Helping young survivors journey Beyond Tomorrow
The magnitude 9.0 earthquake that hit Japan's Tohoku region in 2011 may have taken away the ordinary, peaceful life of students there in a matter of hours. For some, the gigantic tsunami swept away their parents, homes, friends and schools.
But March 11, 2011, also became the day some students started growing stronger and began thinking about their roles in society.
Helping to find the silver linings amid tragedy was Beyond Tomorrow, a program to support young survivors in the disaster-hit areas to obtain higher education so they can become future leaders of Japan.
“History shows that great hardships create great leaders,” said Minami Tsubouchi, executive director of the Tokyo-based Global Fund for Education Assistance, a non-profit foundation that runs Beyond Tomorrow. “The youth in Tohoku have huge potential to become great leaders because of the difficulties they have experienced.”
Beyond Tomorrow consists of two pillars: a scholarship program for students who wish to obtain higher education in Japan or abroad, and a leadership program, which is a leadership track to help students realize their roles in the world.
Tsubouchi had long wanted to support the young generation to expand their perspectives through communicating with people outside Japan. When the Great East Japan Earthquake hit, Tsubouchi was working in Bahrain, but she soon headed back to Japan to visit the devastated areas in Miyagi Prefecture. Witnessing the debris and the damage made her focus on the youth in the devastated region.
By June 2011, she had established the Global Fund for Education Assistance to start Beyond Tomorrow. Some young business leaders, such as James Kondo, head of Twitter Japan, helped Tsubouchi start the program. Heizo Takenaka, a professor at Keio University and a former economy minister, became the adviser.
For its first project, Beyond Tomorrow sent seven high school and university students from the Tohoku region, including some who had lost their parents, to the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting of the New Champions, dubbed “Summer Davos,” in Dalian, China, in September 2011.
Relating the catastrophe
There, the students told the story of their experiences of the catastrophe to global political and business leaders, moving many of them to tears.
“People may have seen images of the tsunami and debris on the news, but they have no way of knowing how the victims are feeling unless they talk to them,” said Sayaka Sugawara, who was in her first year at Sendai Ikuei Gakuen High School. “I wanted to let people outside Japan know that it was much harder for us to survive the crisis than they thought.”
Sugawara found her mother trapped under debris and tried to rescue her but failed. Her grandmother also died that day.
“Students who survived can't endure the feeling that they are seen as wretched and miserable. One way to break away from such feelings is to move forward and find a role to serve those in need,” Tsubouchi said, adding that going abroad is one of the things that helps students find such roles.
In October 2011, the organization held the first Tohoku Future Leaders Summit, inviting some 70 high school students from Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures to Tokyo to discuss how to rebuild and revitalize their shattered hometowns. The second summit was held last year with 75 students attending.
“Until they attended the summit, many of them were passive and never thought they would be the ones who would take the initiative in doing something for the region,” Tsubouchi said. “But after meeting their peers, they began to feel that they are the ones who should take action.”
Finding their roles
Ko Sato, an Iwate native studying at Takasaki City University of Economics in Gunma Prefecture, said that through Beyond Tomorrow's activities he learned that many students from Tohoku are trying to do something to help their hometowns.
“After meeting them, I came to think that I also wanted to be of help,” said Sato, who organized an exchange program in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, inviting 11 high school students from Boston in late February. “I want to let people know that there are many Tohoku people who work hard to make this region a better place.”
The students from Boston who interacted with Tohoku students said they would remember the event and share the Tohoku students' stories with people back home.
Tsubouchi added that after the students met globally active mentors through Beyond Tomorrow, world problems hit closer to home.
“The students know that relief supplies from the international community helped them survive through their most difficult times,” she said. “Now they feel it is their turn to become those who help others suffering in foreign countries.”
Produced by The Japan Times