Ishinomaki- A beautiful, glossy, seaside town along the northeast coast of Japan where the local delicacy is oysters the size of your hand, and the prominent landmark is a space-ship shaped Manga Museum.
The charm aside, the community here experienced one of the most painful events in the history of Japan. Ten years ago, in 2011, this coastal town with a population of roughly 140,000 suffered the greatest loss of life in an enormous tsunami that followed one of the biggest recorded earthquakes in the history of seismology. Around 4,000 townspeople lost their lives that day.
Among them was a young American woman, Taylor Anderson, who now will forever be 24 years old. She was an English teacher in Ishinomaki, and after taking her students to safety was caught in the tsunami while trying to get home.
I first found Taylor’s story through a book, “Live Your Dream” 夢を生きる (2021). It was published by the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund (TAMF) on the occasion of the tenth anniversary following the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.
Perhaps because Taylor was roughly my age when she was swept away by the rage of the tsunami wave, I was immediately struck by her story. “It could have been me,” I kept thinking.
But as I read deeper, I was also moved by the warm humanity of so many people.
Painting a Picture of Taylor
“Could you paint me a picture of Taylor?”, I asked timidly, as Andy and Jean Anderson sat in their kitchen in Virginia in early March 2021 and had a chat with JAPAN Forward via video call.
I saw the faces of the Andersons light up as they remembered their daughter, and Jean said:
“She is on the surface an introvert, quiet, and with very good manners. But once you start to get to know her, she comes out of her shell, she’s fun, enthusiastic, creative, she loves wearing these crazy outfits, she’s a ball of energy!”
Like so many parents, her father Andy fondly recalls the quirks that she had, laughing as he revealed, “She had a lot of good socks!”
I heard of how Taylor was always a keen reader, a dreamer, and how her world was opened up when she was in middle school, Millwood School, and one of her classes was Japanese.
Her teacher had grown up in Japan, and he taught the kids about Japanese language and culture. Clearly, his enthusiasm was infectious: out of the 13 students in that class, two later ended up in Japan.
“She was just fascinated with it all, the cuteness, the language, the history of the country” said Jean Anderson, fondly.
Even before entering university, Taylor was set on going to live in Japan to teach English. After majoring in Asian Studies and Political Science at Randolph-Macon College, Taylor finally fulfilled her dream of coming to Japan as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET), in 2008.
For three years, Taylor taught in several schools in the town of Ishinomaki. We heard how she would cycle fearlessly even in windy weather, enjoy the local festivals, sing karaoke with her friends, and put tons of passion into her job. One heartwarming tale was shared by her former student, who in the book “Live Your Dream” recalled how Taylor helped him stand up to bullies in school and overcome his insecurities.
Fast forward to March 11, 2011.
As the magnitude 9 earthquake struck at 2.46 P.M., Taylor was at Mangokura Elementary School, teaching. Together with her colleagues, she helped evacuate all of the children to a safe place. Like many, perhaps she thought that the worst was over, and she tried to bicycle home to retrieve her cell phone, intending, it appears, to tell her parents that she was okay.
It was on the way home that she was caught by the enormous force of the tsunami.
What must it be like waiting sleepless nights for a call from your daughter, hoping desperately that she is okay?
The immediate aftermath of the tsunami revealed that the once quaint seaside town of Ishinomaki was destroyed and unrecognizable. Entire coastal sections of Ishinomaki had lost water and power. Whole roads and sections of the city had been swept away. Communication with the outside world was nearly impossible.
Andy told us that, while the information was sparse, they still kept a positive mindset. “We were sure that Taylor would be there, helping people out. At the time, there was much discussion on whether JETs would try to come home, or stay and help. We were sure that Taylor would want to stay.”
But then, the fateful call came from The U.S. Embassy in Japan about a week after the disaster: they had found Taylor’s body.
Andy recounted going to Japan to recover her body ten days after March 11, encountering an atmosphere which he described as “the fog of war.” “There was so much to take in, the damage was so widespread.”
It was already at this stage that Taylor’s parents started thinking about how they could help the local community. “What Taylor would want us to do is to help students and the schools recover. We thought to ourselves, ‘we have to do something to help.’”
In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, Taylor Anderson’s former high school, St Catherine’s School in Richmond (Virginia), was instrumental in gathering donations for disaster relief starting just ten days after the disaster, and managed to put together ￥40 million Japanese yen (about $370,000 USD) in a short time.
But of course, the next question was how to make sure that the money would get to those most in need?
Pursuing a Daughter’s Dream
“I remember it very vividly, the aftermath of the earthquake. It was one of the biggest events that I encountered during my 43 years of diplomatic life.”
