At 12, Miku Narisawa experienced a magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed her home. Instead of running from the ocean, she is now working to try to protect it.

Hosted by Mara Budgen and produced by Dave Cortez.

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Miku Narisawa: Instagram | Odyssey Nature Japan

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Mara Budgen 00:09

Welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I’m Mara Budgen, filling in this week for Shaun McKenna.

[sound of waves]

What you’re hearing is the sound of waves on a beach in a small, secluded bay in Miyagi Prefecture, in Japan’s northeastern Tohoku region. I spent some time in Tohoku last year reporting on the release of treated radioactive water from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.


The voices you’re hearing are those of Miku Narisawa and Futoshi Aizawa as they scour the rocks for fresh, wild aonori, a type of seaweed eaten in Japan.

Miku — a 24-year-old environmental advocate and PhD student at Tohoku University — and Futoshi — a third-generation seaweed producer — showed me around their local area, the coast of Higashimatsushima, in Miyagi.

Our encounter turned out to be much more than just an interview with two sources for an article I was writing. Though we spoke about the Fukushima incident, of course, the conversations we had went much deeper.

Miku in particular made an impression on me. In 2021, she founded Odyssey Nature Japan, an organization that provides children with nature-based educational activities, such as fishing and farming.

Then, at the end of last year, she attended the COP28 UN climate conference as a delegate for the Pacific island nation of Palau. Weird, right, a young Japanese person representing Palau?

Miku is unique and surprising that way, which is why we asked her to join us on the show to share what it's like being a young environmentalist in Japan, and where she sees the future heading.


Miku, thanks for joining us on Deep Dive.

Miku Narisawa 02:09

Thank you for inviting me.

Mara Budgen 02:11

So you actually just got back from Hawaii yesterday. You must be pretty tired. But also what were you actually doing there? And how did it go?

Miku Narisawa 02:22

So I was in Hawaii for about a week. The purpose of my visit was, the main reason was to attend the PhD conference that was organized by the East West Center in Hawaii. So I'm actually a PhD student at Tohoku University right now. And I'm doing some research in marine environmental anthropology looking at the reciprocal relationship between oceans and also local fishermen in Higashimatsushima. But the other reason that I went to Hawaii was the new program called the Tomodachi Kibou for Maui program. The purpose is to bring the high school students from islands of Maui in Hawaii, who were directly affected by the Maui wildfire back in August last year, to Japan for the rest and physical but also psychological release. And the program will provide high school students with a new hope and then direct the connection to the, I would say big brother and the sisters who have survived the March 11, 2011, disaster in Japan, which also I did experience that. And back in 2011, there was the program called the Rainbow Japan Kids, it’s the reverse. But people in Hawaii invited the middle school students from Tohoku region who were directly affected by the tsunami to Hawaii to do a kind of leadership program, but also a relief program and I was part of the program. So right now I'm getting ready for hosting students from March 18 to 24, which is coming up next month already. So I'm pretty excited to, you know, host the student from Maui.

Mara Budgen 04:04

So kind of giving back to the people of Hawaii. And actually how many of these students from Hawaii are coming?

Miku Narisawa 04:12

So, (in the) first cohort we have 11 students, so three male students and then eight female students from Maui. And a lot of them are from Lahainaluna High School, which also was affected by the wildfire in Lahaina district of Maui.

Mara Budgen 04:28

Wow, sounds exciting, and best of luck with the busy schedule.

Miku Narisawa 04:32

Thank you.

Mara Budgen 04:33

So you've actually been to Hawaii many times. You mentioned the program you participated in when you were in middle school, right? But you also went to university there. But your love for the ocean kind of runs even deeper than that, right? Because you grew up in Higashimatsushima, so I just want to get a sense, what was it like growing up in Higashimatsushima?

Miku Narisawa 04:57

I was born to a rice farmer family in Higashimatsushima. You know, growing up, of course, rice fields, oceans and also mountains and forests always surrounded me since I was growing up. And the ocean was a big part of it, because my dad used to surf and I (would) always go to the ocean with him. And even when I drive up to the towns, you know, we pass the ocean by every day. So, you know, reflecting back right now, you know, I really appreciated the environment that I have, including my family, the communities that I get to interact a lot since I was a child. I also live in Higashimatsushima right now after living abroad. After I came back a couple years ago, I realized how rich the environment that I had, and I really appreciate the environment.

