Back to Main
Chicago Shimpo
Years after the Disaster, Kizuna 7 Commemoration
Celebrates Women in Recovery Effort

During the 7th annual event in Chicago to commemorate the devastation of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, women in the disaster-hit area were the focus of attention.

The event, Kizuna 7: Women in Tohoku, Past the Devastation and Toward the Future, was held at the Japan Information Center of the Consulate General of Japan in Chicago on March 11, and featured a photo exhibition of women in the Tohoku area by Alan Labb of the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as a panel discussion by three women who were directly impacted by the disaster. In addition, Project Love All, a program led by the Chicago Futabakai Japanese School teacher Makoto Imai, was recognized for its effort to provide support to the Tohoku region through charity tennis lessons.

According to Japan’s National Police Agency, as of March 9, a total of 15,895 deaths have been confirmed across the Tohoku region, primarily in the prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, while 2,539 people are missing and approximately 73,000 residents are still living away from home.

During his opening remarks, Consul General of Japan in Chicago Naoki Ito affirmed the continuing commitment of the people in Chicago to the recovery of the Tohoku region.

Ito explained that seven years after the disaster, devastation is still deep in the residents’ minds. “Today, 6% of the people who experienced the earthquake and tsunami say that they still feel like victims.”

According to Ito, the evacuation zone surrounding the failed Fukushima nuclear plant has been reduced to 2.7% of the entire area of the Fukushima prefecture, and Thailand resumed importing seafood from Fukushima in late February, the first of such shipments from Fukushima since the disaster. (The U.S. is still restricting food imports such as rice, seafood and beef from Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate.)

Ito stressed that the area has been making a steady progress in recovery, which is not simply a “return to its original state” but “rebuilding toward a new Tohoku.” Fukushima is working on a Fukushima Innovation project supported by the national and local governments, which aims to develop innovative technologies on the coastal areas. One of the plans is to build a world’s largest hydrogen plant in Namiecho, a town that houses the nuclear plant.

The city of Kamaishi, in Iwate, will be one of the venues of the Rugby World Cup games in 2019. For the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, the prefectures of Miyagi and Fukushima will host baseball games and soccer matches, respectively.

Operation Tomodachi, the U.S. armed forces assistance operation, was initiated right after the disaster in collaboration with Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (“SDF”) to provide humanitarian relief. In February 2018, a plaque commemorating this cooperative effort was installed in the memorial park near the Sendai International Airport, the area which became unhabitable due to the tsunami.

The Kizuna 7 events, Ito said, are an opportunity not to just remember Tohoku, but also think about how we can continue to support those still living with the effects of the March 11.
“By joining in the Kizuna events, we can move forward together with the people in Tohoku,” he concluded.

Women’s Perspective: A Panel Discussion

Patty Breun, Joanne Tohei, Shoko Takahashi and her daughter Iris Bloede shared their personal experiences and how the earthquake and tsunami impacted them.

In March 2011, Breun was teaching 6th graders English at a primary school in Kesennuma, Miyagi.
Following her long-time dream of living in Japan, Breun began living in Kesennuma with her children in 2009 as a JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching Program) participant. Her husband in the U.S. was visiting his wife and children every three months.

When the earthquake hit, Breun was in the teacher’s lounge. Anticipating a tsunami, the school principal led all the students to the school ground with a bullhorn. It saved a lot of lives, Breun recalled.

After spending the night on the school ground, the children were picked up by their family members one by one the following morning. A friend of hers drove Breun home, and she saw for the first time what had happened on the satellite TV screen in the car. While her sons were unharmed, many of their friends lost their family members.

Breun’s husband was finally able to join her and the children on March 16. While she was waiting for her husband, people were extremely kind to her and her sons, Breun said.

“One specific memory that I have is when the SDF set up a public bath,” she recalled. “It was a wonderful opportunity to connect with the community, talk to the people and support each other.”

She also remembers it was cold every day, and the SDF aircraft were always hovering in the sky above her. She had to get up at 4 a.m. each morning with the sunrise, as there was no electricity.

After going back to the U.S., Breun returned to Kesennuma on April 20, 2011 to complete the term of her contract with the school. It was a great time to connect with the students for her.

Breun feels that women in Tohoku have “definitely” become stronger, and the kids more self-reliant, after the disaster.

She had a chance to bring her sons back to Kesennuma in 2016. Through her Facebook page called “Kizuna Building for Future,” Breun remains connected to Kesennuma and her friends there today.

Chicago resident Joan Tohei had her son, Aki, in Fukushima, teaching at a local high school.
For 24 hours following the disaster, Tohei didn’t know where her son was or what became of him.

Aki spent two nights at his school until all the students were safely with their families. After having learned about the nuclear plant accident, Aki evacuated Fukushima and stayed at his friend’s in the Yamagata prefecture, where he took his first hot shower in a week. Having visited his father’s grave in the area (there had been no damage), Aki stocked up water in his car and returned to Fukushima.

