Kizuna: The Bonds of Friendship

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Farmers Sachio and Keiko with Kara Chu in 2017. (Photos courtesy of Katilyn Chu)

By KARA CHU

(Published June 8, 2019)

Ever since the horrifying 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, I have walked and volunteered at Tanaka Farms and the Orange Coast Optimist Club’s “Walk the Farm” fundraiser, which helps Japanese farmers and other agricultural groups in need. In 2013, my sister Kaitlyn asked Mr. Glenn Tanaka from Tanaka Farms in Irvine if we could visit some of the farmers that “Walk the Farm” supports.

Thanks to his introduction and coordination, we were able to spend time with a few farmers, including Farmer Tsuneo near Sendai. Living less than one mile from the coast of the Pacific Ocean, the earthquake and tsunami had mercilessly obliterated his home, his farm, and his entire farming community of Idohama, which was near the epicenter of the earthquake.

When I first met Farmer Tsuneo that summer, he took us to the community evacuation center, which was a middle school when tragedy struck. It was so eerie to see March 11 on the chalkboard with the words “Graduation Day” still visible in chalk and to see the water marks so high up on the ceiling of the now abandoned school. I remember fighting back my own tears when he choked back his as he shared his story, filled with pain and regret.

He tried to carry his elderly neighbor on his back to the evacuation center, and they were almost there when the tsunami suddenly overtook them. His neighbor forced Farmer Tsuneo to leave him on the street, ordering him to save himself as the water surged past their knees. Farmer Tsuneo couldn’t bear to look as his neighbor was swept away by the raging waters. He was found drowned three days later. Farmer Tsuneo’s willingness to open up and share such personal stories with me created an everlasting bond that I have cherished over the years.

Four years later, I was fortunate to be selected for the Yonsei 24 team to play basketball and homestay in Japan as a part of the Yonsei Basketball Association. I asked Mr. Tanaka if we could visit the farmers again in Japan to see their progress on the road to recovery. I was so happy when he said yes, and I was looking forward to seeing the farmers who we had bonded with.

At the train station, huge paper decorations for the Sendai Tanabata festival swayed colorfully in the wind. Once we reached the station, I eagerly raced off the bullet train, so excited to greet my old friend, Farmer Tsuneo. He welcomed us back with open arms and a huge smile. He looked more upbeat and confident than before. I wanted to find out what had changed since the last time I saw him, both for him and his community.

We all piled into his van, and as we drove through town, I noticed some changes right away. I solemnly noticed a highway overpass with a sign that marked where the water level had reached during the tsunami. There was also a new elevated structure for residents to run to in case of a future tsunami. We drove by public housing, which consisted of newly built apartments instead of the hurriedly built rectangular portables placed on top of tennis courts we saw four years ago for displaced residents.

Farmer Tsuneo with Kara Chu in 2017.

But sadly, I learned that depression (kokoro no byoki) and domestic violence continue to be a cruel reality for residents after so much loss and trauma. Farmer Tsuneo told us that the public housing units were all full with many elderly and those still unable to find work.

After the tsunami decimated his home, Farmer Tsuneo’s dream had been to move out of temporary housing and into a permanent home. As we drove up, I was so glad to see a newly built house in the field we had visited before! He still grows fruits and vegetables like my favorite edamame, but he was sad to say that he had retired from farming as a career.

Like many fellow aging Japanese farmers, it is too difficult for him to farm now that he is older. Instead, he and his wife spend their time hosting community and church events in their home. They arrange activities such as informative talks, sewing projects, exercise classes, day trips, and picnics to lessen post-traumatic stress and anxiety for earthquake and tsunami survivors.

They also organize and deliver donated food to temporary housing residents, including freshly harvested fruits and vegetables from his field. Farmer Tsuneo told us, “We are so grateful and thankful to ‘Walk the Farm.’ You have encouraged us and given us tremendous joy. It is so emotional to know that we are not forgotten. It has inspired us to make it our mission to lift the spirits and to create and deepen kizuna within our community.”

