We Just Want to Say Thank You

Over six years have passed since a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011, but a group of Japanese haven’t forgotten the Tzu Chi volunteers who brought them aid after the catastrophe.

In March 2011, northeast Japan was devastated by a major earthquake and tsunami. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, Tzu Chi volunteers distributed emergency cash aid to over 90,000 families in the prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima. Six and a half years later, a group of volunteers returned to one of the disaster areas—Natori, Miyagi Prefecture—where a thank-you party was awaiting them.

Kozo Ono was a resident of Natori. Though he and his family emerged from the disaster unscathed, his mother’s and brother’s houses were damaged. As a result, they both received cash aid from Tzu Chi.

In 2015, Ono’s daughter, Ai, came to Taiwan to study, but she died in an accident. When Ono visited Taiwan after the tragedy to put things in order, Tzu Chi volunteers extended care and assistance to him. Their kindness reminded him that a group of survivors in Natori had been looking for the Tzu Chi volunteers who had delivered aid to them after the 3/11 earthquake, but they had had no success. This planted the seed of an idea in his mind: He would help bring about a reunion.

For over six years, Setsuko Sato had kept the envelope that the Tzu Chi emergency cash aid had come in. She said that these words on the envelope had brought her a lot of encouragement: “Nothing is impossible with confidence, perseverance, and courage.”

On August 13, 2017, Ono visited the Tokyo Tzu Chi office. He told the staff there that some residents in Natori who had received help from Tzu Chi volunteers after the 3/11 earthquake wanted to thank them for giving them a hand, but they had no idea how to make contact. The residents had made some traditional rag dolls to express their gratitude, and they hoped to deliver them personally to Tzu Chi headquarters in Taiwan, but they hadn’t been able to fulfill that wish yet. Ono said he would like to help the two sides meet.

His idea became a reality on October 22, 2017. Nine volunteers from Tokyo and Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, arrived at an activity center in Sugigafukuro Minamimachi, Natori. They were greeted with the warm applause of more than 40 residents. The venue was gaily decorated, with tables laden with locally grown fruits, homemade cuisine, and pickled vegetables.

Tetsutoshi Sato was the head of the local neighborhood association when the disaster struck in March 2011. He said that his heart ached when he saw the physically and mentally fatigued survivors living in shelters after the earthquake. He talked with his wife, Setsuko, about how to help his fellow villagers carry on, but at the same time he realized that he had to take care of himself first. He started growing all sorts of fruits and vegetables. In fact, he had grown much of the food served at the thank-you event.

Sato said that he had been moved after the calamity in 2011 when he learned that a charity group from Taiwan was distributing cash to survivors. After the distribution, he knew that he and his fellow villagers should thank the group, but he didn’t know how. His wife came up with the idea of a thank-you party, and that was how this event came to be.

 Speaking at the event, he said that he was very thankful for the timely help delivered by Tzu Chi that year. He remarked that he had been overwhelmed with emotion when he toasted the volunteers a few minutes before. He expressed hope that the friendship between the villagers and Tzu Chi, forged during a difficult time, would continue. 

Tzu Chi volunteers held a cash distribution in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, on October 23, 2011, for victims of the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami.

Handmade rag dolls

During the event, Setsuko, Sato’s wife, led a team of residents to present to the Tzu Chi volunteers some traditional rag dolls they had made. She commented that after searching for six years, their desire to thank Tzu Chi had finally come true.

Setsuko once taught a community calisthenics class, but she stopped after the earthquake. She said that she still had the envelope that had contained Tzu Chi’s cash aid. Whenever she had felt down over the last six years, she’d read the aphorism by Master Cheng Yen printed on the envelope: “Nothing is impossible with confidence, perseverance, and courage.” She drew strength from the words to keep going. “I keep the envelope in my bedroom. I keep it close to me,” said Setsuko.

After the disaster, she taught calisthenics and Japanese dance to villagers for free, just to add some cheer to their lives. She also rounded up 19 fellow villagers, and together they made sarubobo dolls in the activity center. They bonded with each other through this activity and helped each other through the difficult time. Some people who couldn’t come to the center made dolls at home.

 Sarubobo dolls are amulets, particularly associated with the Hida region of Japan. They are said to bring good fortune to those who receive them. They are traditionally faceless, but Setsuko and the other women in the community added facial features to their dolls to make them look cuter. The dolls they presented to the Tzu Chi volunteers embodied their deepest gratitude. 


Sarubobo dolls like these were presented to Tzu Chi volunteers at the thank-you party as a token of appreciation.


In appreciation for this gift, Xu Li-xiang (許麗香), CEO of Tzu Chi Japan, gave the villagers some coin banks with ant-shaped dolls attached. She explained to them the meaning of a Tzu Chi coin bank: Even though an individual’s strength may be as limited as an ant’s, there is the power to change the world by pooling together everyone’s strength. The money that Tzu Chi distributed after the 3/11 earthquake was a perfect example—the huge total amount of money was possible only through countless small donations from around the world. 

After the party, everyone deposited some money into coin banks brought by the volunteers to donate to Tzu Chi. Kazue Takaku said that she was amazed by how little bits of strength here and there could accumulate into a powerful force. She felt that this was very meaningful. 


A performance at the thank-you party


Tears of joy

Keiko Kikuchi couldn’t take her eyes off volunteer Wu Hui-chen (吳惠珍). She wanted to make sure that Wu was the one from whom she had received her cash aid six years before. When she was certain she was the one, she grew very emotional, hugging Wu and crying and laughing at the same time.

Kikuchi said she never imagined that she would meet Wu again. She told Wu that though her family’s life wasn’t yet back to what it had been before, they were all doing very well and they were back to growing vegetables again.

Kazuo Aihara, the current head of the local neighborhood association, said that he was incredulous when he first heard back then that a Taiwanese charity organization was coming to their area to distribute cash. Such monetary aid was much needed at the time. What’s more, the good intentions and best wishes behind it served to make the victims less scared and anxious.

The 3/11 earthquake had inflicted deep wounds, Aihara said. While it might take a shorter time to rebuild the physical infrastructure, the mental wounds would take longer to heal—five years, ten years, or even longer. When he recalled the devastation of the earthquake and the difficult time after, he choked up. He humbly emphasized that the thank-you party couldn’t even begin to repay Tzu Chi for its help. However, it was at least a token of their utmost, sincerest gratitude.

Shiro Yamada, mayor of Natori, thanked the foundation for their aid and for bringing warmth to those affected by the disaster. He said that his city had worked hard on reconstruction, which was finally nearing completion. That they could successfully rebuild was due to the love from Taiwan, Tzu Chi, and all over the world.

In addition to the local cuisine, the volunteers were treated to a Japanese dance performance and harmonica concert. When the event had come to an end, the villagers made arches with their arms which the guests walked through. Everyone said goodbye amidst warm laughter. They were planning to have another meeting soon.

Before the volunteers set off on their way home, they visited the home of Kozo Ono, who had brought about the reunion. Though the passing of his daughter was a heartbreaking event, it had reconnected the local people and Tzu Chi volunteers. It provided some comfort to the father that so much good had come from tragedy.

Natori Mayor Shiro Yamada puts money into a Tzu Chi coin bank at the gathering.



January 2018