Mara Budgen 05:53

That's fantastic. You know, as someone who actually grew up in a city, I'm gonna say, I'm a little jealous, you know, to have grown up just surrounded by nature, both mountains and the ocean. But then, looking at your life journey, you grew up in this lovely place, but this was completely transformed on March 11, 2011. So just to remind listeners, that day the coast of Tohoku was hit by a magnitude 9 earthquake that caused a tsunami that took the lives of 20,000 people and, of course, caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster. So I wasn't actually in Japan at that time, but, since living here, I've really come to understand that this was a turning point. Like there's a pre-2011 and a post-2011 era, and you Miku know that more than anybody else. So how old were you at the time of the disaster? And what do you remember about that day?

Miku Narisawa 06:51

The day the earthquake happened, I was at the elementary school, we were, you know, getting ready to go back home, after the class around, you know, 2:30, then the earthquake happened. And I was in the classroom with teachers and classmates and, you know, we couldn't really stand up. So we had to hide under the tables, the desks. But all the table, chairs were falling down. A lot of classmates were also crying because the noise was something that we never heard of, it was so loud. Then after the earthquake, we evacuated to the third floor of the elementary school, because at the time, the tsunami alert was already issued. There were a lot of loud alerts in the community, so that I could see from the third floor of the elementary school that people were evacuating to our building. Some of them were driving up to the mountains, I could see that from the building. And my sister was still in second grade at the time, so she was also in the building. And my mother came to pick us up. And when she arrived at school, the water came to the first floor. So, at the time we couldn't really go back home, but also it was getting dark, so we didn't know what's really happening outside of the building. So, you know, my mother, sister and I stayed at school for the night. and also the next day. And the next morning, we weren't sure (whether) the car, my mother's car, was going to work or not because, you know, of course, the water damages the car. But the car worked., so we decided to go to my grandparents’ house, which was already on the mountain side, so it was safe. And my father and my aunties and grandparents evacuated to my grandparents’ house, so they were all safe. Because, you know, my grandparents are rice farmers, we had enough food, we invited some of my friends’ families who didn't have a home because their house was washed away. So we lived with around 15 people together for the next two weeks. But two days, three days after the tsunami, I realized that our house was also washed away, that my parents told me that, you know, Miku, we don't have a house anymore, so we have to live with grandparents for now. Then at the time that I realized that, ok, I think I lost everything that I had in my house, of course, the photos that we had, since I was baby with my family, and also, you know, everything that I have, even clothes. So then, after living at my grandparents’ house, we moved to the temporary housing which was built by the government. And we lived there for the next two years, three years. And my family and I moved to the new house, which we built after the tsunami

Mara Budgen 09:46

Where did you build the house?

Miku Narisawa 09:48

We rebuilt in the ... close to the place that we used to live. We decided to still live in Higashimatsushima because, I think, we are so attached to the place that we were born and raised. So that was the situation, that was after the tsunami and the earthquake. But also, of course, the issues with the Fukushima nuclear disaster was always the big part of the conversations in my family; that, are we really safe, you know, playing in outside being in outside? But you know, I was still 12 years old. So I really didn't know what was happening around my outside space. I wasn’t really paying attention until I went abroad after the tsunami, the first time that I went abroad was 2012.

Mara Budgen 10:34

So just one year after the disaster? Ok.

Miku Narisawa 10:36

So the Bulgarian government invited the middle school students from Tohoku region, especially Higashimatsushima. So the purpose, of course, was to provide a new environment for the students. It was only two weeks, but we get to do a cultural exchange program. We did a lot of presentations about our experience to the students in Bulgaria. And I was able to be part of the Rainbow Japan Kids, which I explained earlier.

Mara Budgen 11:05

So you went to Hawaii, when you were in middle school?

Miku Narisawa 11:07

Yeah, I went to Hawaii in 2013, or ‘14, I think. So now I got to meet a lot of local kids there. And because of the connections, after living in France for high school, I decided to go to the University of Hawaii at Manoa to study peace and conflict resolution. So, when I was a graduate student, of course, I had a lot of class and I had a lot of, you know, community activity, to learn about the relationship between people and nature, through the perspective of peace studies. Like, how do we coexist with nature as a human being? So Hawaii really taught me the concept, living in Hawaii really helped me to, you know, motivate myself and pursue the environmental education that I'm doing right now, back at home.

Mara Budgen 12:03

Miku, thank you, first of all, for sharing your story. It sounds like you went through hell, in a way. But at the same time, you kind of came out of it stronger, it seems. And also this desire to explore the world and see what else is out there: Clearly, what happened in 2011 had a huge impact on your life story, basically, on your journey. I get the impression, and correct me here if I'm wrong, that, you know, that very traumatic experience really profoundly changed you as a person.

