What would you do if a Japanese tsunami boat washed ashore? Students transform a tragedy into a homecoming

I attended the January meeting of the California Seismic Safety Commission, which looks out for the needs of Californians to prepare for quakes, to be resilient to their effects, and to recover as rapidly as possible afterwards. We have the Commission to thank for earthquake hazards disclosure in home sales, for regulations to retrofit collapse-prone unreinforced masonry buildings, for the California Earthquake Authority that provides residential quake insurance, and for the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Institute to learn how to make buildings safer and stronger. There Dr. Lori Dengler from Humboldt State University told the Commissioners one of the most moving stories of loss and healing I have heard in a long time, and so I have to share it.

A painting of Kamome’s arrival on the shore near Crescent City, CA, in April 2013.

Takata High School, in the Tohoku fishing city of Rikuzentaka, owned a boat used to teach students about fishing and ship repair. The boat was tied to a platform on a wharf when the 2011 tsunami struck.  No one was using the boat at the time, but the tsunami devastated Rikuzentakata, taking lives, destroying much of the school buildings, and tearing the boat from it’s mooring lines. The boat, along with so much other debris, vanished out to sea.

A painting of Kamome’s cleaning by Del Norte High School Students

Two years later, an overturned barnacle-encrusted hull washed ashore near Crescent City, California, 4,000 nautical miles from Rikuzentaka. After scraping off the barnacles from its gunwhale, Lori and others saw the kanji characters. A Japanese speaker translated them as, ‘Kamome (Seagull), Takata High School.’ Remarkably, Lori had visited Rikuzentakata two years beforehand to study the tsunami devastation, and admiring the pluck and spirit of the area, she had ‘liked’ the city’s Facebook page to follow the recovery process.

Now, she had something to tell them: The boat from one of the most tsunami vulnerable fishing towns in Japan had beached at Crescent City, one of the most tsunami vulnerable fishing towns on west coast of the United States. Crescent City had been battered by the tsunami from the 1964 M=9.2 Anchorage, Alaska quake, and also, ironically, by the tsunami from the 2011 M=9.0 Tohoku earthquake itself.

And then things really got interesting. The Del Norte High School students asked the students of Takata High School if they would like their boat back. The answer came roaring back: Yes. The Del Norte High School students cleaned and refurbish the boat, saving the lone remnant of its stern line still cleated to the hull. The students put a YouTube video up asking for the considerable funds needed to ship the boat home, the money came tumbling in, and the boat was returned to the astonished and thrilled school children: Their boat had come home. Not everything lost on 11 March 2011 was lost forever.

But the story does not stop there. The Japanese students invited the Californian students to visit, so they could thank them personally. None spoke Japanese or had ever been out of the country, so they were anxious but excited. When they came, they learned how to enjoy and prepare Japanese food, how to write their names in Japanese characters, and saw their lives mirrored by their new friends in Japan.

Takata High School students try to get their arms around a giant Sequoia

The departing Americans invited the Takata students to visit them next year in Crescent City. Nervous about speaking English and eating American food, they nevertheless came, fell for hamburgers, sang American songs, learned new games, and saw their first giant Redwood. The students have vowed to remain friends. In two weeks, eight more Del Norte High School students will be traveling to Japan to visit Takata High School, the next remarkable step in the long link formed by a small boat.

On 26 November 2014, Futoshi Toba, Mayor of Rikuzentakata, presented U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy with the saved remnant of Kamome’s stern line, which is now on display at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. Also in 2014, Kamome was installed in the National Tokyo Museum as part of a special exhibit on the 2011 tsunami and recovery.

How could something that grew out of such an immense and unforeseen tragedy confer so much hope and healing? The mirror image communities of Rikuzentaka and Crescent City have much to do with it, as do the Japanese and American high school students themselves. But as a scientist, I also feel that the connection Lori made with the school long before the boat washed ashore is just as important. It’s a reminder that scientific research can be deeper than data, and more powerful than a tsunami, when we let it.

Ross Stein, Temblor

Illustrations and photographs reproduced here with permission from the authors

The bilingual book is “The Extraordinary Voyage of Kamome: A Tsunami Boat Comes Home,” by Lori Dengler, Amya Miller, and Amy Uyeki (Humboldt State Univ. Press, 2015).

This is an Open Access PDF ebook 978-0-9966731-1-2. It is also available through Amazon as a beautifully-printed bilingual paperback for $10.00.

There is more on Kamome here: http://humboldt.edu/kamome/