I was speaking with Ichiro Fujisaki, who was the Japanese Ambassador to the United States in 2011, who made time to speak to JAPAN Forward in mid-February 2021.
Fujisaki recalled how the connection with Taylor started a few days after 3.11.
Ichiro Fujisaki and his wife, Yoriko, were at home in the Ambassador’s Residence in Washington, D.C., watching an interview on CNN. The woman interviewed was Jean Anderson, and at the time it was still unknown what had happened to Taylor.
The interviewer pointedly asked whether she was upset that her daughter had gone to Japan.
“My girl wanted to go to Japan, and we were just happy that she could live her dream,” replied Jean, without wavering.
It left a strong mark on the Japanese Ambassador, who took the opportunity to reach out to the Andersons. The Fujisakis sent a car to pick up Andy Anderson when he came back to the U.S. with Taylor’s ashes in March 2011, and afterward they kept in touch.
Some time later, Andy Anderson decided he wanted to create an NPO on the Japanese side to deliver help to students, schools and families in Ishinomaki.
After Ambassador Fujisaki’s Washington assignment ended and he returned to Japan, the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund (TAMF) was formally established in 2013.
Teachable Lessons on the Strength of Humanity
I marveled at how the parents of Taylor, Andy and Jean Anderson, despite suffering the loss of losing their daughter, found the strength to help people in Ishinomaki who had lost everything at the hand of the tsunami.
I learned how this was made possible by those bridging the U.S. and Japan, such as the former Ambassador of Japan to the United States Ichiro Fujisaki and his wife Yoriko, and amazed at the many collaborators and NPOs on the ground who, encouraged by TAMF, worked tirelessly as volunteers to bring help and inspiration to those most in need.
And finally, I was moved by the people in Ishinomaki, and individuals like Shinichi and Ryoko Endo, who even in that time of disaster, showed how people can recover together.
Skimming through “Live Your Dream”, the list of achievements which touched the lives of so many goes on. It includes international exchanges, learning support scholarships, donations of funds and books, monuments and much more, in an array of ways to help those who Taylor would have cared most about: the students.
The Taylor Reading Corners
I visited Watanoha Elementary School, one of the schools where Taylor taught, in the beginning of March 2021. Looking at it now it seems surreal to picture what happened ten years ago. The bell rings, and carefree children laugh and play in the front garden.
But in the schools where Taylor used to teach, her legacy has found ways of living on. Here, tucked into lush warm wooden shelves is a “Taylor Reading Corner,” dedicated to that energetic American young woman, stocked with books in English to impart to others her infectious love of reading.
The Taylor Reading Corners are now dotted throughout schools all over the city, and in March 2021 were even introduced to schools in the neighboring towns of Onagawa and Ohara, which also suffered severe human loss in the tsunami of 2011.
The bookshelves were built by Shinichi Endo, a local wood craftsman, who had three children at the time of the natural disaster. Yet, much as it had for Jean and Andy Anderson, on March 11 tragedy had struck.
After the earthquake on that day, Endo’s children were all at home in their house a stone’s throw from the coastline. After checking to see that they were fine, the father left to check on another relative. And then the tsunami struck. All three children were swept away by the wave.
His wife Ryoko told us how deeply the tragedy affected both of them in the aftermath. “I think I had lost the will to live, so had my husband.”
But most surprisingly of all, Shinichi still found it in himself to help others. In July 2011 when he was first asked to build the Taylor Reading Corners, he agreed, partly because his own children had all been students of Taylor’s in school.
“I thought that maybe my children would be happy if I produced bookshelves in memory of Taylor,” he reflects in the book Live Your Dream.
Endo has since become an advisor to TAMF, and he is active in the community, helping out local NPOs such as Kokoro Smile with his projects.
Taylor’s father Andy Anderson speaks about Endo with affection, saying that “We’ve been through the same thing together, I call him my brother from another mother.”
For his part, Shinichi reflects poignantly in the book:
“In retrospect, it is no exaggeration that I think I found meaning in my life by making the bookshelves for the Taylor Reading Corners.”
He goes on, explaining that, “Immediately after the disaster, there was a time when I was unsure of how I was going to live. But through the production of the bookshelves I came to believe that creating something that would make the children of Ishinomaki happy also provides evidence that my own children had lived.”
IshinomaKimono: Going Forward, ‘Recovering Together’
Throughout this whole experience of interviewing those affected by 3.11, what struck most was the incredible humanity of people here, and how even when the worst tragedy took place, they still managed to find it in themselves to help each other.
“How was this possible?”, I wondered.
When I talked with Ryoko Endo, the wife of Shinichi Endo, she gave me a very nuanced explanation, suggesting that healing is neither a linear nor an easy process.
“It wasn’t always like this for me. For the first two years after the earthquake, I didn’t understand the value in coming here, for example. I hated this place.”