Kizuna. Before this trip, the only association I had with the word “kizuna” was with gokizuna.org, which provides valuable programs that I’ve participated in for Japanese American youth. I didn’t know what the word meant. Kizuna means “bonds and connections.”

One month after the devastation in 2011, Prime Minister Naoto Kan spoke of kizuna as the “bonds of friendship” as he described how over 130 nations and 40 international organizations swiftly came to Japan’s aid. Throughout my visit that day, the farmers kept mentioning kizuna and stressed with appreciation the importance of these local and international relationships in their recovery process.

Every cloud has a silver lining. For the farmers, that silver lining has been kizuna. To me, kizuna is like that quote from “Lilo and Stitch,” “Ohana means family. Family means no one gets left behind or forgotten.” By showing the farmers that we have not forgotten about them, we fill their hearts with hope and optimism.

We drove to a nearby farm, and after proudly showing me her smaller but flourishing restored plot of land, Farmer Kayoko firmly grasped my hands with her own worn and weathered hands. With her stooped shoulders, slight frame and grandmotherly glasses, I was surprised by the strength of her grip. I was then taken aback when she bowed so low and deeply towards me, a mere teenager.

With raw emotion, she wiped away her tears and said, “Even though I lost all my material possessions when my home was swept away by the tsunami waves, and even though so many things changed in my life, because of what happened to us and how the world responded, we have been able to make bonds with people that we never before imagined, and that makes me happy. Please tell everyone thank you for helping my family rebuild our home and farm. We are so grateful for everyone’s support and for all the blessings that kizuna has brought.”

I was floored by Farmer Kayoko’s deep gratitude, and I realized how profound of an impact “Walk the Farm” has made on her life and on mine.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Farmer Sachio and Farmer Keiko, husband and wife, showed us pictures of their destroyed home and shared with us their horrific ordeal on that March 11. Just as they began to describe it, Farmer Keiko began to cry, overcome with her memories from that day.

Farmer Sachio was away from the farm when the frightening earthquake and intense aftershocks hit and when the violent tsunami surged through their community. Luckily, Farmer Keiko was able to run up to the second floor before the water inundated their first floor. However, four new tractors that they had just bought were swept away. One even turned on its side and slammed against the front door, trapping her inside overnight all by herself.

The next day, her frantic husband was able to reach her by making his way through the chaotic mangled debris and thick mud that covered his property. Climbing on top of his ruined overturned tractor, he was finally able to enter his home by smashing a window high up in order to reach her. Farmer Sachio pointed out that tractor in his photo.

I could not imagine going through that all by myself like Farmer Keiko bravely had, nor could I imagine the desperation Farmer Sachio must have felt in his efforts to reach her.

After the tsunami, they had to painstakingly remove contaminated dirt from their field and replace it with soil from a nearby mountain. Farmer Sachio amazingly built a greenhouse by himself and has resumed farming, but on only one-third of the field they had before the tsunami because of cost and labor concerns. Due to water damage to their home, they now work out of a light blue portable building, and they have fixed up their storage shed with translucent siding.

Even though you can still see the effects of the tsunami on their property, they do the best they can and grow what they can.

Before, they used to grow a lot of lettuce. Now, with a smaller field, they have adapted and sell different vegetables. We saw organic cucumbers, green beans and Romanesco cauliflower.

Later that year, back home at the New Year’s mochitsuki celebration at Tanaka Farms, I instantly flashed back to their Romanesco cauliflower when I saw this uniquely shaped vegetable in the vegetable stand. What a coincidence! It reminded me of how small our world really is and how connected our bonds, or kizuna, are to each other. Although the Japanese farmers “Walk the Farm” supports have found a way to continue farming after the tsunami, they still need help amending their soil and producing crops.

Next stop on my Miyagi Prefecture Agricultural Tour, I would meet a pioneer in AgriTech who is making huge strides producing local strawberries worldwide with talent, tenacity and technology.

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“Walk the Farm” was held on June 15 at Tanaka Farms. Visit www.walkthefarm.org to donate. “Walk the Farm” not only supports Japanese farmers, but also aids local farmers here in the U.S.

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