LOS ANGELES - A marathon is a grueling challenge for most runners, but Kyoko Tashiro was beaming as she crossed the finish line in the Los Angeles Marathon, her first-ever race.
“The last 12 km were really hard but I had decided I would finish with a smile,” the 21-year-old said.
Born and raised in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, Tashiro was one of eight orphaned college students from Tohoku who traveled to the U.S. to run in the March 18 race for the Tokyo-based Ashinaga charity.
The funds raised during the trip will be used to build a facility in Sendai that will provide care for children who lost parents in the March 2011 calamities.
Tashiro and her peers made a strong impression during the race.
The T-shirts they wore, bearing Japanese insignia, caught the eye of fellow runner Blake Suzuki, 49, a third-generation Japanese-American from Central California. When he saw Tashiro, he called out to her, and the two chatted and spurred each other on as they ran through Hollywood toward the coast at a 13 kph clip.
It turned out Suzuki’s grandfather had immigrated to the United States from the city of Fukushima in the 1900s, and some of his descendents still live in the area.
Suzuki was impressed by the other runners who traveled from Fukushima, Iwate, Aomori and Miyagi prefectures, all badly affected by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. “I think it’s amazing. It shows how resilient the Japanese are,” he said.
The college students, along with six pupils and two recent graduates from high schools who all lost loved ones in the catastrophe, spent a week touring Southern California to promote the Ashinaga group, which works to help orphans, and to raise funds for the envisioned Sendai facility
Called Tohoku Rainbow House, it will be based on a similar center Ashinaga built in Kobe after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. The nonprofit organization plans to build the Sendai facility and four satellite locations in devastated parts of Tohoku by 2014.
Among the students was Nozomi Uchimura from Sendai, who recounted her experience of the twin disasters to a packed classroom at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles. Some of the students were in tears as she described how her father, who was working near the coast on March 11, died when the tsunami crashed ashore.
“I was moved because I could tell they really put themselves in my shoes,” Uchimura said.
Joining the fundraising trip to tell her story was also a way for Uchimura to express her gratitude to Ashinaga and others who supported her after her father’s death. She was on the verge of giving up her dream of training to become a nurse in order to work to support her family, but thanks to an emergency grant from Ashinaga she will start junior college in April.
For Daichi Sato, 18, from Miyagi Prefecture who lost his father in the disaster, the trip was a chance to talk about the need for continued assistance.
“Somehow in the past year I’ve been able to recover to some extent. But if we let people think the job is finished, those who still need help will be in trouble,” Sato said. “At this point I’m nearly an adult, but others are young children who will need support from here on out.”
Sato, who said touring the Los Angeles Police Department was his most memorable experience of the trip, will join the Japan Coast Guard Academy this year.
He hopes to become a rescue diver and assist at times of natural disasters, even if only to find the remains of those whose lives could not be saved.
“It was hard to learn what happened to my father, but at least his body was returned to us. There are people who can’t say that. I’d like to be able to help them,” he said.