Washed Away: Japanese Tsunami Debris

A battered piece of wood that washed up on the Oregon Coast has been traced to a sacred shrine in Northern Japan.  "It’s hard to believe," said Sada Uchiyama, curator from Portland Japanese Garden.  "It made a long journey."

In April 2013, beach combers in Florence, Oregon found the 16-foot long piece of wood painted bright red.  It was covered in sea life.  There was a small inscription on the structure carved in Japanese that included a dedication date and a name, Takahashi. 

After seeing photos of the wood beam, Uchiyama realized this was more than just tsunami debris.  He quickly determined the arch came from a sacred Japanese Shinto shrine.  It was likely the top beam of a Torii, a traditional Japanese gate commonly found at the entrance of a shrine.

In May 2014, Uchiyama and a board member from Portland’s Japanese Garden visited the tsunami affected area in Japan searching for the shrine’s original location.  They had little to go on.  There were once hundreds of Shinto shrines in the devastated region. 

Returning home empty handed, Uchiyama figured he’d done what he could.  "There’s no sense of discouragement," said Uchiyama.

Weeks later, Uchiyama got an email.  By tracking the dedication date and the name of a single donor, a historical researcher in Japan found Mr. Takahashi.  "It’s just so perfect that something led us to one individual, in one particular spot," said Uchiyama.

According to 85-year old Toshimi Takahashi, the cross beam that washed up in Oregon came from the Itsukushima Shrine near Hachinohe, Japan.  It is located in the northern Aomori Prefecture.

Takahashi would like the wooden piece to be returned after making this incredible journey from Japan to Oregon.  The curator from Portland Japanese Garden plans to begin organizing efforts to send the structure back to its original location. 

A 20-foot fishing boat washed ashore in Long Beach, Washington on April 23, 2014.  Scientists report the boat is covered with pelagic gooseneck barnacles and appears to have been in the water for quite some time.  The boat has significant damage.  There are no visible markings, although numbers or characters could be covered by marine growth.  Initial observations suggest the boat was likely washed away during the Japanese tsunami.

Very excited to announce that “Washed Away” has been nominated for an Emmy Award for best news special. The NW Regional Emmy Awards will be held June 7, 2014 in Seattle.

Very excited to announce that “Washed Away” has been nominated for an Emmy Award for best news special. The NW Regional Emmy Awards will be held June 7, 2014 in Seattle.

Congratulations to beach clean-up volunteer Russ Lewis for receiving the Environmental Excellence Award.  We featured Russ extensively in our “Washed Away” special report.  The Environmental Excellence Award is the Department of Ecology’s highest award for recognizing environmental excellence in the state of Washington.

Congratulations to beach clean-up volunteer Russ Lewis for receiving the Environmental Excellence Award.  We featured Russ extensively in our “Washed Away” special report.  The Environmental Excellence Award is the Department of Ecology’s highest award for recognizing environmental excellence in the state of Washington.

I was honored to present my “Washed Away” series today to various guests including the Consul General of Japan in Portland, Mr. Hiroshi Furusawa.

The presentation was part of the “Tohoku Series” a joint coordination between Japan-America Society of Oregon (JASO) & Portland State University Center for Japanese Studies.

Here is the latest model from NOAA showing tsunami debris in the Pacific Ocean.

Here is the latest model from NOAA showing tsunami debris in the Pacific Ocean.

"Photos, photos!!!," uttered Tokuichi Tokunaga after hearing that his boat washed ashore in Cannon Beach, Oregon on March 22, 2013. He never thought he’d see his boat again.

The 23-foot pleasure boat had been moored at a social boat club in the Yotsukura fishing port. All of the club’s 20 boats were swept away on March 11, 2011 when the massive tsunami hit Japan.

Tokunaga had suffered a stroke a year before the earthquake. He was preparing to leave an adult care center when the earth shook. Nurses took Tokunaga to the upper floors of the care facility with the other patients to avoid the rising water.

His wife, Mariko Tokunaga was working at the small hotel the couple owns in Iwaki City in Fukushima Prefecture. The tsunami waves swept her away several times. She survived. But their home did not. The couple’s hotel was badly damaged. The rooms could not be used again.

A government official sent the couple a photo of the boat. They framed it and put it on display. Mrs. Tokunaga says the boat had a strong power and a desire to “live.”

The story behind the story…
When a huge dock washed up on the Oregon coast in June 2012, thousands of tourists flocked to Agate Beach to catch a glimpse.  Officials declared it was the largest piece of Japanese tsunami debris to hit North America since the March 2011 disaster.  In the months that followed, countless other pieces of tsunami debris washed ashore.  News reports documented where these items washed up and what condition they were in.  But, I figured there had to be more to the story.  I wondered, “Where did this debris come from, what happened to the owner and how much is still to come?”
My curiosity prompted me to apply for the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) “Bringing Home the World” fellowship. I was lucky enough to be selected for the program which gives minority journalists in the U.S. the opportunity to cover international stories.  The program is sponsored by the Ford Foundation, with additional funding from the Brooks and Joan Fortune Family Foundation, the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation and United Airlines.  I appreciate their support.  It’s allowed me to travel to Japan and bring a fresh perspective of the world to our audience.

The story behind the story…

When a huge dock washed up on the Oregon coast in June 2012, thousands of tourists flocked to Agate Beach to catch a glimpse.  Officials declared it was the largest piece of Japanese tsunami debris to hit North America since the March 2011 disaster.  In the months that followed, countless other pieces of tsunami debris washed ashore.  News reports documented where these items washed up and what condition they were in.  But, I figured there had to be more to the story.  I wondered, “Where did this debris come from, what happened to the owner and how much is still to come?”

My curiosity prompted me to apply for the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) “Bringing Home the World” fellowship. I was lucky enough to be selected for the program which gives minority journalists in the U.S. the opportunity to cover international stories.  The program is sponsored by the Ford Foundation, with additional funding from the Brooks and Joan Fortune Family Foundation, the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation and United Airlines.  I appreciate their support.  It’s allowed me to travel to Japan and bring a fresh perspective of the world to our audience.

This is a brief slideshow/video I put together of photos taken during our tour of Rikuzentakata, Japan.   

Here is the final part of our series “Washed Away” that aired on KGW, NewsChannel 8. (Note: To remove closed captioning hit CC tab on bottom, right corner of video)

Here is part four of our series “Washed Away” that aired on KGW, NewsChannel 8. (Note: To remove closed captioning hit CC tab on bottom, right corner of video)

Here is part three of our series “Washed Away” that aired on KGW, NewsChannel 8. (Note: To remove closed captioning hit CC tab on bottom, right corner of video)

Here’s part two of our series “Washed Away” that appeared on KGW NewsChannel 8. (Note: To remove closed captioning hit CC tab on bottom right of video.)

Here is the first part of our series “Washed Away” that aired on KGW, NewsChannel 8. (Note: To remove closed captioning hit CC tab on bottom, right corner of video)