Miku Narisawa 12:38

Yes, so I think, you know, experiencing the disaster back in 2011, it really shaped my identity, who I am right now. A lot of my classmates lost their family, lost their houses and I lost some of my friends, too. We were mentally, physically exhausted, we were still 12, 13. So we weren't ready for that kind of new environment, or the new force environment that we had. But because I did experience that, the way that I see nature changed. Of course, living in Japan, we always have to experience natural disasters, even from now on, whether it's typhoons, you know, floods, more earthquakes and tsunamis. But when I think about that, I think (the) tsunami and the earthquake back in 2011, was just part of the lifecycle of nature. So that's how I got to understand that, ok, like other environmental issues, it's just part of life, when we live with nature, when we live with the natural environment. That's also, I think, shaped my identity right now as I do research in environmental studies, but also being involved with a community through environmental education.


Mara Budgen 14:09

So as I mentioned earlier, I first met you when I was reporting on the Fukushima No. 1 power plant clean up, back then there's something that you said to me that really kind of stuck with me. You said, “We're aware that the wastewater issue isn't a simple one, but it's more important to focus on environmental justice.” Now, I took that to mean that you and those around you in your community have kind of gone beyond what happened in 2011. And that's true because you created Odyssey Nature Japan, an organization that provides children with nature-based educational activities. How did the idea for this organization, Odyssey, come about, and what motivated you to bring environmental education to local children?

Miku Narisawa 14:58

So, growing up I was fortunate to have a lot of quality time and interactions with the local fishermen, including Yasu.

Mara Budgen 15:10

That’s Yasuhiro Otomo, right?

Miku Narisawa 15:11

Yes, so he's the third generation of fishermen. I've known Yasu since I was 12 or 13, right after the tsunami, and he has been kind of the mentor for me. And I knew that, you know, he had quite great skills and a sense to read the oceans and sense the nature, as a fisherman. So going back, but I was living in Hawaii, back in 2020, and COVID happened. And I had to come back home. When I when I came back to my community back in 2021, I didn't know that our community and town has so beautiful nature, and I think I must have missed that. Maybe I just didn't see the way that I see it right now.

Mara Budgen 16:01

So you kind of appreciated it, again.

Miku Narisawa 16:03

Right. So I had a lot of appreciation to the nature again and, you know, interacting with the local fishermen, including Yasu and the other fishermen who are seaweed farmers, Futoshi Aizawa, they always taught me that, you know, climate change is real. You know, they always talk to me, “Miku, our oceans are changing. This is real. There's less fish right now.” And also living in Hawaii, those conversations about the environmental issues, climate change, was always around me and around the university, and the community in Hawaii. And when I came back to my community, hearing about the fears towards the future and the environment from the local fishermen, and I thought that maybe (it was) time that I give back to the community through education. When we think about the future in 10 years, 20 years from now, who's going to be in the center of the society, I think that's the children. And when we tackle those environmental issues in the future, you know, having those mindsets and the perspective, knowledge, everything that we require to really deeply understand nature and the environment, I think those local fishermen can teach and share with the kids. That's something that I was ... that was the starting point of establishing Odyssey. And I asked Yasu, like, “Would you be interested in doing an education program with me?” He was like, “Of course, let's do that.”

Mara Budgen 17:43

When these children, when these people participate in Odyssey’s activities, what do they actually do? And what do you think they get out of the experience?

