the emergency staircase. The earthquake and aftershocks had not
stopped, and she repeated a process of tripping, rolling down, and then getting up, to get
down the stairs.

This was how she got the bruises.

I started counting them. There seemed to be 60 bruises in total on her legs, looking like a
world map but with one connected continent. It was difficult to count, as her bruises
overlapped each other.

On the third floor of the stairs, my mom met one of our neighbors, crying and screaming
her daughter’s name out loud. My mom tried to calm her down by telling her that her
daughter should be fine because the children should still be in school.


But the woman could not be consoled. She kept screaming her daughter’s name. Her face
was covered in tears. She was crawling up the stairs.

When my mom finally made it out of the building, she saw a devastated city instead of a
familiar neighborhood.

Surrounding houses were tilted, and buildings seemed to be floating above the ground.
Manholes stuck out by approximately three to four feet. There were earthquake cracks
everywhere with liquid mud coming out from them.

A Parking lot post-earthquake. Photos by Minsha Ouyou

A local mall post-earthquake. Photos by Minsha Ouyou

A manhole in my hometown post-earthquake. Photo by Minsha Ouyou

It was a civilization in collapse.

During an earthquake, strong ground shaking increases the pore water pressure in
saturated sandy soils, and the consequence is that the soil starts behaving as a liquid. This
phenomenon is called liquefaction. And sandy artificial landfill deposits are sometimes
loosely packed, a fact that increases liquefaction potential, said Dr. George Deodatis, a
Santiago and Robertina Calatrava Family Professor of Civil Engineering and Engineering
Mechanics, Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia
University.

The liquefaction effect was largely seen from Tokyo to Chiba along Tokyo Bay, where
my family lived.

As my city was built on a landfill, the liquefaction was even worse.

Through the process of liquefaction, manholes pop up due to the buoyancy effect, said
Dr. Klaus Hans Jacob, Special Research Scientist, Seismology, Geology and
Tectonophysics, and Adjunct Professor at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia
Climate School.

As my mom got out of the building, she tried to jump over the cracks in the ground to get
to my school. But, when she tried to cross one of them, it suddenly grew wider. Her legs


fell into the crack, and the sticky mud wrapped around her body as high as her knees. She
could feel herself sinking.

The more she tried to come out, the more her body sank.

She began screaming, “Help me!”A woman who had already crossed a street, walked
back wearing her home slippers and pulled my mom out. To this day, we do not know
who it was who saved my mom’s life.

In the hotel room, my mom took out her Salonpas patches, made of stretchable fabric
used for pain relief and covered her legs.

Because of the pain in her legs, occasionally my mom would slow down when she
walked for too long.

This was especially true when we visited Hershey’s Chocolate World in Pennsylvania.

“This is probably like Meiji chocolate in Japan,” my brother and I said.

We learned the history of Hershey’s through its tour and did some chocolate tasting at the
end. We all wished that our dad, who was working back in Japan, could have tasted the
chocolate, too.


As we moved through the tour, others always looked after us to make sure we did not get
lost.

They even took my brother to the bathroom when needed.

In a time of hardships like this, it brings out the best in people. It was the same on the day
of the earthquake and tsunami.

I still remember the news about humanitarians sacrificing their lives to save others, and
these stories were disseminated through the media, by journalists risking their lives.
Stories of older residents giving their rice balls to children, and rescue workers each only
eating a banana to serve food to other survivors, even though they were also hungry, gave
us the warmth and strength to keep going.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 163 countries and regions, and 43
international organizations offered help to Japan as of September 15th, 2011.

Shortly after the earthquake and tsunami, “Operation Tomodachi,” which translates in
English to “Operation Friend(s)”, was launched by the order of the United States Pacific
Command to assist Japan.


Despite the global aid Japan received, an estimated 15,900 people died and 2,523
remained missing, according to the report published by the National Police Agency of
Japan on March 10th, 2022.

The disaster was especially devastating because it wasn’t just a single disaster but a triple
one: the earthquake and tsunami, followed by the nuclear power plant’s meltdown.

The waves of that tsunami took what was once a peaceful part of our town, of our lives,
and turned into a devastating event. From our home, it looked like water was being
swayed in a cup.

A tsunami over 46 feet struck Fukushima, where the plant was located, soon after the
earthquake. Despite the plant having automatically shut down the reactors after its
detection of the earthquake, the emergency generators that prevented overheating of the
nuclear fuel were damaged, which contributed to the nuclear meltdown, releasing large
amounts of radioactive materials.

That is all I could think about in Boston, as we stood by the Charles River.

