RCN sailors build relationships during visit to Onagawa, Japan

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Navy News / July 27, 2017

By Sub-Lieutenant S.M. Anderson

The ocean appears suddenly as the steep, forested mountains open up to reveal the deep blue of Onagawa Bay, in north east Japan. The road winds down towards the busy port with its fleet of commercial fishing vessels and oyster farms, but it is the dust in the air and the sound of construction equipment that steals attention from the natural beauty of the area.

Onagawa was one of the most heavily damaged towns in the Tohoku earthquake (Great East Japan Earthquake) on March 11, 2011 and is now the site of remarkable rebuilding efforts. On July 14, 2017, Canadian ambassador to Japan, Ian Burney, Rear-Admiral Gilles Couturier, Deputy Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), and sailors from Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships (HMCS) Ottawa and Winnipeg, visited the town during POSEIDON CUTLASS 17.

After arriving in Onagawa, the Canadian team met with Mayor Yoshiaki Suda to review the rebuilding efforts six years after the earthquake. Mayor Suda spoke of the work of re-visioning the town, rather than simply rebuilding. Speaking through a translator, Mayor Suda talked about bringing the people and the port together again, and building a sustainable Onagawa for future generations.

Chief Petty Officer Mark Johnston, Combat Systems Engineering Chief in HMCS Ottawa, was impressed by the efforts of the town. “I was in awe of the amount of work being done by the people of Onagawa, six years after the tsunami, as they rebuild their community. It was incredible to see that the physical signs of the devastation wrought by the surge of water are still visible today.”

Working together with survivors and new community members, Onagawa has embarked on a journey of recovery to create a new town based on collaboration and sustainable development that can be a model to other areas devastated by natural disasters. 

Following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, Canada offered financial support to the area through numerous charities, but the relationship between Canada and Onagawa predates the terrible earthquake of 2011. Onagawa contains the only memorial dedicated to a foreign soldier on Japanese soil, Canadian Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray, V.C., D.S.C., organized and supported by the local Kanda family for the last three generations. In 1945, in the closing days of the Second World War, Lt Gray was killed as he led an air attack against Japanese naval vessels in Onagawa Bay.

Onagawa established a memorial to the 158 Japanese war dead on a promontory overlooking Onagawa Bay. In 1989, the Kanda family helped create a memorial for Lt Gray. Rather than focus on the adversarial history between the two countries, Onagawa has focused on moving forward in peace and friendship with Canada.

“In a culture that values honour, it is incredibly meaningful to see the honour that Onagawa accords to Lt Robert Hampton Gray,” observed Lieutenant-Commander Scott Kelemen, Executive Officer, HMCS Ottawa

The friendship between the Japanese fishing town and the country thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean, was strengthened by the visit to Onagawa of the Canadian ambassador to Japan and the RCN during POSEIDON CUTLASS 17.

RAdm Couturier addressed local dignitaries at the Lt Gray monument. “Here is a serenity of peace for both our countries to share. It is our duty to see that this peace lasts for our children and grandchildren to see…I can think of no better symbol of the peaceful future imagined by the Kanda family than the recent naval exercises between the RCN and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force on POSEIDON CUTLASS 17.”

Visiting the memorial to the Japanese War Dead, the Lt Gray memorial, and the recent memorial to the victims of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami was a poignant reminder of the importance of the relationship building that has been a priority for the two RCN ships on POSEIDON CUTLASS 17.

The bus climbed roads still under construction from the earthquake as the sailors of Ottawa and Winnipeg returned to their ships. The sailors spoke to each other of their thoughts after an emotional day. They spoke of being ambassadors of Canadian values thousands of miles from home, and of their desire to serve Canada and strengthen peace throughout the world.

Onagawa stands as an important symbol of the strength of will required to rebuild for a better future; both international relationships after a war and a town after a natural disaster.