We were sitting in a rickety shipping container, a temporary feature just inland of Ishinomaki’s north coast. It's on a site about the same location as where Endos house had been, before the coastline was destroyed and the landscape changed.
Flattened in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, the area has since been deemed safe to live. Yet, only a tenth of the people have come back. “People are too afraid,” said Ryoko.
She and her husband, in fact, now live in a house up the mountain, half an hour by car from the coast.
Ryoko recounted how after the tsunami, this was a deserted location, even in the daytime. But then, beginning a couple of years after the earthquake, she started helping her husband at events on the property, and in the wider Ishinomaki area.
There would be gatherings, parties for special occasions, and people would later come back and say, “thank you, that was so fun.”
Ryoko recounted how the words of a friend particularly resonated with her. “One can’t decrease suffering, or pretend that bad things didn’t happen, but one can create new positive memories,” the friend said.
She also acknowledged that the actions of Taylor’s parents have left a deep impression on her. “I thought it was amazing that they wanted to fulfill the dream that their daughter had, to become a bridge between the U.S. and Japan. I realized that one could think like that. I think that it changed my behavior.”
It’s from this inspiration that, with encouragement and support from TAMF, Ryoko Endo started IshinomaKimono in 2015, merging the name of the city with Kimono, the traditional Japanese garment whose fabric was used in the project.
In that same shipping container along the coast of Ishinomaki, in that once deserted area, a group of eight women between the ages of 40 and 80 began to meet regularly to recycle old kimono into greeting cards. Sifting through the cards, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by the beautifully patterned fabrics cut so neatly to fit into the folded paper cards.
Ryoko explained warmly how it came about. “It all started when Jean [Anderson] came here, and showed me her shawl made of recycled Kimono fabric. She suggested, ‘why don’t you do something like this?’
The idea developed into creating greeting cards, which are easier to manage than scarves and shawls. And it took off, thanks to an initial grant from TAMF.
Perfecting their technique, and by receiving increasingly beautiful kimono in donations, Ryoko explained how the cards were even ordered by the American Embassy in Japan, and sold in museums around the world, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
The core group of eight ladies have created a community since coming together as a group, and now have a sense that they are doing something new to give back after the tsunami. As Ryoko put it:
“Women of a certain age, they never thought that they would be a bridge to the U.S. They thought that it had nothing to do with them. But then we made these cards, they were sent to the U.S., Spain, and Australia. We had people coming to tell us, ‘It’s like my grandmother is traveling all around the world.’”
The shipping container on the devastated site has become a center which attracts neighbors and where the community gathers for special occasions. The once-flattened area is inviting again to children, surrounded by a wooden playground, built of course by Shinichi Endo. Perhaps tellingly, while I spoke with Ryoko, some children whizzed through the door asking gleefully if they could have some colorful markers for drawing.
Reaching Out to Students and Schools
Ichiro Fujisaki, as Co-Chairman of the TAMF, was adamant when explaining the impact of activities in Taylor’s memory:
“You have to go to the local people, and look at how they have been really affected,” he explained fervently.
And in fact, the organization has gone in various directions to reach the groups that Taylor would have been most passionate about helping.
There have been donations to Kodomo Shimbun, a project born from the efforts of Michiko Ota and the local newspaper Ishinomaki Hibi Shimbun, to help give a space for the thoughts and voices of children. The newspaper received donations from TAMF from 2017 to 2020, which helped keep it operating. And as a gesture of thanks, the Andersons were interviewed by child journalist Sae Saito in 2019.
Financial support was also extended by the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund to local NPOs such as Kokoro Smile, which works mainly with children and parents dealing grief in the aftermath of the earthquake.
Looking back over the span of ten years since the disaster, it can be tempting to focus on the grief. But speaking to the Andersons, Ichiro Fujisaki, Ryoko Endo, and so many others in the community, what was most moving was the resilience of humanity in the face of disaster.
As Ryoko Endo reflected: “I think that people are amazing: thinking of different ideas, and encouraging us, and staying in touch with us for ten years. There are still people to this day who contact us and say, ‘is there anything I can do?’ It’s thanks to them that we have finally managed to start looking forward.”
Looking back on the way Japan, Ishinomaki and TAMF have become part of their lives since they lost their daughter to the tsunami, Jean Anderson told us: “We're just so thankful for everybody's help, love and devotion, and it's greatly appreciated that they not only supported us but got us through some tough times.”
And her husband commented with warmth: “Yes, we always talk about it, we are recovering together.”
“Live Your Dream” 夢を生きる (2021) was published in bilingual format by the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund in March 2021.
Find articles related to this story in the series, 3.11 Earthquake: Rebuilding, at this link.
Author: Arielle Busetto