‘Stories of Tohoku’ Pays Tribute to Survivors of 3/11

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Koinobori (carp banners) amid the devastation in the Tohoku region.

Koinobori (carp banners) amid the devastation in the Tohoku region. (Bridge Media)

On the afternoon of March 11, 2011, the tremors of what would be the most powerful earthquake to ever strike Japan were felt, followed by a devastating tsunami and nuclear disaster. It has been three years since the Great East Japan Earthquake hit the Tohoku region.

Today, the survivors are still trying to recover. “Stories From Tohoku” is a one-hour documentary, produced by Dianne Fukami and Debra Nakatomi, that chronicles survivors’ stories of courage, resilience and re-discovering joy.

Told through the voices of ordinary people, the documentary follows survivors as they face an uncertain future with hope and strength, and of Japanese Americans committed to help and support in Japan’s recovery.

The disaster was personal for many Japanese Americans and stimulated a reconnection to the land of their ancestry, as they initiated fundraising across the U.S. resulting in more than $40 million to support survivors and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) helping in the recovery.

“The documentary personalizes Japan’s recovery from both a Japanese and Japanese American point of view through shared ancestry, values and culture,” said co-director Fukami. “It is a tribute to the survivors of the Tohoku disaster and the kizuna or bonds that connect them with Americans of Japanese descent.”

“We share the continued struggle faced by survivors, including an organic farmer on the outskirts of Fukushima toiling to maintain his sixth-generation farm and a widow living in temporary housing in Minamisanriku who crafts handmade dolls from recovered kimono and obi from tsunami ruins,” said co-director Eli Olson. “These stories are moving symbols of recovery, revealing the long road ahead for the people of Tohoku.”

“Japanese Americans live with the legacy of Japanese values like gaman (enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity), values that exemplify the spirit of recovery,” Fukami added. “These values are embedded in our Japanese American culture today and we’re committed to sharing the stories with American and Japanese audiences alike.”

“Listening to the survivors’ stories about losing everything and accepting those losses with resilience; I couldn’t even imagine,” said Olson. “This resilience is a cultural trait … and it became the recurring theme throughout the film.”

Los Angeles photojournalist Darrell Miho praying at a makeshift shrine.

Los Angeles photojournalist Darrell Miho praying at a makeshift shrine. (Bridge Media)

Co-producers Fukami and Nakatomi are Sansei who met in 2009 while participating in the Japanese American Leadership Delegation, sponsored by the U.S.-Japan Council. Fukami is co-founder and president of Bridge Media in Oakland, which produced the film, and Nakatomi is president of Nakatomi & Associates in Santa Monica.

The film features Dr. Paul Terasaki, a Los Angeles-based Nisei physician and philanthropist who sponsors trips to Tohoku for Japanese American college students to experience the region first-hand. Viewers follow the students and see their reactions to the devastated town of Minamisanriku as they volunteer to aid in local recovery.

The film takes you to a school and playground in Miyagi, where children welcome a delegation of Japanese American visitors led by U.S. Olympic skater Kristi Yamaguchi just months following the disaster, bringing hope, toys and smiles to children in a devastated region.

Brian Kito of Little Tokyo’s Fugetsu-Do and Los Angeles-based photojournalist Darrell Miho are profiled as Japanese Americans who mobilized to support survivors and bring needed attention and aid to the region.

Organic farmer in Fukushima Prefecture describes the scorn he faces trying to sell his produce.

Organic farmer in Fukushima Prefecture describes the scorn he faces trying to sell his produce. (Bridge Media)

The producers acknowledge the generous production support of the lead funder, the U.S.-Japan Council, and the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, JACL, Direct Relief International, Japanese American Association of New York, and Japan Airlines.

“Stories From Tohoku” had its world premiere at the 2014 Center for Asian American Media’s CAAMFest on March 15 and 19 in San Francisco and will have its Southern California premiere at the 2014 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on Tuesday, May 6, at 7 p.m. and Wednesday, May 7, at the Japanese American National Museum’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum, First and Central in Little Tokyo. For more information on the Los Angeles screenings, visit http://asianfilmfestla.org/2014/fest-info/.

There are plans for “Stories From Tohoku” to be broadcast nationwide on PBS stations in May. The producers are in discussion with a Japan broadcaster for airing in that country. For more information, including DVD details and future screening dates, visit www.storiesfromtohoku.com.

U.S. Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi surveying the tsunami damage in Kesennuma.

U.S. Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi surveying the tsunami damage in Kesennuma. (Bridge Media)

Buddhist monks chanting amidst the tsunami devastation in Ishinomaki. (Bridge Media)

Buddhist monks chanting amidst the tsunami devastation in Ishinomaki. (Bridge Media)

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