For Natsumi Miyakawa, a young resident of Japan's Tohoku region, March 11, 2011, should have been a day to celebrate. It was her junior high school graduation day.
Instead, there was chaos and sadness. "Everything was scary," she recalls.
In the coastal city of Ishinomaki, where she now lives, 3,700 people drowned in the tsunami resulting from a magnitude-9 earthquake. A hilltop saved lives. "People came to escape to this hill," she says. "And there is a kind of legend that has been passed down generation to generation that said when a tsunami happens, just escape to here."
In the nearby town where she and her family lived, Miyakawa spent 10 days after the tsunami living in her school's gymnasium, which was turned into an evacuation center. She cleaned toilets and floors, filling buckets with water from the school swimming pool. She helped elderly evacuees who were huddled in the gym.
Her parents had left her alone at the evacuation center as they rushed around the disaster zone, searching for electricity to power the respirator for her brother, who suffers from a heart condition.
"Actually, I didn't want to stop," Miyakawa says, "because once I stopped, I know I would start thinking about really negative things."
John Roos, the U.S. ambassador to Japan at the time, remembers it well. "Never, never experienced anything like it," he says. "And hope to never experience anything like it again."
Roos visited the region soon after the earthquake and tsunami, and remembers a conversation he had with the mayor of Rikuzentakata, another hard-hit town.
"Mayor [Futoshi] Toba said to me, 'Our government is responsible for rebuilding our schools, our houses, our infrastructure. But the one thing that you can do is to provide hope for our younger generation here in the Tohoku region,' " Roos says.
That conversation sparked a U.S.-Japanese project that continues today — the Tomodachi Initiative, which links the youngest survivors, many of them orphaned by the earthquake and tsunami, with cultural and education opportunities through exchange trips to the U.S.
With fundraising led by the U.S.-Japan Council, Japanese and American-based businesses and organizations have donated $50 million to Tomodachi Initiative programs.
The exchanges send Japanese students to the United States and American students to Japan, for stays ranging from several weeks to full semesters. Volunteers host program participants in their homes.
Of the thousands of young people who have taken part in exchanges, 70 percent are from Japan's hardest-hit Tohoku region. Roos says many students from this part of the country would never otherwise have been able to learn English or spend significant time in the United States.
"The one thing each of those children had in common was that they had suffered a terrible loss," Roos says. "And so, part of it was to just give them a break from the day-to-day lives they were experiencing. But the other was to give them hope about their future."
Miyakawa is one of the 29,000 individuals who've taken part in the programs or events put on by Tomodachi in the past five years. Now 20, she's pursuing a career in nursing, focused on disaster medicine.
"After the disaster, I realized what it means to help someone," she says. "To do what you can, when you can."
Through the Tomodachi Initiative's disaster nursing exchange, Miyakawa visited doctors and trauma centers in California and met with federal emergency management experts in Washington, D.C.
"In the future, I want to work all over the world for people fighting or suffering from something," she says. "Like disasters."
That's an experience she knows and understands all too well. And from that experience comes her hope to help others.
Akane Saiki contributed to this story.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Japan is marking a grim anniversary today. It's been five years since a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Northeastern Japan triggered a tsunami, killing more than 18,000 people. After that came the world's worst nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl. NPR's Elise Hu is in Tokyo this week. And Elise, describe how the Japanese have marked this day.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Well, 2:46 in the afternoon was an especially powerful moment to be in Japan today. That's the exact time the earthquake struck five years ago. The emperor, prime minister and other leaders observed a moment of silence here in the capital. Along the coast, survivors gathered on beaches to release balloons into the air. But the Japanese have also marked this day with demonstrations.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting in Japanese).
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Japanese).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting in Japanese).
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Japanese).
MCEVERS: What are people saying?
HU: Well, those were the demonstrators who showed up outside the Japanese Parliament today. They're saying, protect our children; preserve our future. The tsunami took out 300 miles of coastline in Japan, and the immediate loss of power led to the nuclear reactors melting down. A lot of public anger today still remains about why the meltdown wasn't prevented, why the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company weren't more transparent in the early days about what had happened. So time has passed, Kelly, but hard feelings certainly haven't gone away.
