Love to Nippon 2021 Marks 10th Anniversary of Disaster

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Masako Unoura-Tanaka sits among the rubble in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture. Ten years ago, she survived the tsunami that struck the Tohoku region.

Starting at 5 p.m. on March 10, an online webinar was held to coincide with the timing of the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquakes and Tsunami.

The webinar focused on natural disaster preparedness, based on lessons learned from that catastrophic event and other natural disasters. The worldwide webinar was presented from Los Angeles, with English/Japanese simultaneous translations.

This was the first time the Love to Nippon Project held its memorial event in the form of a webinar. Supported by the Consulate General of Japan with the collaboration of Japan House Los Angeles, it was an ambitious challenge.

The Love to Nippon Project, a nonprofit organization founded by Masako Unoura-Tanaka, has held an annual memorial gathering since March 2012 at the Los Angeles Police Department Headquarters. The largest of such memorial events in the U.S., it has been supported by volunteers from Japanese, American and Japanese American communities. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ninth annual memorial in 2020 was cancelled just three days prior to its scheduled date.

In planning for this year’s 10th memorial, it was decided that, once again, a physical gathering would not take place; but instead, a commemoration in the form of a virtual webinar would be held. In collaboration with Japan House Los Angeles under the leadership of President Yuko Kaifu, the Love to Nippon Project embarked on reaching a worldwide audience through this online platform.

Deputy Chief Larry Collins shared his experiences as a first responder deployed to northern Japan after the tsunami and earthquake.

Through the partnership with Japan House Los Angeles, which has been hosting webinars during the pandemic, the Love to Nippon Project was able to draw upon the relationships it has established with experts in the field of natural disaster preparedness to provide informative content for the webinar.

In addition to the Consulate General of Japan and the Los Angeles County Fire Department, both long-time supporters of the Love to Nippon Project, the 10th-year commemoration was joined by a leading seismologist, heads of the Office of Emergency Services, California government agencies and community organizations.

Program 1 was moderated by ABC7 News anchor David Ono, who went to the devastated region after the disaster. Doug Erber began the program with a moment of remembrance, accompanied by Nori Tani’s flute music. Unoura-Tanaka then shared her survival story. While she was visiting Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture during a trip back to her hometown of Ofunato City, Iwate Prefecture, she barely escaped being swept away by the tsunami.

Members of Love to Nippon (including Masako Unoura-Tanaka, second from left), a grassroots organization formed to provide aid to survivors of the 3-11 disaster.

Next, Deputy Chief Larry Collins described his account as a first responder of the Urban Search and Rescue unit when he arrived at the scene. Mayor Kimiaki Toda of Ofunato City spoke about the reconstruction process of his city. Seismologist Dr. Lucy Jones followed up with the explanation of what happened and what could happen in the future. Fire Chief Daryl Osby and Kevin McGowan of the Office of Emergency Services spoke about resources that are available to be prepared for future natural disasters.

Program 1, which included presentations by each speaker followed by a panel discussion, was live- streamed by ABC7 at 7 p.m., further reaching a wider audience.

Program 2 incorporated the style of the past memorial events in a new form, featuring video messages of cheer, music and performances sent in by the public to the people of the devastated regions.

Unoura-Tanaka expressed her appreciation to Japan House Los Angeles, whose collaboration made it possible to create a meaningful program to mark the 10th-year anniversary, even during the pandemic. She also thanked the volunteers who tirelessly shared their talent to put together the program.

Participants in the 10-year anniversary webinar included experts on natural disasters.

The Special Urban Search and Rescue team of the Los Angeles County Fire Department arrived in Ofunato City, within 48 hours after the earthquake hit the Tohoku region. A month after the catastrophe, Unoura-Tanaka attended a meeting in Santa Monica when she happened to meet Collins. Upon learning that he and his team were there to help her hometown, she was motivated to do something.

Joining her at the same occasion was Erber, then president of Japan America Society of Southern California. With his encouragement, she decided to form the Love to Nippon Project.

That fall, at a meeting of the Nichi Bei Fujinkai held at the official residence of the consul general, Unoura-Tanaka spoke for the first time of her survival experience. The following February of 2012, she helped guide Ono to Ofunato, Rikuzentakata and Kesennuma, assisting him in his reporting. Upon returning to the U.S., she met with Erber and Kay Amano of the Japan America Society and a month later held the first memorial service.

Reflecting on the 10th anniversary, Unoura-Tanaka recalled the many encounters and friendships as well as the realities of moving forward. “That I can share the process with all the volunteers and all who join us at the annual memorial event is precious. What started as my survival experience has blossomed into a beautiful flower, thanks to all the people I have met and have bonded with. The grassroots group has continued for 10 years with everyone playing a leading role.”

Program 2 introduced the past 10 years of Love to Nippon memorial events, video messages, prayers, music, performances, and a candlelight vigil. It can be viewed online at lovetonippon.org.

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