Saga of lost Rikuzentakata tsunami boat forges pan-Pacific friendship


“Honestly, you couldn’t make it up!” says Amya Miller about her new book for children, “The Extraordinary Voyage of Kamome: a Tsunami Boat Comes Home.” Miller and co-author Lori Dengler have based their bilingual picture book on a true story: It recounts events following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami that have led to a forging of bonds and cross-cultural exchange among young people on both sides of the Pacific.

“It isn’t just a real story,” says Miller of the book. “It’s a teaching tool and a testament to the power of kindness.”

The Kamome is a fishing boat belonging to Takata High School in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture. After it was washed away in the tsunami, the boat drifted for more than two years before finally coming to rest at Crescent City on the northwestern coast of California in April 2013. Dengler, a geology professor from Humboldt State University and an expert on tsunami, was called in to help identify the boat and find out more about its origins. By coincidence, Rikuzentakata had someone perfectly placed to communicate with Dengler in English — fellow American Miller.

Following the loss of more than 1,700 lives in the city, Mayor Futoshi Toba took the bold move of turning to social media to update the world on the situation, and the city became an international symbol of the havoc wreaked by the tsunami. Overwhelmed by requests from interactional media, Toba subsequently appointed the bilingual Miller as Rikuzentakata’s global public relations director, a role she continues to fill.

Miller and Dengler corresponded about plans for returning the Kamome back to her homeland. Meanwhile, students from Del Norte High School in Crescent City had begun preparing the boat for the trip home, scraping off the barnacles and sprucing it up.

The Kamome was finally returned to Rikuzentakata in October 2013, stowed on a ship back to Japan. Miller first met Dengler face to face around the same time, when the latter traveled over to Japan on a private visit to see the area.

As Dengler accompanied Miller to Halloween parties for local children, the two women realized that the events surrounding the Kamome were ideal material for a book. “It was an opportunity to explore a multitude of topics with children, including how natural disasters can affect lives and steps we can take to be better prepared for them,” Miller says.

While the book is written primarily for those in the lower grades of elementary school, it can also be read to preschool children who are not yet able to read on their own. Although the book is a bilingual story, those familiar with both languages will notice that Miller’s Japanese version differs from the English, which was penned by Dengler. (The Japanese title, “Itsu Made mo Tomodachi de Iyo Ne,” translates as “Let’s be friends forever.”)

“Not just the text, but the tone is different,” Miller explains. “This was deliberate, in consideration of children in both languages. It isn’t ‘dumbed down’ but it is culture-specific — the Japanese is crafted with a degree of sensitivity for children here in Japan. This was very important to me. After all, I didn’t want Japanese children to read the story and cry!”

Along with efforts to send the Kamome home, the book also recounts the burgeoning ties between teenagers from Crescent City and Rikuzentakata. In January 2014, some of the students from Del Norte High School who had helped clean up the Kamome traveled to Rikuzentakata to get to know their Japanese counterparts at Takata High School.

“They bonded with the local teens — we adults just stood back and watched,” Miller recalls with a smile. “Leave it to teenagers to figure out how to communicate!” Among other things, the American students learned Japanese songs and cooking and participated in sporting activities with their new friends.

A year later, students from Takata High School returned the gesture and traveled to Crescent City, and a second group from Del Norte High School came over earlier this year.

Miller is delighted that the Kamome’s unexpected journey has lead to the establishment of a regular cultural exchange between the schools. “Through sharing a little of each other’s lives, these young people from coastal communities on opposite sides of the world have helped create something beautiful,” she says.

Members of Rotary Clubs in both cities have started talking about eventually entering into a formal sister city relationship, but Miller cautions that this is still some way in the future.

“Rikuzentakata is still not in a position to go there yet,” she says. “Resources and personnel are still very much focused on rebuilding the infrastructure.”

For now, Miller is working on promoting the book and sharing the story of the Kamome with youngsters on both sides of the globe. She hopes that parents and educators will use the story as a springboard for talking about disaster preparedness.

“It’s almost like sex education in that finding a way to bring up the topic with children can be hard,” Miller says. “Disaster preparedness isn’t just about hiding under a desk during a drill. It’s about evacuation, preparing a kit and coping after the disaster. It’s allowing a conversation to take place.”

From a tragic disaster, a positive and uplifting story emerges.

“The book also teaches about acts of kindness to strangers,” says Miller. “Strangers who then become friends.”

“The Extraordinary Voyage of Kamome: A Tsunami Boat Comes Home” (Humboldt State University Press Library) is available on Amazon. Proceeds from sales will go to support continued international exchange and promote disaster preparedness. More info: www2.humboldt.edu/kamome/about-the-book. Read Louise’s review at bit.ly/kamomebookreview. Your comments and questions: lifelines@japantimes.co.jp