Despite the view being beautiful, it was too hard for me, my brother, and my mom to
look at the water. All we could think about were the tsunami waves.

We took a couple of pictures and left the place.

We walked around the city.

On a peaceful day like that, walking around historic landmarks was fun. Ever since the
earthquake, we had walked a lot. But most of the walking we did was traumatizing.

When my mom and I left my school to pick up my brother that earthquake day, the
five-minute walk to his school took us longer than half an hour to get there. The ruptured
ground forced us to take a longer detour and jump over many cracks.

By the time we got to his school, there was an approximately three feet gap between the
school building and the ground. We could see the mud under the huge space between the
ground and the school building.

A silver stainless steel ladder was placed there. My mom, wearing a pair of boots with
wet mud on her soles, managed to climb the slippery ladder steps. I waited outside while
she went in to find my brother. But quickly she found out that all the students were
evacuated to the school field.

Climbing down a slippery steel ladder is more difficult than climbing up. After one step
onto the ladder, she slipped and bounced down on her behind.


Even when we finally got back to our house, there was no time for a break. There were
two types of disaster alarms that did not stop, kicking off a confusing loop: an earthquake
warning that instructed us to be on the ground floor and a tsunami warning that instructed
us to get higher up.

The rupture caused by an earthquake typically stays in depth between 20 and 50 km in
general, but this was the first documented earthquake that ruptured all the way out of the
trench and uplifted the sediments of the overriding plate by several meters vertically and
by up to 20 meters horizontally thrusting over the Pacific plate. And this caused the
displacement of the water column and was the source of the incredibly large tsunami that
impinged the shoreline in Japan, Jacob said.

It was an endless route, from the entrance hall into the building of our house to the
staircases leading to the 15th floor. While we were going back and forth, we were
tripping and falling all the time because of the nonstop aftershocks. It was especially
painful to fall from the stairs.

My dad was walking home from his workplace because most of the trains had stopped.
Hundreds of people in suits lined up, walking. People started asking each other which
direction they were heading using the train line names. Slowly, more people joined the
lines and they became like walking trains following the original train map and directions.

It took my dad more than five hours to finally get home.


By the time he got home, he was exhausted, but he didn’t sleep. He stayed all night in the
living room watching the news.

And when he finally closed his eyes, he fell into such a deep sleep that an aftershock that
shook my mom off her bed never woke him from his spot on the living room couch.

“I am treating you guys to a nice dinner,” said the tour guide.

On the tour, we were having individual dinners that allowed each of us to go wherever we
wanted for dinner, instead of a usual group dinner.

At night, the tour guide took us to a small, cozy restaurant, where we ate lobsters and all
kinds of seafood. We made a promise that she would come to Japan one day to visit us.

The tour was coming to an end.

But Japan had not recovered from the earthquake, and we still had no idea where to go.
We decided to stay in Los Angeles for a while.

At midnight, we opened our computer on the hotel bed to look for plane tickets.


Looking for plane tickets and hotels had become a habit of ours at this point – starting
when we first decided to leave Japan.

Just after hours the earthquake struck, food became scarce. The shelves in the
supermarket in my neighborhood cleared. We bought whatever was left there. Everyone
was still following the rules. We did not see anyone robbing or stealing. We all lined up
for the checkouts.

The financial system was also interrupted, preventing us from using credit cards or
withdrawing cash.

It soon became clear that schools were not going to resume any time soon.

All we saw on TV was news of the earthquake. People were buried under the destroyed
houses, and self-defense members risked their lives to save others. It was the same kind
of news repeated every day, sponsored by Ad Council Japan, a non-profit organization
that distributes public service announcements. All other commercials and TV programs
were canceled.

The nuclear power plant’s meltdown in Fukushima added another layer of stress and
concern for people in the country. The plant emitted high levels of radiation, which
caused an evacuation of over 100,000 people and brought fears over diseases like cancer,
caused by exposure to radiation.


The plant was built at a much lower elevation than initially planned because of monetary
reasons. Building a plant closer to the ocean and at a lower elevation meant that the
operator could decrease costs for energy to lift cooling water up from the ocean to the
plant and discharge the used cooling water back into the ocean, Jacob said.

This is when we started to look for airplane tickets to evacuate from Japan. Tickets to the
neighboring country, China, were all sold out at ten times the usual price. We changed the
search country from “China” to “USA” as some of our distant relatives lived there and
had encouraged us to come. Surprisingly, there were still a couple of tickets left to the
U.S. when we checked. And they were still the same usual price.

Because my dad still had to continue his work, managing a media company and helping
arrange for foreign journalists to report the earthquake.

Despite the feeling of guilt leaving him behind, we flew to the United States.

In the early morning, a car came to take us to the airport. My dad came along with us to
just carry our suitcases and say goodbye. I told myself to stop crying because I did not
want him to feel sadder and more worried about us. But, I could not control my tears
thinking this could be the last time I might see him, as so many people had already died
because of the earthquake. I looked away from my family to hide my face.


The ride to the airport felt extremely short. As we got there, my dad carefully took out
our suitcases from the car trunk and placed them on a cart.

At the exit gate at the airport, I could no longer hold my feelings in. I burst into tears and
asked my dad, “ But can’t you come with us?”

“I’ll go once everything settles down,” he said.

But we all knew things would not settle down any time soon.

We all hugged each other one last time, feeling his large and warm body wrapping around
us.

He stood outside the gate watching us even after we went through security. We waved at
him, and he gave us a hand gesture to call him when we got to the U.S.

On the plane, from the window, I saw a maintenance man outside standing on the tarmac,
taking his job very seriously and bowing at us as if he was happy for us that at least we
were able to leave there.

A feeling of indescribable uneasiness arose inside me, and I sat there staring at the black
screen in front of me for hours.

Departure at the airport in Japan. Photo by Minsha Ouyou

On the plane. Photos by Minsha Ouyou


After more than 10 hours, we got off the plane in San Jose, California, and I immediately
noticed the relaxed facial expressions of the airport staff, something I had not seen for a
while. I realized that I was safe now.

When we arrived here, we first stayed at a friend’s house but decided to leave after a
week, because we did not want to cause more trouble to the family. After that, we stayed
in different hotels, inns, and motels. During the tour, we traveled around the U.S.,
including Boston, New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., joining tourists from
around the country and the world.

But the trip was coming to an end. It became time for us to say goodbye to the people
who went on this tour with us and made us feel at home. They were like family to us in
this foreign country.

On our last day, we each wrote down our email addresses on a piece of paper and passed
it around on the bus.

Saying goodbye is always hard.

The tour guide was going back to lead a tour of another team. Some members were
returning to their states. Some were going back to their home countries.


And, for us, we started our journey of finding a home, starting in California. We stayed in
different hotels, inns, and motels every day based on which place offered the best price,
as we had an uncertain future, not knowing how long the evacuation would last and
whether the financial system in Japan would be disrupted again, preventing future
financial transactions from Japan.

Our day always began with packing suitcases in the morning and checking out from the
place we stayed. We had two large suitcases and one small carry-on suitcase and a lot of
bags. I always took the small suitcase and another backpack, and my brother carried most
of the luggage. On bumpy roads, where sometimes there was not enough sidewalk space,
we dragged our suitcases.

Then, we settled into a new place for the day.

After reserving so many hotel rooms, my brother eventually figured out the algorithm
that most of the places update their prices from 11 p.m. to 12 a.m., so he would set an
alarm to wake up at that time to make the next day’s hotel reservation.

This kind of lifestyle continued for months until we decided to stay in California for a
while and find an apartment, as Japan still had not recovered from the disaster.


We rented our first apartment in Pasadena, California. It was an apartment built inside a
mall that allowed easier access to shops and supermarkets. Moreover, we decided to live
there for safety reasons.

We also started to look for schools.

Despite the fact that we learned English from our grandfather, who was fluent in the
language, it was not enough for all of us to continue living in the U.S. My mom looked
for a language school to learn English and immerse herself in American society.

As my mom held Japanese values, such as not liking to cause trouble to others, and since
there were no taxis in California or Uber back then, we used a combination of buses and
walking to go to school.

Google Maps became our best friend through sunny and rainy days. From our place, we
walked 45 minutes to get to our first bus stop. After riding the bus for about 20 minutes,
we got off to walk for an hour. But, this one-hour walk was so much more difficult than
the previous one. There were no proper sidewalks. Cars and pedestrians were divided by
a thin white line. On a busy street with so many cars passing by, the width of the sidewalk
was only about 28 inches. My mom walked on the side of the road. But we could feel the
wind as the cars buzzed by.


On our way, we would see a place similar to our home in Japan. Every time we passed
there, we always repeated the same line: “I wish that was our house.”

While we walked, the hot sunlight was burning our necks. The sunburn mark my brother
got still remains on his neck to this day.

As Japan is a country dominated by public transportation like buses and trains, we did not
expect going to school was going to be this difficult.

My mom’s school was one floor inside a mid-sized building, where there was a front desk
when we entered. There were two black leather couches next to the entrance door, where
my brother and I sat for four to five hours each day to wait for our mom to be let out.
This continued for two weeks because we still had not found a school for ourselves.

