In Sight

A Sister-School Exchange With a Difference

Five years after Japan’s devastating March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, youth look toward the future.

New friends—California student Ben Slayton of Del Norte High in Crescent City, Calif., arm wrestles with Takata High School student Kaito Kanno in Rikuzentakata, Japan during a February exchange visit. Photo for The Washington Post by Ko Sasaki.

by Anna Fifeld

RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan—It would have been hard to come up with two places that were better matched: both small, Pacific Ocean coastal towns, both proud of their majestic trees, both far from a metropolis and little known even in their own countries.

But Crescent City, California, and Rikuzentakata, Japan, were brought together not by design but by nature.

The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that devastated this part of Japan’s northeastern coast almost five years ago ricocheted back to wash ashore a day later on the northwestern coast of the United States, inundating the harbor and destroying several dozen boats in Crescent City, a 20-minute drive from the Oregon line.

Two years later, another souvenir from the Japanese tsunami arrived: Kamome, a small blue and white boat whose name means “sea gull.” The boat had been used for marine science classes at Rikuzentakata’s Takata High School but had been swept away in the tsunami, which claimed the lives of 22 students and a teacher, and leveled the town.

After the Japanese characters reading “Takata High School” on Kamome’s side had been deciphered, students from Del Norte High School in Crescent City set about cleaning the boat and getting it back to its owners across the Pacific.

Students from both coasts are now following in Kamome’s wake.

Olivia Jeffcoat of Eight Del Norte High in Crescent City, Calif., has lunch with Takata high school students, Risa Sugawara and Nanase Yamaguchi in a classroom at Takata High School in Rikuzentakata, Japan. Eight Del Norte students, along with their principal and some local Rotarians, spent a week in the shiny new Takata High School complex on a hill overlooking the ocean - the original buildings were destroyed in the 2011, tsunami. Photo for The Washington Post by Ko Sasaki.
Photo for The Washington Post by Ko Sasaki.

Eight Del Norte students, along with their principal and some local Rotarians, are spending this week in the shiny new Takata High School complex on a hill overlooking the ocean—the original buildings were destroyed in the March 11, 2011, disaster.

The eight are members of a “junior Rotary” club at Del Norte High and had to apply to be selected for the exchange, which is funded by the U.S.–Japan Foundation. This is the third year of the initiative, and several of the students on this year’s trip are reuniting with Japanese students they welcomed to California last year.

“These are very special ties,” said Hiroki Suzuki, Takata High’s vice principal. “The boat was covered with dirt and shells, and most people would have chucked it away. But these people kindly cleaned it, realized it must have been something important and then returned it to us.”

The American students are learning about Japan, disaster preparedness and how much they have in common with their Japanese peers. They have been playing basketball and practicing the martial art of kendo together, taking English class and doing Japanese calligraphy together, eating bento-box lunches with chopsticks together.

“The sister-school idea is not new, but this is a really unique situation,” said Randy Fugate, Del Norte High’s principal. “Everyone we have met has suffered a loss of home or family or friendship. But there is a strength here, a focus on rebuilding, and on rebuilding better and stronger. It chokes you up.”

On the surface, the students could hardly have looked more different. The American high school students seemed straight out of central casting . . . The Japanese students were all in uniforms of blue blazers and ties during class.

. . . One thing that rarely came up was the reason the exchange was happening in the first place: the disaster. “We’re focusing on the positive, unless they bring it up first,” said Carolyn Cochran, who at 15 was the youngest of the group.

Teachers say that the students at the school, which has two counselors on site, have proved amazingly resilient in the face of a disaster that cost many of them homes, family members and friends. The U.S. connection helps.

“These kinds of cultural exchanges are really important,” said Kingo Murakami, who teaches Japanese literature at Takata High School. “Young people are much more future-oriented. We adults lost everything that belonged to the past, but the children can make history from now on.”

The Washington Post’s Yuki Oda contributed to this report.