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Taylor with her visiting parents, Andy and Jeanne Anderson.
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Taylor’s parents continue to receive gifts and cards. Photo by Chris Smith
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Mud bags stacked more than a year after the tsunami.
Shuffling uncomfortably in the salty, humid air, 23 St. Catherine's students and I stood in the middle of a weed-ridden field that had been a Japanese coastal neighborhood of colorfully painted homes and businesses. Now, nothing remained except foundations and mud — mountains of stacked, bagged mud.
As I was trying to envision the force that had swept away all evidence of life, a worn, compact silver car came to a squealing halt before us, and an angry Japanese man jumped out, screaming at us.
Our interpreter answered him in soothing tones until, still irate, he drove away. She explained that the man, a monk, had reacted to the bright colors our girls wore, viewing us as disrespectful and turning a site where so many died into a tourist attraction.
It hadn't occurred to any of us that the neon fabrics splashed throughout our group might be offensive, but the monk also didn't know that we, too, had lost someone here.
Taylor Anderson, a St. Catherine's School alum, died with 4,000 others in the town of Ishinomaki during an earthquake-induced tsunami on March 11, 2011. She was 24.
"The monk really showed us the depth of the catastrophe," says senior Frida Clark. "Until then, our interactions with the community were pretty welcoming. But he attached us to the pain and suffering and all the grief that remains here. I'm actually glad he yelled at us."
After graduating from Randolph-Macon College, Taylor Anderson moved to Ishinomaki in 2008, as part of the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. One of 4,000 JETs teaching in Japan, she felt especially lucky to be assigned a quaint waterfront city. She loved her daily bike rides along the coast and the stunning sunsets over the Pacific. Taylor quickly became part of the community, working in three elementary schools, three junior high schools and one kindergarten, biking all over Ishinomaki, lesson plans in her backpack.
The morning of the earthquake, Taylor pedaled in frigid temperatures to the last of her classes at Mangokuura Elementary School. Other schools were closed that day, as the school year had ended, and students were home preparing for graduation ceremonies. A light snow fell. That weekend, Taylor had plans to escape the cold by traveling to Hawaii. She'd scheduled her flight so she could stay in Ishinomaki to celebrate the end of the school year with her students. Taylor's last message home included pictures of posters she'd made with her students to celebrate the class of 2011.
At 2:46 p.m., a massive 9.0 earthquake rumbled, lasting six minutes. At that intensity, roads, railways, homes and buildings often collapse, but because earthquakes are common in Japan, public buildings and especially schools are reinforced. Taylor and her students endured the quake. She kept her children calm and orderly, then did what all good teachers would: She secured her pupils' safety by moving them to a designated area where parents could pick up their children. Taylor stayed until every one of her charges was with either a family member or a responsible adult. Once her class was safe, she bundled up against the snow and started her 6-mile bike ride home.
Taylor and the 160,000 residents of Ishinomaki had only 40 minutes before the waves hit. Tsunami sirens rang, but this was a common, expected sound after earthquakes. Even though residents are aware of the risk, with homes and businesses on a peninsula jutting straight into the Pacific, Ishinomaki's seawalls made many believe they were protected. They could not have imagined what was rushing toward them at freeway speeds: a wall of water 5 stories high that would spill 3 miles inland, killing thousands, destroying everything in its path and leaving millions around the world grieving.
Many followed the city's tsunami plan to escape to higher ground. But too many families jumped in cars to drive away from the coast, only to find the roads jammed. Others clambered for hills or rooftops, too many choosing perches that proved to be not high enough. In one of the worst catastrophes, teachers at Okawa Elementary School chose the wrong evacuation route; 74 of 108 students drowned.
Ten days after the quake, Taylor's body was found along the route to her apartment. Her path home took her into some of the wave's worst destruction. Her second-floor apartment, a half-mile from the coast, would have been a safe haven.
The St. Catherine's group I chaperoned flew halfway around the globe as guests of the Japanese government, who paid for our trip in honor of Taylor, one of two Americans to die in the tsunami, along with more than 16,000 Japanese. The visit was part of the Bond Project, designed to promote international relationships and understanding of the Great East Japan Earthquake.
The plan is for 10,000 youths from various countries to visit disaster sites, balanced with stops at tourist sites highlighting Japanese culture, by March 2013. Most invitees are involved in Japanese studies; St. Catherine's students were brought to Japan solely because of Taylor, one of many connections between the United States and Japan generated in her honor.
When we visited Ishinomaki this summer, the once flooded but still standing portion of the town was clean and functioning; homes and businesses had been dug out from the 6 feet of deposited mud and debris. Ted Koide, a Japanese-American who volunteered after the tsunami, described the overwhelming scene to our group when we visited Ishinomaki's Council of Social Welfare. "There was little food, water or shelter. Volunteers had to pack their rations and tents. To see so much devastation, the only option was to help. Our motto became ‘One scoop at a time.' And like this, we dug out the town, piling bags of mud alongside remains of buildings and ruined cars."