My brother and I sat on the couch and read the textbooks we borrowed from the front
desk while waiting for our mom. The people at the front desk always kindly watched us.

Seeing our mom studying hard in her 40s with her classmates in their 20s, we naturally
studied hard like her. Her actions led us.

It did not matter how tired my mom was, being a full-time student and housewife, at the
dinner table, there was always at least one main dish, one vegetable dish, and something
else. It was similar in the morning. We never missed homemade breakfast, even once.


Our days always ended with the three of us sitting at a round wooden table studying
together.

I went to sleep around 11 p.m. But sometimes, I woke up in the middle of the night, and I
saw my mom still studying her textbook at the round table. She used her dictionary app
on her phone to check the pronunciation of words in the textbook, as the next day
students would read it out loud in class.

With her consistent hard work, she rose to the top of her class.

Around this time, my brother and I also found schools.

But it was especially hard to walk to my school and my brother’s school, as they were
located on different sides of the city. But we had to frequently go there for interviews and
entrance exams.

Though in California it rarely rains, when it rains, it pours. On rainy days, cars splashed
water on us, soaking us. Water was dripping off my face, and I wiped it with the palms of
my hands. We were walking in a river of water that soaked our socks. We just kept
walking to get to school, despite some people in a car yelling at us for walking on such a
day.


On our walk to school, we already learned a tough lesson — opportunities do not
automatically fall into our hands. And I realized how fortunate I was in Japan.

During this time, we also started thinking about getting a car. But to get a car, my mom
had to get a driver’s license.

One weekend, my mom woke up early and said, “We’re going to the DMV to take the
driver’s license written exam.” This was the only day of the week we got to wake up late.
Despite my mom having a Japanese driver’s license, we told her that would be
impossible to pass the American license written exam without studying.

“I’m just going to see what the test is like and see the test center for my next exam,” she
said.

With her persuasion, we ended up at the Department of Motor Vehicles. While we waited
in line to get her number to take the exam, the two college students in front of us offered
to watch me and my brother, as only one of them was going to take the exam. While we
were waiting for our mom to take the exam, he even gave us each a bottle of water, from
the back of his blue Coupe car.

My brother and I also played with the college student’s iPad and he showed us some of
his artwork as he studied at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. We are still friends
with him to this day.


After a little while his friend came out. We still waited for our mom. We did not know
how many more minutes had passed, but she was one of the last exam takers.

My mom was sure that she failed the exam. “We’re going home,” she said without any
hesitation, leaving without checking the result.

As we were going out, we met my mom’s friend from her language school, who was also
from Japan. He stopped us.

He insisted that he would go check her exam result, despite her declining his offer again
and again. It is rare for a Japanese person to be this persistent.

But, under his irresistible persuasion, we relented.

“You passed,” the lady at the DMV said.

My mom was the most surprised of all. She scored the bare minimum to pass.

But my mom still needed to take the next test, the road test. Without having a real car to
practice with, she spent days preparing for the road test on paper.


“I have never seen anyone study a road test with a pen and paper,” said my brother with
his eyes wide open.

But on the night before the road test, she went to one of the hotels we used to live in.

There were two very kind bellmen. An older Nick and a younger Nick. When we lived
there, they always drove us around with the hotel truck and took our bags to our hotel
room without even asking.

On that night, the older Nick let my mom drive the hotel truck in the parking lot for
practice. He sat in the passenger seat and taught her all the key terms associated with
driving and parts of cars.

She made a lot of progress differentiating the words “right” and “left” coming back
home.

The next day, she felt she was not ready for the test, but not passing would mean waking
up at 5 a.m. and walking to school for hours.

Her road test was around 2 p.m., one of the busiest times of the day when ambulances,
school buses, policemen, and pedestrians passed.


As she was very used to driving safely in Japan, she tried her best not to make mistakes.
Finally, as if God lent her a helping hand, she passed the exam despite not understanding
much of what the DMV examiner said.

This was when we saw a gleam of light and had to admit that life was getting better.

One of our friends took us to a car dealership, but we did not find anything that suited us.
On the way back, he drove us to his house and lent us a car to drive ourselves home,
since he didn’t have time to do so. It was a kind of car we have never driven or seen in
Japan before. When my mom drove the car, the two doors in the backseat were flapping
like a bird with wings but too heavy to fly.

“Are you driving or flying?” my brother asked.

We returned the car the next day.

Eventually, we bought a car and with that, plus a permanent address in the U.S., we felt
official. This marked our new beginning here.

School was hard. It was difficult to start everything new. In a new environment, I was
suddenly learning about US history instead of Japanese history.


