'Ganbare, Nippon': The message from USU-CEU students to a stricken nation: 'Hang in there, Japan!'
Ryosuke Aotani, a 19-year-old Japanese student at USU-CEU, had been "Skyping" with his girlfriend in Osaka when she told him the news: there had been an earthquake in the northeastern part of their island.
"I had expected it was a small one," he recalled. "Next day I went to the gym and I saw the pictures on CNN. I haven't seen my country's views for seven months. I never expected to see my country's views like that," he said of the earthquake and tsunami devastation he saw. "I was shocked. I am extremely sad."
Ryosuke's family and friends have been safe and southwest of the cataclysm and radiation leaks. It's the same with his fellow student Ayuko Saigo, a 20-year-old sophomore.
Both are aware of the formidable challenge of recovery that lies ahead. "It will take at least two years," Ayuko said. She has heard comments from fellow students about the remarkable sense of community and the absence of looting in Japan in the aftermath of the disaster. "Almost everyone is good to take care of each other," she replied, adding that from the very first, rescuers and power plant workers had been going into the danger zone even though it put their lives at risk.
"All of the Japanese people are thinking of what they can do to help," she continued. "They are thinking of what they can contribute, the necessities that they can contribute."
Right now bottled water is in high demand. In the region around the damaged nuclear plants, radiation has been found in the drinking water. "It is bad for babies, not so bad for older people," Ayuko explained. "When people learned it was bad for babies they went to stores to buy it and now it has disappeared from the stores."
Both students said they realize that it is up to the unaffected west side of Honshu and the people of the other islands in the archipelago to carry the economic and social load of recovery. That means providing food, shelter and other necessities for survivors who lost everything they had in the quake and flood.
Ryosuke related an anecdote about how the response to the ongoing crisis is going beyond the obvious tasks of cleaning up the mess.
It has to do with a big high school baseball tournament. The Japanese are tremendous baseball fans and this high-profile event had to be postponed during the shock phase of the disaster. Now it's back on track.
The objective of play has changed, though, Ryosuke said. Victory on the field is not the most important thing. "The players say they will play hard to cheer people up," he explained.
He added that the cheer for Olympic athletes - "Ganbare, Nippon" - has taken on new meaning in the wake of the disaster. In translation, it means something like "Hang in there, Japan," or "Try hard, Japan," or "Don't give up, Japan." (It's pronounced gan-bah-reh.)
The two students stressed that they and their country are grateful for the outpouring of international sympathy and support they have seen. In fact, they see 1,000 examples of that support on their own campus.
The college's Gay-Straight Alliance has launched a drive to fold and sell 1,000 origami cranes. People can buy the intricately folded red paper birds at a booth in the Jennifer Leavitt Student Center. Buyers can't take the cranes home, however. They have to write a message on the wings.
According to student Meagan Roach, once all the cranes have been sold, they'll be mounted in a big circle to symbolize the Japanese flag.
The money will go to humanitarian aid to Japan.
There's a story about the 1,000 cranes. The crane is a symbol of good luck in Japan, and there's an old saying that someone who folds 1,000 of them will be granted a wish. After the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, a young woman suffering from radiation-caused leukemia, Sadako Sasaki, began folding them with the simple wish to live. She couldn't finish, but before she died, she transferred the wish to save a friend's life instead. Her family and friends completed the task and buried the cranes with her.
Today, in Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park near ground zero, there's a statue of Sadako holding a stylized crane aloft.