Miku Narisawa 17:52

So at Odyssey Nature Japan we have a program called “Satoumi.” “Sato” means land, and “umi” is ocean. So Futoshi always (told me) that the ocean and land are interconnected, that if you want good oceans, we also have to see and take care of the land where we live, including mountains and forests. And I think that concept is something that we really need to focus on from now, that we see the oceans, you know, we recognize the presence of oceans, but we get all the nutrients and everything from the land, including mountains and forests. So we are also teaching the kids the concept through the real experience. So when we have the lands program, we, depending on the season, the kids will plant the rice and also be able to explore the mountain with the local fishermen and myself, we have a lot of programs to develop their critical thinking, meaning that, for example, when we have our ocean program, kids get to go to the oceans by fishing boats. And basically, what we do is that, after the self-check in, you know, asking how are they doing, what are the motivations, you know, what do they expect today? And after that, we always have an activity called “silent sketch.” So in the silent sketch, we give five minutes silence, silent time, to the kids, and they have to observe the even little movement or little change of nature, whether if it's winds, you know, what direction does the wind blow, you know, where's the sun right now, even those little changes are something that they need to kind of focus and face with nature. They can express what they observe by sentence, or drawing or pictures, and after that, you know, we go explore the mountains, we do have farming activities. And in the oceans, we then go fishing, but, you know, it really depends on them. We always ask, “What do you want to do today?” You know, some of the kids just like to draw in the nature, so, you know, they draw pictures for like three hours, four hours — that's OK. But other than that they also, you know, harvest the vegetables and they catch a fish and they make their own lunch for the day. And, you know, to give you an example, in the ocean program, let's say, if the student can, you know, catch the fish, let's say sardine, and I always ask them, “What kind of ocean environments can one single sardine (survive in for the) next 10 years?” Then, you know, of course, they have to think about, you know, what do (the sardines) need to survive? You know, is it nutrients, planktons or the no-plastic oceans, that's up to them — but I think those kinds of critical thinking, (those are) really needed for students, especially in Japan. So the one of the reason that I left Japan is that, you know, I think growing up in Japan, elementary school or middle school, I wasn't really ... had the time to really develop my thinking skills in a way, the critical thinking skills. When they grow up, and they work in a society, you know, it's really important that they think (for) themselves, what they want to do in the future or what they want to contribute to society, or how they want to live — they have to think first. Not only (from) the environmental education perspective but we heavily focus on (ways) to develop their independence and self confidence.

Mara Budgen 21:28

So basically just allowing them to be who they are, kind of freely, and then allowing them to shape whatever experience they want to have. You mentioned, you work with Futoshi Aizawa. He cultivates and harvests fresh seaweed and makes products like dried seaweed. So for example, there's a shop in Matsushima, Matsushima town, that sells these giant senbei crackers that are wrapped in Futoshi’s dried seaweed. And they're absolutely sublime, I highly recommend them. Beyond sharing great food together, you and Futoshi. Apart from, you know, doing your activities with Odyssey in your local area, you also travel a lot around Japan. And you give talks about sustainable food and ocean conservation. Is that correct?

Miku Narisawa 22:18

Yes. So we do, we do a lot of collaborative work with Futoshi and myself. So Futoshi is the third-generation of seaweed farmers in Higashimatsushima. And I think he has really a quite critical perspective compared to other fishermen that I know. So he sees the environment as one interconnected community. As a seaweed farmer, he deals with the ocean every day, where we deal with those environmental issues. He as a producer, who produces the food, but we also need to really develop the understanding of what is happening (on the) consumer side. So we give a lot of workshops and also we lecture at the universities together, not only in Japan but we also teach abroad. So we're also doing a lot of seaweed cultivation projects abroad right now, in order to raise, you know, the important aspect of seaweed and what could seaweed cultivation contribute to (mitigating) climate change.


Mara Budgen 23:35

So you mentioned the role of seaweed in the context of climate change. Seaweed actually absorbs a lot of carbon. So there's this very strong connection between the oceans and the issue of climate change. And so your work as an environmentalist has been recognized by the government of Palau, because you were actually invited by the President of Palau to be part of their ocean delegation at COP28, which happened in Dubai at the end of last year. So what does an ocean delegate actually do? Like, why were you at COP28? What were you trying to achieve at the conference?

Miku Narisawa 24:19

So as you mentioned, I was fortunate to be part of the delegations of Republic of Palau COP28 last year. So Palau is a small island nation, located in the western Pacific oceans consisting of around 340 corals and volcanic islands. And Palau itself, I think, has a population of around 20,000 right now. So it's a really small island nation. And the President always referred to Palau as the ocean state. And I had the opportunity to be part of the delegation as an ocean advisor at the COP28, and my role was to support the delegations, especially ocean team. So the part of you know, the negotiations and a conversation that I got to join and participate at the COP28 is that, you know, I heard a lot of voice and the perspective from other delegations, that the ocean wasn't the center of the conversation at COP28. But when we look at the global stocktake...

Mara Budgen 25:31

So the global stocktake is this kind of assessment in terms of what countries have promised they'll do in terms of emissions reductions and how close or far that brings us to the goals of the Paris agreement to reduce carbon emissions and limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Sorry, there was a very long explanation of the global stocktake, but, there's a lot there. Sorry, please.

Miku Narisawa 25:57

The Ocean was part of the global stocktake in a way that, you know, we need to protect the marine ecosystem from now on, that we did make into the global stocktake. But a lot of people say that that wasn't enough.

