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Disaster-torn Japanese area thanks sister state

Delawareans invited to see how prefecture is rebuilding

Written by Doug Denison, 1:03 AM, Jan. 24, 2012, The News Journal

Ten months ago, the most powerful earthquake ever known to have struck the island nation of Japan rippled under the seabed 40 miles off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture. The quake unleashed a tsunami that inundated seaboard cities like Sendai, Miyagi's capital, and laid waste to populated areas miles inland.

Many in Delaware paid special attention to the disaster. For nearly 15 years, Delaware and Miyagi have been sister states, trading annual visits with dignitaries and business leaders, and fostering an exchange program that's sent hundreds of Delaware students to Miyagi and vice versa.

A delegation from Miyagi's government came to Dover on Monday for the first time since the quake and tsunami to express appreciation for Delaware's support.

In the weeks after the quake and tsunami, state officials organized a special fund to collect donations from Delawareans and send them to Miyagi.

In just a few months, donors from across the state raised $101,000.

"The citizens of Delaware provided psychological and physical support in the form of powerful messages of encouragement and monetary donations," said Takamasa Chiba, director of international affairs for Miyagi Prefecture and leader of the delegation.

"Fueled by the kind support of the people of Delaware, the people of Miyagi are coming together," he said.

Most of the donated funds are paying for the schooling of children who lost one or both parents in the disaster. Chiba said every child in kindergarten through high school will receive a scholarship of 10,000 yen per month -- about $130.

The rest of Delaware's aid fund covered emergency supplies for victims and contributed to infrastructure repairs.

In Miyagi, 9,500 people were killed, virtually all by the tsunami; 2,000 are still listed as missing.

During its presentation at Dover High School, Chiba's delegation showed a short compilation of video clips and photographs of the disaster and the aftermath.

One video, shot from the window of a four- or five-story building, shows the roiling, debris-filled waters of the tsunami rushing through an urban area, carrying cars and huge sections of buildings with great speed. In the background, people cry and scream.

"All of these images look like a science fiction film, but unfortunately this is what happened in our hometown," said Masayoshi Suguwara, a deputy in Miyagi's international affairs division.

But the message delivered by the delegation was one of hope, optimism and rebuilding.

Only about 4.5 percent of Miyagi was affected by the disaster, and the local government focused on helping relocate those who lost their homes, or providing them with prefabricated housing.

Suguwara highlighted the reopening of Sendai's international airport, a local Toyota factory that builds Corollas and the main Miyagi station of the shinkansen bullet train.

However, it will likely be a decade or more, the delegation said, before Miyagi's world-famous fishing industry can recover. Because of their proximity to the coast, businesses like fish markets, packing houses and shippers were destroyed, along with hundreds of commercial fishing boats.

Chiba said while Miyagi would appreciate ongoing monetary support from Delaware, the best thing Delawareans can do is visit.

"I'd like to see the people of Delaware take an opportunity to come over and see us in Miyagi, and see that it's not all devastated," he said. "We are doing our best with the recovery."

Miki Smith, who lives in Dover and coordinates the Miyagi student-exchange program, said the first group of Japanese students to visit since the tsunami will be arriving this spring -- 52 in all.

In June, Smith said, a group of Delaware students will travel to Miyagi.

She said the delegation's visit Monday and another event coming up in March are the first steps to moving on from the disaster.

"We have a very tight friendship; it was almost like losing your best friend," Smith said of the months after the disaster. "I think it's a good thing for our children to see them, so they can learn how things are recovering, keep encouraging them."