MCEVERS: Well, how is the recovery effort going along the coast in the areas that were most affected by the tsunami?
HU: One-hundred-sixty thousand people still can't go home. That's the number of displaced. In coastal towns, it's because their homes and neighborhoods were wiped out. You recall that of the people who died, most died in the flooding from the tsunami because that's how far inland the waves came. Around the plant, entire towns emptied out because of radiation threats.
I visited some of the temporary homes where people are still living five years later. They live in neat rows of trailers. Some of them have satellite dishes. Others have vegetables growing in pots. Some of the elderly in these temporary housing projects say they feel like they'll never go home.
MCEVERS: Wow, so it sounds like temporary housing is becoming something very different. I mean, what is the Japanese government saying about its progress up to now?
HU: They give themselves mixed reviews. Officials talk a lot about how complex the situation is given not only the tsunami damage but also the radiation cleanup. The government in Japan did pick up the lion's share of the reconstruction and resettlement work, but the U.S. worked in concert with the Japanese, especially in those initial months. Twenty thousand American troops stepped in to help as part of something called Operation Tomodachi. Tomodachi means friendship.
MCEVERS: And I understand you've been spending time in one of the areas that was the hardest hit, and you've got a story for us about an American project there. Tell us about that before we hear the story.
HU: Right. I went to the Tohoku region to visit an exchange program for young people called the TOMODACHI Initiative. One of the program alumni is in the town of Ishinomaki, where at dusk, on top of a hill, you can look down at the bay, and the only lights on the coastline come from construction vehicles. A Shinto torii gate stands alone there, kind of framing the view.
Natsumi Miyakawa says in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, this hilltop location saved lives.
NATSUMI MIYAKAWA: (Through interpreter) People came to escape to this hill, and there's a kind of legend that's been passed down generation to generation that says when a tsunami happens, just escape to here.
HU: In this coastal town alone, 3,700 people drowned in the tsunami. Miyakawa remembers the chaos and sadness of that time. The earthquake happened the same day she graduated from junior high.
MIYAKAWA: Everything scary.
HU: She spent the next 10 days living in the gymnasium of her own school. It was turned into an evacuation center. She cleaned toilets and floors, filling buckets with water from the school swimming pool. She helped elderly evacuees that were huddled in the same gym.
MIYAKAWA: (Through interpreter) Actually, I didn't want to stop because I knew that once I stopped, I would start thinking about really negative things.
JOHN ROOS: Never experienced anything like it and hope to never experience anything like it again.
HU: John Roos was U.S. ambassador to Japan the crisis. He remembers a conversation with the mayor of Rikuzentakata, another hard-hit town.
ROOS: Mayor Toba said to me that our government is responsible for rebuilding our schools, our houses, our infrastructure, but the one thing that you can do is to provide hope for our younger generation.
HU: That conversation sparked the beginnings of a project that continues today - the TOMODACHI Initiative. It links the Japan earthquake's youngest survivors with opportunity through exchange trips to the U.S. Many students from this part of Japan would have never otherwise gotten to learn English or spend significant time in the States.
ROOS: The one thing each of those children had in common was that they had suffered a terrible loss. And so part of it was just to give them a break from the day-to-day lives that they were experiencing. But the other was to give them hope about their future.
HU: Miyakawa is one of the teens who took part. Now 20 years old, she's pursuing a future in nursing focused on disaster medicine.
MIYAKAWA: After disaster, I realized what it means to help someone, to do what you can when you can.
HU: Through the TOMODACHI program's Disaster Nursing Exchange, Miyakawa visited doctors in trauma centers in California and met with Federal Emergency Management in D.C. Since the tsunami, 29,000 young people like her have participated in similar programs in fields they're interested in. But the value for young victims isn't best measured in numbers. It's in their bigger ambitions.
MIYAKAWA: In the future, I want to work all over the world for people fighting or suffering from something like disaster.
HU: An experience she knows all too well. But from that experience comes her hope for helping others. Elise Hu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.