Mara Budgen 26:11

OK. I believe about a third of the CO2 emitted is absorbed by the oceans. So they have a very direct impact on the amount of emissions, carbon emissions, in our atmosphere. And, you know, what I think is interesting about you, Miku, is that you see these issues from a much deeper perspective than I think, maybe many people do. You know, many people they hear like, “clean oceans, ocean conservation,” and they mainly think about plastic pollution in the sea. Which is obviously a huge issue, but it's actually something that is part of a much broader effort that we need to make to improve the health of our oceans. And so what you're doing, obviously, you participated in COP, but you're also trying to create this connection between people. So with Odyssey, you're connecting children and even adults, with people like Yasu, the fisherman and Futoshi, the seaweed producer, and you know, you meet all these people who come from other island nations, like from the Pacific Islands. And of course, you've spent time in Hawaii. So what have you learned from people whose livelihoods and even whose culture and identity depends on the sea?

Miku Narisawa 27:30

We can't really separate humans and oceans or society and oceans, it's going to directly impact somehow. It's attached to our identity, it’s attached to our cultures, it's attached to our society, economy. So I learned that the people in Hawaii, they see the ocean as a one canoe. On the canoe, they have to help each other in order to navigate themselves. And they have to share the space peacefully and respectfully.

Mara Budgen 28:04

Right and focusing on Japan, because obviously, you know, Japan is an archipelago, it has a very long coastline, many islands, so everything you're talking about is super important when it comes to Japan. So how do you see Japan in terms of ... is it doing well, when it comes to ocean conservation, or what are some areas of improvement?

Miku Narisawa 28:26

Yeah, so as a Japan, we heavily focused on the fishing industries. And as I, you know, interact with a local fishermen's back in Higashimatsushima, they always talk about the environmental issues, you know: they can really catch a fish, they can really cultivate a seaweed all oysters, because ocean is getting a healthy, meaning that's less plankton, less oxygens, less nutrient. And I see a lot of projects and activities saying, “Let's clean up our oceans. Let's pick up the plastic.” And that's, you know, I think that's one thing that we also need to focus on, that we need to clean up the oceans, but when you came to Higashimatsushima, and when you look at the oceans, you know, our oceans color was kind of greenish and like a dark blue, but when you go to Okinawa, the water is much clearer, right? And it is just because each ocean has different roles because of the geography, geographical locations. So in Higashimatsushima, we have two rivers which bring those nutrients to the oceans. And we are located in the area where two currents meet together. One is coming down from Russia, the colder current, and other currents coming up from Philippine and Okinawa, much warmer currents. Those two currents merge together, which also creates a rich ocean environment for the ecosystem. But when you look at Okinawa, the warmer current brings less nutrients. So without the plankton and nutrients, of course, the water gets much clearer. And that's always you know, Futoshi is always saying that each ocean has a different role. So I think it's really time for Japan to really think about what is really the right thing to do with the oceans. How do we deal and how do we take care of the oceans?

Mara Budgen 30:24

I hope, you know, the leaders of Japan are listening to this podcast and that they could get your message. Miku, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been a great pleasure.

Miku Narisawa 30:38

Thank you so much for inviting me.

Mara Budgen 30:45

My thanks again to Miku Narisawa, for joining us on Deep Dive this week. Shaun McKenna is here with me now. Hey, Shaun, thanks for letting me host this week.

Shaun McKenna 30:54

Well, thank you for giving me a week off.

Mara Budgen 30:56

You owe me one.

Shaun McKenna 30:58

You know, I'm amazed that someone like Miku could go through such a harrowing experience like a tsunami and then rather than retreat from the ocean, she kind of made it her goal to protect it.

Mara Budgen 31:09

Yeah. And something I took away from the discussion is that ocean conservation, climate change, and even healthy mountains and forests are all interconnected issues.

Shaun McKenna 31:18

Yeah. How can we learn more about the initiatives Miko is involved in?

Mara Budgen 31:22

So, you can find out more at and on Instagram @​​odysseynaturejapan. We'll put the links in the show notes.

Shaun McKenna 31:31

Cool. Well, in other environment-related news, last year Japan and, the rest of the world really, experienced record-breaking temperatures and the trend is likely to continue this year — so make sure you clean your air conditioners before the spring. February is already seeing record highs across Japan and experts believe 2024 is going to be the hottest year in the country’s history. Mara, that means even hotter than last year. Eric Margolis has written about it for our environment section, Our Planet, you can find that at or click on the link in the show notes.

Deep Dive from The Japan Times is produced by Dave Cortez. Our outgoing music is by Oscar Boyd, and our theme music is by the Japanese musician LLLL. Your host for this week has been Mara Budgen, I’m Shaun McKenna, podtsukaresama.

Mara Budgen 32:19