Kesennuma Heroes

Let us introduce you to Naoko Utsumi, founder of the Mother’s Home in Kesennuma, north of Miyagi ken, Japan.

Naoko Utsumi

This Mother’s Home is a place where 35 autistic children come with their mothers for special care.

On March 11, 2011, Kesennuma was shaken by the great earthquake.  Thankfully, this happened during the part of the day when all the children had just woken from their midday nap and gone home.  However, the tsunami warnings soon came.   Naoko and her 5 dedicated staff quickly went to the day care center next door where there were 71 young children and babies (6 months+) to help evacuate them to the nearby community center.  Without knowing how soon the tsunami would hit, they ran out with nothing but young children on their backs.

This community center was the main evacuation point where 450 people were able to escape to.  Thirty minutes later, the tsunami swept through their town destroying everything in sight including their own Mother’s Home.  The water even rose to the second level of the community center forcing them to flee to the roof top.  Fortunately, Naoko was able to use her phone to email her husband and daughter that she was safe.  Her daughter was then able to contact Naoko’s son who lives in England.

Then the fires began.

There were explosions all around their building as gas bombs went off.  Naoko believed at that point that perhaps they would not survive.

Her phone battery soon died cutting off all communication to her loved ones.  Her son, on the other hand, watched the news reports in England and posted on his twitter that his mother was with 10 children on top of the community center (he did not realize at that point that her own children had gone home and that in fact she had 71 young children from the neighboring day center in her care now!) Through this twitter message, the Tokyo fire department was alerted of their situation.

All of their supplies, including food, was washed away as they were kept on the bottom floor.  These people had nothing to eat or keep warm with – it was a very long night.

On March 12, 2011 the Tokyo Fire Department arrived in a helicopter however they were only expecting to rescue 10 people… not 450 people!  They were able to evacuate the first 50 people – the elderly, pregnant women and children.  By March 13, the rest of the people, including Naoko and her staff, were rescued.

These women are truly brave and remarkable! Today, Japan Alive was able to visit them with bundles of blankets knitted by the Yarn Alive Shichigahama Women who meet every Tuesday at one of the temporary home centers.  We were also able to hand out teddy bears from  Kate Sutcliffe and the Kyōyū kyōyū – share group, muslin wraps from London Mothers and packages of children toys and books put together by Ayumuko Miyaji, which they will then distribute to their young children and families.  They  were thrilled about the colorful blankets, gorgeous teddy bears and toys and books as it provided them with good study tools to teach the kids.

Indeed these women are remarkable.  They lost everything themselves and yet they still come each day and make a difference in these young lives! They are true Kesennuma heroes!

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Once a year between July and August, Japan celebrates Tanabata – a Japanese star festival. The most famous Tanabata festival is held in Sendai, Miyagi-ken in August. People generally celebrate this day by writing wishes on small pieces of paper, and hanging them on large colorful streamers. This year, wishes were written and hung, from not only in Japan but from around the world – wishes for those who had suffered from the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

So today amongst the vivid color, kimonos, exotic food and 1000s of paper cranes – Japan Alive appeared on stage and shared a message on “life” during the Tanabata festival.

Through a “Cinderella” like skit, speech, distribution of free literature and a free photo session for people to dress up as a princess or prince – Japan Alive conveyed the message that everybody’s life is valuable and has a purpose from before they were even born.   Your experiences do not determine your identity or your dream.  Indeed, every life has the potential to change the course of a nation (like a princess) and nobody has the right to treat you as any less than that – everybody is entitled to dream which produces HOPE.

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Special thanks to London Mothers!

Japan Alive received 100 muslin squares from London Mothers as part of the “Muslin Squares Project” .  These squares are  “to help young mothers and mothers-to-be in the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear affected areas in Japan.  Muslin Squares are large cloths used to wipe babies’ mouths, for breastfeeding or as burp cloths.”

Many thanks to those in London who have supported this project, and the London Mothers group who are sending these squares to Japan and helping those in need!

We are currently distributing them in temporary housing in Shichigahama and will also hand them out at the Tanabata festival in Sendai tomorrow. We also hope to visit an orphanage further up north next week which is in great need! So stay tuned for more photos!

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And the fun continues!

Yarn Alive – growing in numbers, favor and joy.

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“It’s a whole lot better than staying at home alone and thinking…”

That is a quote from a lady who has joined the “Yarn Alive” group.  She was asked what was the best thing about Yarn Alive.

Today there was an article in The Japan Times describing the increase in suicides throughout the quake region in Japan.  It reports that “The situation has calmed down, but there is concern about the long-term psychological impact on residents, many of whom have lost everything.”

As people are moving into temporary homes, there are concerns “that the sudden transfer from community to individual-based living could have even more dire consequences.”

“Yarn Alive,” an initiative to bring people together in the community centers of each temporary housing development, has increased in size and interest over the past few weeks! Such interest has grown that even NHK, a major television program in Japan, has been in touch and has done a short piece on what “Yarn Alive” is about and the importance it plays in counteracting suicide.

We are so thankful for the donations from people and discounts provided by shops in the Erie area of Pennsylvania.

As this is an ongoing project and increasing in size to other temporary houses (another 4!), we are asking for monetary donations to cover yarns and supplies (as these are given out for free to people who have lost everything).  If interested in making such a donation, please contact us at

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June 11, 2011 marks exactly 3 months since Japan experienced the great March 11 earthquake. Even at this very hour, towns and villages were being swept away;  families torn apart;  lives changed forever.

However, with change comes new beginnings. New hope. New life.  This week also marked the first class (of many) of “Yarn Alive”. An initiative that Teddy Sawka is helping to coordinate in order to see women of all ages who have been affected by the tsunami to come together, learn how to crochet and support one another in one of the hardest times.

With an alarming increase in suicides since the earthquake/tsunami, particularly in elderly people, “Yarn Alive” is an important initiative to keep people “alive” and well.
It has been exciting to have an incredible donation of money in order to purchase such materials – huge thanks to many in the USA who have contributed toward this!

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2 Brave Women…

Awesome day today meeting with 2 brave mothers and their children in Shichigahama – an island close to the epi-center of the March 11 earthquake/tsunami.

Both these ladies and their families lost their homes to the tsunami. We were able to spend time with them, pray and give them gifts for their children from Japan Alive and blankets from the Kyōyū kyōyū – share group in the UK.

Here are their stories:


Kiyomi has a 1-year-old boy and 7-year-old girl. They are currently living in the refugee center while their husband/father has to work and live in Sendai city to provide for the family.  When there was warning of the tsunami, Kiyomi quickly evacuated to a nearby hill but decided to run back to her home to grab milk, rice and the rice cooker for her children as she knew she would not be able to return!  That terrifying night, she with 40 other people, stayed on the hill. The next day a helicopter came to rescue them – telling them to hold on tightly to their small belongings. From that day on, they have stayed at the shelter in safety.

They are currently in line for temporary housing which they hope to move into by the end of June (one month earlier than originally planned).  During this time, they hope to rebuild their home in their village.


Rumiko and her husband, and two children of  4 years old and 1 years old, lost their home to the tsunami.  They are now living in one room with their relatives.   Rumiko shared with us that the aftershocks are very scary for the children.  When they happen (which is frequent), the children wake up straight away and run to her for a hug.  She shared that her greatest hope is for her children – that they will be able to smile and have fun once again – and then this will make her happy.

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