By Toru Susami, U.S. Embassy intern

Nearly five years have passed since the Tohoku region of Japan was hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami. Although the disaster brought great hardship and pain to innumerable people, it also produced many stories that demonstrate the depth of the human connection. These include the story of two kasagi (wooden crossbeams on torii gates that mark the entrance to Shinto shrines) that were returned to Japan last October. Behind the return of the kasagi lies a compelling account of the powerful support given to the victims of the disaster by scores of people who were not directly affected.

Large volumes of debris were washed onto the shores of Oregon following the disaster that occurred on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean. Most of it was unidentifiable wreckage, but on March 22, 2013, an item that seemed significant appeared on the beach. It was a large piece of wood that was painted red. Judson Randall, who discovered the artifact, said he realized right away that it must have been something that “had real meaning to the people of Japan.” He sent a photo to the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department and asked them if they could find out what it was. Recalling how he felt when he first saw the artifact drifting ashore, Randall said, “It was quite moving to realize that this had traveled across the ocean … a compelling relic [of the earthquake].”

Kasagi on Oregon coast

The kasagi that was discovered on the Oregon coast (photo by Judson Randall)

When Sadafumi Uchiyama, the garden curator of the Portland Japanese Garden, heard about the discovery, he identified the artifact as a kasagi from a torii gate. This particular kasagi was uniquely designed in the myojin style, but it lacked any distinctive marks indicating where it had come from. Information about the kasagi was posted on a website for lost belongings that had drifted ashore, but after a month no one in Japan had claimed ownership to it.

Then in April, another kasagi miraculously appeared on the beach in Oregon. This kasagi had a Japanese inscription on it that provided information such as the name of the person who had donated it to the shrine and the date it had been dedicated. The second kasagi was listed together with the first one on the lost belongings website in the hope that their owner would be located, but four months later nobody had claimed it.

Uchiyama felt that the kasagi were too special to be left unidentified, so he consulted with Portland Japanese Garden CEO Stephen Bloom and they decided to launch a full-scale search for the owner of the artifacts. Dorie Vollum, a member of the garden’s board of trustees, volunteered to temporarily store both kasagi in her garage. “When I heard about what the Portland Japanese Garden was going to do, I knew I wanted to help,” said Vollum. “Every time I met someone, I would tell them the kasagi story and they immediately wanted to get involved, too.  I think it’s because this is such a universal story. It’s the story of what connects us as humans: it’s about life, loss, perseverance, and hope.”

A whole year passed without any new information. Uchiyama and Bloom discussed what to do next, eventually deciding that Uchiyama and Vollum would travel to Japan to search for clues. Before they left for Japan, they told the story of the kasagi to Masatoshi Ito, who was CEO of Ajinomoto Foods at the time and a member of the Portland Japanese Garden’s International Advisory Board. He was so moved that he mobilized some of his own employees with the directive to “find shrines that were washed away in the tsunami.” The staff came up with a list of 100 shrines that had been damaged by the tsunami, but had no luck identifying the origin of these particular kasagi.

Unloading the kasagi

The kasagi is carefully unloaded at Portland Japanese Garden (photo by Tyler Quinn)

When Uchiyama and Vollum arrived in Japan, they travelled around the disaster-hit areas of Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima, asking taxi drivers, hotel proprietors, and restaurant owners for information. The search started to pick up momentum when NHK aired a report on their search efforts. Hitoshi Sakai, who is an expert on local history in Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture, saw the broadcast and offered to help. As a result, the possibility suddenly emerged that the kasagi might have come from a shrine in Aomori, and that led to the discovery that they belonged to Itsukushima Shrine in Hachinohe. Contact was established with some of the people who had initially donated the kasagi to the shrine, and it was decided that the kasagi would be shipped back home.

Visitor writes goodwill message for kasagi

Visitors to the Portland Japanese Garden wrote messages of hope for the safe return of the kasagi (photo by Jonathan Ley)

Yamato Transport U.S.A. and Pacific Lumber and Shipping offered to transport the kasagi to Japan. When a Ray Liebe, a log buyer at Pacific Lumber and Shipping, saw a news report about the difficulties in shipping the kasagi to Japan, he took the initiative to rally some of his colleagues and provide assistance. “I’m so proud of our employees that they jumped in and did this,” said Rene Ancinas, the CEO of Port Blakely Companies, the parent company of Pacific Lumber and Shipping.

Following the arrival of the kasagi in October 2015, a ceremony was held at Yokohama Bay Quarter to celebrate their return to Japan. U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy was in attendance along with officials from the United States and Japan who were involved in the project. As Ambassador Kennedy stated at the event, the return of the kasagi owing to the support and goodwill of so many people is a “symbol of the ties that bind the United States and Japan.” The kasagi will no doubt become an inspiration to those who were affected by the disaster as a sign of reconstruction. The two kasagi are being refurbished and plans are underway to rededicate them to Iksukushima Shrine in April 2016.

Ambassador Kennedy with kasagi

Ambassador Kennedy views the kasagi in Yokohama