Christmas spirit shines in destruction aftermath

Calvin Coolidge once said, “Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind.” 

Editor’s note: This is another of TGI staff sharing stories of favorite Christmas memories. If you would like to share a story of a favorite Christmas memory to be published in TGI, please email it to 

Calvin Coolidge once said, “Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind.” 

“To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas,” the former U.S. president added. 

For me, the holiday season is usually a happy one. It reminds me of how fortunate I am for what I do have and the goodwill that still exists in the world — something we like to call the aloha spirit. 

My holiday mood, however, was a little different two years ago. 

For the first time in my life, I had no solid plans for my future. I had just attained my master’s degree but found myself jobless, living with relatives in Los Angeles, and financially supporting myself on whatever student loan money I had left — anxiously waiting for responses on job applications and inquiries probably didn’t help, either.  

With nothing left to lose and some extra time on my hands, I joined a group of about a dozen college students on an inaugural Christmas educational tour of Japan, where we were allowed to visit towns and cities devastated by the 2011 Tohoku tsunami and earthquake, talk to survivors, and listen to experts talk about the disaster’s effects.   

It was an opportunity that I knew would change my life — one that, to this day, I still cannot thank Dr. Paul Terasaki of the Nibei Foundation enough for his support. 

The effects of the disaster, more than a year later, became apparent almost immediately after we arrived in Sendai, the largest city in the devastated region. Walking through the city’s pristine airport alone gave me an eerie feeling of deja vu — I saw a wall of water inundate it on live TV almost a year earlier as the tsunami moved nearly six miles inland.

As we drove off in our tour bus from the airport, tsunami debris was stacked in large piles along the side of the road. 

The outline of twisted steel parts and dozens of damaged vehicles punctuated through the darkness and light falling snow as we made our way to a minshuku, or bed and breakfast, in the mountains of Minamisanriku, where nearly 95 percent of the town’s building were leveled or washed away by the tsunami and preceding 9.0-magnitude earthquake. 

I will never forget the moment when we drove through what was once a bustling town of more than 17,000 people. 

Concrete foundations marked the spots where homes, businesses and offices once stood. 

Only the steel structure of the city’s three-story Crisis Management Department, where only 10 of the nearly 130 people who worked in the town hall survived, was left intact. A memorial alter with fresh flowers placed on it stood near the building’s entrance.  

A woman from the minshuku, who spoke throughout the tour, told us that she had planned to meet a friend for lunch near the town’s waterfront on the day the tsunami hit. A slight sickness, however, set those plans back and likely saved her life, she said. 

Circumstances that lasted around 10 minutes changed the course of the town’s residents forever. 

In that moment, all of my worries in life seemed so insignificant and selfish. 

When we visited Ishinomaki, a larger city in the region that was also devastated by the earthquake and tsunami, several days later, we spoke with a group of Ishinomaki Senshu University students who survived. 

Many told stories of how they fled from their homes with family members as soon as tsunami warnings were issued only to find a wall of water chasing them to higher ground — areas previously deemed safe from tsunamis were quickly inundated and washed away. 

As they ran, many recalled seeing others who fell and were washed away by the tsunami or hearing cries for help as residents saw their loved ones being swept away.

Through it all, however, the students maintained their composure and said they were working to rebuild their lives with their surviving family members. And for the most part, that was the prevailing attitude printed on vending machines and storefront windows: “Ganbarou, Miyagi,” or “Ganbarou, Tohoku,” which prompted people in the devastated region to do their best and persevere. 

It was a memory kept replaying in my mind several days later as I stood alone on the rooftop of the Roppongi Hills building in Tokyo on Christmas Day. 

Snow flurries fell as I watched a light show illuminate the Tokyo Skytree in the distance.

I knew, at that moment, that everything was going to be OK.


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