Junko SatoJunko Sato

When I graduated from Columbia University’s Teachers College in 2008, it should have been a time to celebrate my journey thus far. Instead, I hit a brick wall.

My dad was hospitalized after a stroke, and my family learned that he had accumulated more than 10 years’ worth of financial debt. It was during this time that I decided to return to my hometown of Tagajo City, which is located in Miyagi Prefecture in Tohoku, northeastern Japan.

I was still in a fog when, one day in the summer of 2009, I severely injured my thumb. After a doctor deemed my injury untreatable, another doctor at one of the best hospitals in the Tohoku region agreed to see me. She informed me that if I had arrived an hour later, I would have lost my thumb.

As I recuperated over the next few months, I had a lot of time to chant “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” and reflect on my life. It was during this time that I recalled a memorable encounter with my mentor, SGI President Daisaku Ikeda.

related article In Times of Crisis In Times of Crisis by  Andy Bastable,  UK Andy Bastable discusses his water projects with NGOs, including Oxfam and how his practice of Nichiren Buddhism has motivated him. In January 2001, my mom and I had made the 10-hour round-trip from Tagajo to the Soka Gakkai Headquarters in Tokyo to let Mr. Ikeda know that I had been accepted to Soka University of America (SUA) in Aliso Viejo, California, as part of the first class.

This was especially meaningful news for my mom, because she had dreamed of studying abroad after attending a meeting with Mr. Ikeda when she was in high school. My mother, in fact, had been offered a full scholarship to study in America, but her parents couldn’t afford the flight tickets. Even so, she instilled in me the same dream of becoming a global citizen.

After reporting my acceptance to SUA to Mr. Ikeda, my mom and I were invited to attend the Soka Gakkai headquarters leaders meeting the following day. During that meeting, Mr. Ikeda spoke about SUA and mentioned that some of the incoming freshmen were in the room. To my surprise, he then called out my name several times, referring to me as “Junko of Tohoku.”

I began searching for a job that would enable me to fulfill my potential as an SUA graduate and become a global citizen committed to living a contributive life.

When I realized he was speaking to me, I stood up. Mr. Ikeda praised me for working hard to get accepted to SUA, all the way from Tohoku. In my heart, I felt as though he were speaking through me to all the members of Tohoku.

As I recalled this prime point eight years later, I realized that, regardless of how incapable I felt, I indeed had a mission. With this determination, I began searching for a job that would enable me to fulfill my potential as an SUA graduate and become a global citizen committed to living a contributive life.

In April of 2010, I began working for a foundation that provides various social services and workshops to foreign nationals in Miyagi Prefecture, part of Tohoku. I was placed in charge of promoting international education in public schools.

On March 11, when the 9.0-magnitude earthquake rocked the Tohoku region, I was working on the seventh floor of the 10-story government building in Sendai City, and the room shook so violently that I thought I was going to die. Unsure whether the building was stable, I stayed overnight in a co-worker’s car, and we listened to updates on the radio in the pitch-black dark.

It was then that I learned that a monstrous tsunami had wiped out my hometown Tagajo, killing many people. For the next two days, I agonized over my mom’s safety, as residents went without water, food, gas or electricity.

related article Buddhism in Cuba Buddhism in Cuba by  Joannet Delgado, general director,  SGI-Cuba Joannet Delgado, general director of SGI-Cuba, shares her journey of discovering Nichiren Buddhism and how it took root in her country. With local cell phone towers down, the only communication I received was from friends in Tokyo and the US. One friend texted me: “Please be alive. That’s the only thing we ask you to do.”

On March 15, my brother and I were able to travel home after he waited five hours to purchase a little more than 2.5 gallons of gas. Nothing could have prepared me for the horrific images I saw on the two-hour drive home.

When we arrived, we found our mother living in her car with our family cat. For several days, she had been chanting day and night, while subsisting on a can of tuna and a bottle of tea.

When I assured my mom that I would stay with her, she responded with a warm smile and in a strong voice: “No, you have many people waiting for you. They need your help. You have to go back to work!”

This attitude reflected the spirit of the Tohoku members. Though many lost their homes and were separated from their families, their determination was to turn poison into medicine for all of Japan.

Local Soka Gakkai leaders, including my mom, began visiting members one by one at the evacuation centers. Being involved in such efforts, I started to feel conviction and hope. In fact, I had never felt so appreciative for life itself.

As ‘Junko of Tohoku,’ I am determined to live out mine for the sake of the people of my region and as a world citizen.

When I returned to work, we received phone calls nonstop from people all over the world desperate to confirm the whereabouts of their loved ones. We translated around the clock and visited evacuation sites to support foreign nationals among the survivors.

I knew that, in some small way, I had to inspire hope in my people. In May, I traveled to the US to attend SUA’s seventh commencement ceremony, which also marked the 10th anniversary of the school’s founding.

Before departing, I received the names of elementary school and junior high and high school members in Tohoku who had been affected by the disaster. During an alumni celebration at SUA, I shared my experience and asked fellow classmates to write messages to these children on SUA postcards. I then mailed them out, one by one.

At this same gathering, my alma mater presented me with its Community Service Award. I knew I had received it on behalf of the people of Tohoku. I returned to Japan safely on June 5, and I continue to support survivors in any way I can.

In a recent essay, President Ikeda wrote: “The mountains of benefit brimming with ‘treasures of the heart’ accumulated by our dedicated Tohoku members will never be destroyed.”

Everyone has a unique mission. As “Junko of Tohoku,” I am determined to live out mine for the sake of the people of my region and as a world citizen, proving the truth of my mentor’s words.

[Adapted from the June 17, 2011, issue of the World Tribune, SGI-USA; photo courtesy of World Tribune]

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