Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
On Jan. 18, 2013, a U.S. Navy ship cruising the waters off Kaua‘i’s Port Allen Harbor came across a large metal buoy floating in the ocean. The object’s long neck and the faded Japanese kanji characters inscribed on it indicated that it had floated across the Pacific Ocean from Japan, bringing with it memories of a tragic day, but also hope for a future of enhanced friendship.
March 11, 2011, marked a sad, yet historic day for Japan as a magnitude-9 earthquake struck the northeastern coast of the main island of Honshu. Hardest hit were the prefectures of Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate. The earthquake triggered a powerful tsunami with waves as high as 133 feet recorded in Iwate Prefecture. In Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture, the waves traveled as much as 6 miles inland, destroying everything in its path and sweeping people, homes, businesses . . . everything . . . out to sea. It destroyed the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima Prefecture. The disaster claimed the lives of more than 18,000, and thousands lost their homes and livelihoods.
As radiation from the power plants spilled into the Pacific, debris from the disaster began their long journey across the ocean. Nearly two years after the disaster, one piece of debris — a steel buoy, yellow in color — would find its way to Kaua‘i’s southwest shore.
Across the Pacific
After its discovery, the Japanese Consulate in Honolulu confirmed that the yellow buoy had originated in Onahama Bay in Fukushima Prefecture. Onahama Bay is located in Iwaki City, which happens to be a sister-city to Kaua‘i.
“It’s incredible that this buoy would travel for 22 months and end up here on Kaua‘i: from sister-city to sister-city,” stated Kaua‘i Mayor Bernard P. Carvalho Jr. in a press statement. “It demonstrates how powerful the forces of nature are, but also how the power of friendship can bridge all distances and obstacles.”
According to the Japanese Consulate, the owner of the buoy was not interested in having it returned. That prompted Alexander & Baldwin Inc., owners of the Port Allen Marina Center, to consider giving the buoy a permanent home on Kaua‘i.
In a press release, Beth Tokioka, the county’s communications director, noted that, “The idea of using the buoy to create an educational display relating to the environmental hazards of marine debris was already being discussed.” She added, “When we found out it originated from our sister-city, the project took on a whole new meaning.”
Alexander & Baldwin president Chris Benjamin said the company was “honored” to host the buoy at their center because it was an educational tool that also represented Kaua‘i’s ties to Japan.
The West Kaua‘i Rotary Club added its support by offering to construct a display area for the buoy. The Rotary members organized a fundraiser, collecting over $1,100, which covered the cost of the display and two interpretive signs explaining the hazards of marine debris and telling the story of the buoy’s long journey from Japan. Rotary Club member Dave Walker said the funds came from the Kaua‘i community and the people of Japan.
A Monument for Japan and Kaua‘i
This past May 19, the Kaua‘i community, led by Mayor Carvalho, gathered at the Port Allen Marina Center to unveil the exhibit. Norio Miyazaki, vice mayor of Iwaki City, joined the festivities. Miyazaki said he was greatly moved by the display. He was not alone. Many were touched by the reinforced connection between Kaua‘i and Japan.
“Three years have passed since the disaster, and we are committed to working hard to make Iwaki even stronger than it was,” said Miyazaki. “We appreciate this symbol of goodwill between our cities.”
A mokuto, or moment of silence, was observed in remembrance of those who died as a result of the disaster.
As the ceremony drew to a close, Mayor Carvalho told those in attendance. “This monument belongs to all of us and will forever stand as a symbol of friendship and goodwill.” He said he also conveyed the concern of the people of Kaua‘i during his visit to the Töhoku region in September 2011, six months after the disaster.
Among the landmarks severely damaged by the tsunami was the Spa Resort Hawaiians, which featured a golf course, three hotels and five theme parks.
During his visit, Carvalho observed the destruction of Onahama Bay, where the yellow buoy is believed to have originated. What he saw saddened him, he said.
“It was heartbreaking. I remember looking out into the waters of the bay, not knowing that at that moment the buoy was well on its way to the west coast of the United States and then back to Kaua‘i.”
The Japanese Cultural Society
Kaua‘i’s Japanese community has also joined the effort to look after the buoy. Pearl Shimizu, president of the Kaua‘i Japanese Cultural Society, said she was struck by the devastation of Fukushima.
“I’ve been to Iwaki; I’ve seen some of the places,” Shimizu said. “I’ve seen Onahama Bay. It’s devastating; it was hard for everyone to lose their lives and property. There are still a lot of people in shelters who have not found homes.”
Although the destruction of Fukushima saddened Shimizu, she also felt a powerful presence from seeing the buoy at the Port Allen Harbor.
“It kind of feels like there’s a special heart to it that came to Kaua‘i,” said Shimizu, “It feels like the spirits of Fukushima came to Kaua‘i.”
Shimizu stressed the importance of the buoy’s presence on Kaua‘i, saying that it symbolizes the strengthening ties between Fukushima and Kaua‘i.
The presence of the buoy on Kaua‘i holds a special place in her heart and represents hope for a better tomorrow.
“When I look at it, I feel sad, but I feel energy from it, as if the spirits are glad that they’re here.”
Averie’ Soto received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa this past May. She resides on Kaua‘i, where she is a freelance writer.