These piles, constant reminders of the tragedy, still line the roadsides; there is nowhere for the trash to go. Homes along the coast were destroyed, so displaced families live in temporary housing made from cargo containers. Their future is unclear, massive trash piles consume people's land and no one is confident about rebuilding close to the water. Additionally, many jobs dissolved with the businesses that failed to recover. Still, the majority of people stay. Ishinomaki is home.
After our meeting with Ted, he walked us through pouring rain to the top of Hiyoriyama, a small mountain overlooking the barren field where we encountered the monk. From this vantage point, it was easy to visualize the reoccurring nightmares told to us by survivors. How the townspeople on higher ground watched helplessly as the lower part of their city was consumed by water. One man who saw his brother and mother swept away said, "I and the rest of the town live with the guilt of surviving. Why did we live, when our loved ones didn't?"
Here in Richmond, the Andersons know that Taylor would want her family to move on.
"Taylor would not want March 10, 2011, to be the last happy day of our lives," her father, Andy Anderson, says. "We know she'd want us to move on with our own dreams."
The family is trying to do just that. Younger sister Julz was married in June, and brother Jeff will soon follow his dream to Africa, where he'll serve with the Peace Corps. Andy and his wife, Jeanne, who has her daughter's dark brown hair and broad smile, work diligently to continue Taylor's passion for Japan, her father devoted to the efforts as a part-time job. He travels often to speak about Taylor, responds daily to Taylor-related emails, keeps in touch with many of her students, organizes exchange visits between Ishinomaki and Richmond, and works with government officials from both countries to help raise awareness about the devastating effects of the March 2011 earthquake.
Doing good through the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund helps the family heal. The goal is to continue Taylor's vision of cultural exchange and friendship between the United States and Japan, and to help rebuild Ishinomaki. One of the first projects was to honor Taylor's love of reading and teaching by building "Taylor Libraries" in each of the seven schools where she taught.
The job of building the special shelves for each school's new reading corner went to a 42-year-old skilled carpenter, Shinichi Endo, in Ishinomaki. Afterward, the Andersons learned that Endo and his wife lost all three of their children in the tsunami, two of whom had been taught by Taylor. Endo reports that the work helps him mend.
Taylor Anderson has become an international symbol of the tragedy in Japan, a transformation that began when her parents, frantic to find their daughter in the hours after the earthquake, contacted the U.S. embassy in Tokyo with a plea for help locating her. Japanese news services spread the story. In the United States, the Andersons appeared on several nationwide news programs, becoming American avatars of the tragedy playing out across the Pacific.
Instantly, an outpouring of support streamed in. Andy Anderson returned to Richmond a few days later to find that the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund, established by his family through St. Catherine's, had already received $35,000 in donations. At the time, this seemed incredible, but it was only the beginning.
Today, the fund has raised more than $350,000 and is one of many memorials to Taylor. The JET program established multiple scholarships in her name, as did the Japan Foundation, including an endowed Scholar-in-Residence of Japanese studies at Randolph-Macon. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned Taylor at the 2011 U.S.-Japan Council Annual Conference when discussing the important relationship between our two countries. Derek Jeter narrated Taylor's story in a video tribute aired at the 2012 Major League Baseball season opener in Tokyo. (Andy threw the ceremonial first pitch.) In November 2011, the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of New York posthumously gave the Luminous Individual Award to Taylor in recognition of her inspirational spirit and contributed $50,000 to her memorial fund. The list of honors and memorials in Taylor's nam grows longer weekly.
While Andy Anderson doesn't believe his daughter would have considered herself heroic — "She did what all the other teachers did for their students that day," he says — he is amazed and soothed by the amount of good being done in her name. "Taylor's story affects people."
Since chaperoning the trip to Japan, I've visited the Anderson home a couple times. Their house overlooks the James River and reflects the design and decorative talents of both Jeanne, an interior designer, and Andy, a developer of resort homes.
The day I came to interview them for this story, the mail had just been delivered. Among the bills and catalogues were three checks for the Taylor Anderson Fund totaling $2,855 and a giant box filled with 1,000 origami bookmarks from Japan. An elderly woman from Ishinomaki who'd never met Taylor or the Andersons had enclosed a note and her picture along with the bookmarks she'd made by hand. Andy reports that mail like this is not uncommon. The Andersons have received almost 2,000 cards and gifts from Japan, half from strangers. "Taylor's students write us about how much she cared, " Jeanne says, "how she was interested in their lives and always made time outside of school."
The next round of Japan-Richmond connections will happen in November when, as part of the Kizuna program, every St. Catherine's student who traveled to Ishinomaki will host a high school student from Japan. The Japanese students' visit just happens to coincide with the premiere of the documentary Live Your Dream; The Taylor Anderson Story, which will debut at Richmond's CenterStage on Nov. 9.
"Coincidences like that happen all the time," Andy says. "Taylor is smiling, and so am I."