But I realized for the first time that only knowledge cannot be stolen from me, and it was
also necessary to do great things to give back to the world, so I worked even harder in
school despite struggling.

After a few months, my hard work was starting to pay off. I started to receive awards and
honors like I used to back home.

In high school, my brother and I started a Japanese Club that taught local students
Japanese, hoping to create a bridge between the U.S. and Japan, as the earthquake
showed us the importance of a connective community. With our passion for the club and
the contributions we made, the Japanese embassy in California introduced our club to the
only national television station in Japan, NHK. On its global channel, it broadcast an
episode, documenting our club and interviewing us, broadcasting what we created to 150
countries and regions.

“I never imagined the club would create such a positive impact, and it made me realize
the importance of taking initiative to make changes,” my brother said.

The more flexible educational system in the U.S. also encouraged me to finish school
early, as graduating early meant letting my mom return to Japan sooner to get back to her
life and be back with my dad.


At 20, I graduated from Emory University, in Atalanta, Georgia, with a bachelor’s in
economics and a minor in East Asian studies, recognized as the youngest graduate of my
class. I decided to study economics because I could see its importance after witnessing
the collapse of the financial system in Japan. In school, I was also selected to be a
member of an international economics honor society, Omicron Delta Epsilon, and the
national honor society, Phi Beta Kappa.

My brother found his passion in speech and writing and won national competitions. He
also graduated from Emory early. And even my mom had received an acceptance letter to
a graduate school a few years before we started college.

But behind our academic success, there was the help of our grandmother and grandfather.
When my brother and I were little at home, my grandmother and grandfather would
patiently teach us math and literature. When I was five, we sat inside a traditional
Japanese room with Tatami flooring, made from pressed rice straw covered with bamboo
canes, to sing multiplication tables. This is when my love for math sparked. They were
my very first teachers who taught me the joy of learning.

When our lives got hard in the U.S., my grandmother told us not to worry too much, as
this was not a significant problem.

Then, we asked her, “What is a significant problem?”


“As long as you keep yourself safe and study hard to become a person who can contribute
to the world, let everything else be,” she said.

In February 2020, she died, while I was still in school in the U.S.

Because we were in the U.S. for more than a decade, she did not have much time with us
in her later life. Our success owes a lot to her sacrifice.

After completing college, my brother and I both received offers from Goldman Sachs.
My brother went to work there, and I decided to work for a consulting firm for two years.
Now we are both graduate students at Columbia University, where I am pursuing my
passion for journalism. I hope to contribute to the profession, as I was inspired by the
journalists who gave us hope during the disaster.

Columbia University Graduation.

The earthquake created a new pathway from the original road of my life where I walked
with my classmates.


All of my classmates stayed in Japan and pursued their studies and careers there. One of
my classmates became an elementary school teacher, and one of my other friends started
working at a marketing company in Japan.

Only I am living a life completely different from theirs.

“When I’m in Japan, people think I’m an American. But when I’m in the U.S., people
think I’m Asian. But I consider myself a citizen of Earth,” said my brother in one of his
speeches.

So I plucked up my courage and made the decision to share my story, as a citizen of
Earth. I open the music box that plays in my mind, to share it with the world.

I want to become a brave person like my mom, who was never afraid of starting her life
over from scratch for us. I want to become a selfless mother like her, who will do
anything for her children to just get the opportunity to grasp success.

Facing my fear is my first step to do so.

Today, as I finished writing the story, the calendar says March 11, 2023 Japan time,
exactly 12 years after the day of the earthquake.


As I finish writing this, I take it with me and step onto the Columbia campus, where I did
not come 12 years ago, during the bus trip. Under the cloudy sky, I walk through the
campus, following the red brick path and passing Butler Library where the names of
Shakespeare, Aristotle, and Plato are inscribed. I breathe in the smell of the history of
academics who left significant footprints in the school. I walk past the statue of Joseph
Pulitzer, feeling uplifted by him, and I enter Columbia Journalism School.

In a time when the world is experiencing many devastating disasters, I want my story to
be a voice to tell others that we should never lose hope and that failures can be our
springboard to let us jump higher. I also want my story to be a wake-up call for climate
change and climate issues.

As we live in a world where natural disasters are increasing, which have taken so many
lives and brought immense sorrow, I hope to bring light to the people suffering in the
darkness and take their hands to walk out from the pain.

When a natural disaster strikes, humans are so insignificant. But with the little power we
each hold, we can work toward healing the wounds of our hearts with the help of time.

Reporting for this story was supported by Columbia University School of Journalism.