Japanese students set to dress campus community with symbol of hope

(Edmonton) When the earthquake struck and triggered a tsunami in Japan a little over a week ago, students from that country at the University of Alberta joined the rest of the world to watch as events unfolded.

But the experience was different for these students, who watched helplessly and anxiously as entire communities were swept to sea, not knowing how their relatives and friends were doing.

For one of those students, Chikako Sekiguchi, seeing the destruction unravel while she is so far away from home was especially difficult.

“When I saw it on television, I could not stop crying. I felt lonely because I could not contact my family. I’m here in Canada and my friends and families are in Japan; they were affected and I could not do anything for them. I was frustrated.”

But help soon came when she met another student from Japan and, together, they decided to seek assistance from the U of A’s International Centre. She says they wanted to know how they could help and one of the advisers at the centre, Raymond Matthias, explained ways they could do so. A new group, Help Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Victims, and its website, were soon set up, to announce a meeting.

“More people came to the meeting than we expected. We were so impressed with the turnout and that there were so many people concerned about what had happened and were willing to help—not just students from Japan. I feel like there are many people who are also thinking about Japan; I’m not isolated and alone and my country is not either.” 

Amidst the grief and relief, students are now turning their attention to sending support back home. And the university’s Prince Takamado Japan Centre for Teaching and Research has been helping them organize. Students today have begun placing Red Cross-marked boxes around campus. Alongside the boxes are Japanese folkart, origami paper cranes.

Sekiguchi says the paper cranes represent hope. The tradition of making them started after the Second World War when Nagasaki and Hiroshima were bombed with atomic weapons. Every year to commemorate that event, paper cranes are sent from around the world to the memorials built in Japan for those who died, she says.

“We will make 1,000 of them and put them on a string,” she said. “And while folding the paper cranes we use the time to reflect and pray for those in distress.”

Students have made more than 1,000 paper cranes. “Our goal is to have every student, faculty and staff receive a paper crane,” says U of A graduate student, Shinya Miyazoe with the group, Japanese Graduate Student Association at Alberta, which is taking the lead on organizing fundraising events for Japanese relief.

Sawa Senzaki, with the graduate student association, says her group is working with three other student groups, Red Cross Club, East Asian Studies Undergraduate Association and Japanese Conversation Club. Together they will be holding a memorial event on April 11 at the Telus Centre.

Hiroshi Kubota, U of A graduate student also with the association, says he is moved by how political and cultural differences can be set aside in response to a humanitarian crisis. He says it shows that, “we are human beings first.”

“As an international student here, there are cultural challenges. But once we have a problem like this that we cannot take care of as individuals or as a country, it does not matter our challenge or differences.”

All four students say they have been able to reach their families since March 11, when the quake and tsunami happened. And as they contribute towards rebuilding Japan, Senzaki says they hope focus is kept on what happened there.

“Our hope is that the attention on this does not end soon. It will take years to recover from the damage, considering that entire communities were swept away,” she said.   

For further details on the memorial event and other developments: