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Thirteen Years After 311: A Natural Disaster Can Be Your Springboard to Jump Higher

It was on a cloudy day in March that we, siblings Miho and Minsha, were in school like any other day. But in our classrooms, we suddenly felt chairs and desks shaking. We wondered if we could get out of school early, as we occasionally experienced small earthquakes in Japan. But this one was different – a 9.0 magnitude, once-in-a-thousand-year earthquake, the Tohoku earthquake, struck our country, Japan. Now, over a decade later, the magnitude 7.6 earthquake strikes our country on New Year’s Day, killing at least 213 people. It served as a stark reminder of our ever-present vulnerability and the relentless unpredictability of nature.

The earthquake was unique as it wasn’t a single disaster but a triple one: the earthquake and tsunami, followed by the nuclear power plant’s meltdown. We lived by the ocean, where liquefaction resulted in the ground cracking open and sticky mud pushing out from underground, wrapping around people and cars, and sinking them slowly. There were more than 5,000 aftershocks after the earthquake, and the tsunami wrecked the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. It emitted high levels of radiation, resulting in the evacuation of over 100,000 people from the surrounding area.

The islands of Japan are located where four of the Earth’s tectonic plates meet, home to ten percent of the world’s active volcanoes. Japan is the most seismically active country, experiencing about 1,500 earthquakes every year. As climate change progresses, storms like hurricanes and other events can exacerbate seismic activity and more earthquakes, making it an issue not only for Japan. Consequently, learning to adapt to natural disasters and leveraging them as catalysts for growth and resilience has become increasingly vital. Our evacuation to California, following the Tohoku earthquake, was the first step in a journey that taught us the true meaning of resilience and the power of overcoming adversity.

Leaving home was especially difficult as our dad had to stay in Japan to arrange for foreign journalists to report on the disaster for his job. In the early morning, a car came to take us to the airport. Our dad came along with us just to carry our suitcases and say goodbye. 

Miho: 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 in my feelings. 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.

Minsha: In a new country without my dad, I, a 13-year-old at the time, had to take over his role. As I reserved so many inns, moving from one inn to another depending on which one offered the best price, I learned the algorithm that most places update their prices from 11 p.m. to 12 a.m., so I would set an alarm to make the reservation for the next day. The next day was the beginning of a moving day. We walked everywhere from supermarkets a couple of miles away to schools to embassies.

Even though California rarely rains, when it rains, it pours. On stormy days, cars splashed water on us, soaking us completely, as there was not enough sidewalk space where cars and pedestrians were divided by a thin white line. Despite some people yelling at us for walking on such a day, we kept walking as that was the only way we could get to school interviews.

Our mom, who also needed to go to school as she had to get a student visa to stay with us, would always stay up past midnight to study for her quizzes and exams the next day.

But in moments like this, we learned that opportunities do not fall into our hands. Instead, we have to earn them ourselves. We began to realize how fortunate we were in Japan, where we walked the pathway that was built by our family long before we were born. But then, when we came to the U.S., every little thing we had to earn.

Even though school was hard, we worked our best. Slowly, we began to surpass our classmates, moving from fundamental to more advanced classes. We also founded the Japanese Club at our high school with the mission of building a bridge between Japan and the U.S., as we wanted to give back to the international community, which, 163 countries and 43 international organizations had offered to help Japan after the earthquake as of September 15, 2011, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Because of the impact we made, the national TV station of Japan, NHK, documented our club on its global channel, broadcasting to 150 countries and regions.

As we wanted our mom to get back with our dad in Japan as soon as possible, Miho graduated two years ahead of her peers from Emory University at the age of twenty, recognized as the youngest graduate of the class with honors, including National Honor Society of Economics, Phi Beta Kappa, and International Honor Society for Economics, Omicron Delta Epsilon. Minsha also graduated from Emory earlier than his peers and earned national speech and writing awards. Both of us received offers from Goldman Sachs. Minsha worked there, while Miho decided to pursue consulting.

Now, we follow our passion for journalism, as it has provided us with a lifeline of information to survive during the darkest times of our lives after the disaster. Thirteen years after the earthquake, we are graduates of Columbia University with our master’s degrees and have founded our own multilingual publication. We are also reporting for the Pulitzer Center on Japan’s discharge of treated radioactive water from the tsunami-wrecked nuclear power plant in Fukushima into the sea.

During our visit to Fukushima in June for our reporting trip, we met many survivors of the disaster who rose after the earthquake to make an impact on the world. 

Haruo Ono, a third-generation fisherman who lost his brother, also a fisherman, to the tsunami, continues to work on the recovery of the fishing industry in Fukushima. 

Masaya Komatsuzaki and Shota Hoshi, survivors of the earthquake, are currently studying and researching radiation at Fukushima University, hoping their findings will one day aid the recovery of Fukushima.

In a time of increasing natural disasters, we aim to tell stories like ours to bring hope to the world. We may be insignificant in the face of a natural disaster, but learning that we are not alone, we can heal our wounds with time. We can’t erase our trauma or prevent natural disasters from striking our city, but what we can do is accept them as part of our lives and use them as a springboard to propel us forward.

Today is another day; we open our notebooks to report on Fukushima. With the words we type and the voices we have, we hope to write the first draft of history, making the world a better place in our own way. As we have been invited by the University of Chicago on campus as keynote speakers, we hope to tell stories of importance to the younger generation to pass on the history of our generation to the next, with the mission of inspiring others.