Aki grew up in Fukushima and knows how warm and kind its people are. He just couldn’t “abandon the people in Fukushima.”

Today Aki teaches at Sakura no Seibo Gakuin as an associate professor. The school had received a donation from a high school in Kumamoto after the disaster. In return, Sakura no Seibo Gakuin raised a relief fund for that school in 2016, when another large-scale earthquake hit the area. The two schools continue to strengthen their friendship today, the students visiting each other regularly, Tohei explained.

Shoko Takahashi, who lives in Wisconsin, was born in Yamadamachi, Iwate. She lost her parents due to the tsunami.

Initially she didn’t know what had become of them. It was three weeks after the disaster when her parents’ bodies were found. She returned to Yamadamachi seven weeks later. Because the situation didn’t allow speedy cremation, Takahashi was able to see her parents’ bodies. While it was a relief, Takahashi sunk into deep grief and a sense of loss.

Her hometown was completely devastated, and the trauma from the shock lingered on in her for a long time.

Looking back after seven years, Takahashi said she had received a lot of support from many people and developed a “deep hope” that people around the world have natural kindness to help each other.

“I think women have a powerful voice as a group in understanding and sharing a feeling of grief, as well as consoling others,” Takahashi said. “I am aware that I and other women have a special ability to empathize with and support others.”

Photo Exhibition by Alan Labb

Alan Labb is Associate Professor of Photography, School of the Art Institute of Chicago and was involved in the Kizuna 6 photo exhibition last year. That experience pushed him to visit the “ground zero” of the disaster to photograph the people there. This year, his photographic records of Tohoku are on display for the public.

Last summer, Labb visited Japan to lecture at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. Wanting to understand the area and its people better, he moved on to Tohoku after that, a few months earlier than the schedule. His Japanese wife helped him as a guide and interpreter.
Among the women Labb met in Tohoku was 34-year-old Keiko in Kamaishi, Iwate, who runs a small inn with another woman, Mitsuko. Their customers are mostly construction workers in the area.

Keiko was living in Sendai, Miyagi before the disaster. The tragedy prompted her to move back to her hometown of Kamaishi, and that changed the course of her life unexpectedly.

Labb feels that behind strong women, there are good men who support them.
At a brand-new fish processing center that had been rebuilt and opened recently, Labb met a 33-year-old man named Kondo, who worked there. He told Labb that there used to be many women working at the processing center, but now a lot of them were staying home, in part because of the ongoing housing construction. He hoped that when the construction had ended and things had been normalized, the women would eventually be back to fish processing.
Kamaishi is a close-knit community and the residents know each other well.

In the meantime, non-locals became active participants very quickly after the 3-11.
Labb talked about Katsuya from the Tokyo area, who visited the disaster area every weekend to help. He ended up establishing a seafood product business in Tohoku. Today, his firm hires many women and helps revitalize the area.

A 500-year-old shrine had been washed away by the tsunami. The restoration was not on the government’s agenda, but after its artifacts were recovered, the shrine was rebuilt. Today, people come to worship there, even those living in the temporary housing 50 miles away.

In Sendai, a women’s group set up a nonprofit organization, which displays as many as 250,000 pictures and images online that had been recovered after the disaster. The group hosts an annual event to return them to the rightful owners. So far, 150,000 pictures have been restored and returned to the owners and/or their families.

Labb’s photos were exhibited at the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago from March 12 to 16. They will then travel to Chicago’s Harold Washington Library from May 5 to 26.

The Kizuna commemoration events were initiated by Chicago’s journalist and musician Yoko Noge in 2012, whose urge to do something to help after the disaster brought the first Kizuna commemoration to the Thompson Center in Chicago. Kimiyo Naka currently chairs Kizuna Chicago.

This year’s events are co-organized by the Osaka Committee of Chicago Sister Cities International, Japan America Society of Chicago, Consulate General of Japan in Chicago, Japanese Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Chicago and Japan External Trade Organization Chicago Office. Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel are the honorary co-chairs of Kizuna 7.


Kizuna 7 photo exhibit focuses women in recovery effort after the great earthquake and tsunami in the hohoku aria.


Consul General Naoki Ito


From left: M.C. Laura Washington, Patty Breun, Joanne Tohei, Shoko Takahashi and Iris Bloede


Shoko Takahashi (R) and her daughter Iris pose for a photo with Yoko Noge (R2) and Washington in front of Takahashi's hometown photos.


The members of Project Love All led by teacher Makoto Imai (L)


Alan Labb is Associate Professor of Photography, School of the Art Institute of Chicago


Keiko in Kamaishi, Iwate, who runs a small inn with another woman, Mitsuko.


A 500-year-old shrine was rebuilt after its artifacts were recovered.