Local hero embodies 'kizuna'
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- An aged, black-and-white family photo caked with ash and dust drifts atop a stagnant field of water. As it floats along, it is joined by vaguely-shaped debris, soaked to the core - perhaps framework from a house or shed, maybe from a nearby building.
For countless miles in every direction, the view is unobstructed. Streets where cars and people had busily buzzed about have become desolate and solemn, enveloped by a silence so deep it disorients.
Where housing districts once stood, now lies only ruin - rent apart by inconceivable force, leaving nothing but the echoes of the families who lived there.
This scene was the reality for hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens after the 9.1 magnitude Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami struck the Tohoku region in March 2011.
"I remember watching the news coverage fervently," said Takuya Kanto, a 35th Civil Engineer Squadron civilian firefighter. "Every day reported the destruction of a different city, or a new death toll - 1,000, 5,000, 10,000 people, in less than a week."
With tens of thousands presumed dead or without homes, Kanto, the Misawa Air Base community and the world responded to aid their Japanese partners.
"When emergency operations were completed on base and the recovery efforts began, we assembled teams of volunteers and coordinated efforts to assist the local community," said former Misawa firefighter Master Sgt. Andres Steevens, now the 92nd CES fire prevention chief at Fairchild AFB, Washington.
During the initial weeks following the earthquake, Kanto dedicated countless hours away from home and his family -- often commuting as far as three hours away to assist villages, and return home the same day.
He did this for five months straight.
"It was during this time that I bonded with both American military members and citizens of nearby villages," said Kanto. "Through this tragedy, I formed a strong relationship with a local village."
Rikuzentakata Village would soon become a location Kanto knew well, during the six-month timeframe he commuted there from Misawa as an emergency responder.
Although only five years ago, the memories of friendship and partnership forged in tragedy are ones Kanto has not forgotten and uses daily.
"My experiences during the time after the earthquake changed me as a person," Kanto said as his normally stern gaze softened. "Working together with volunteers and the American military showed me what kind of person I wanted to be - selfless and invested in the community."
Kanto said these experiences fuel his determination and inspiration to excel in everything he does.
Growing up in Misawa City, Kanto attended local schools and participated in activities like martial arts, specifically karate, which has imbued him with a greater level of focus and dedication.
It also introduced Kanto to the presence of Americans, something he would later pursue.
"Shortly after high school ended, I migrated to Tokyo to attend college," recalled Kanto. "I studied international economics and during that time, I also instructed karate classes."
Although his studies were serious, Kanto felt himself drawn to return home at the age of 26 after graduating college.
"My goal was to work on Misawa AB," Kanto said cheerfully. "I really wanted to become a member of Misawa AB after seeing the teamwork demonstrated between the military members and local community."
So, Kanto hit the books - hard. For a period of two years, he would self-study English every day in addition to having his neighbors, American military members, help teach and assist him in his pursuit.
Finally, in 1996 at the age of 28, Kanto became a civilian firefighter at Misawa AB.
"Kanto is one of my hardest working team members and leads by example in all aspects of being a firefighter," said Senior Master Sgt. Dorian Dillon, the 35th CES fire chief. "No matter how difficult or dirty a job is he always has a positive attitude."
During his 20 years of service, Kanto has met, befriended and learned from countless Airmen and others, which helped shape new firefighters as well as himself.
"His positive attitude is contagious to the Airmen around him," Dillon said.
Kanto recites a Japanese phrase "ichi-go, ich-ie," meaning "one time, one meeting" symbolizing the importance of his relationship with his firefighter family.
"All of the friends I've made have left a lasting impression on me," Kanto said wistfully. "One constant link tying us together is our friendship and sense of community."
Kizuna, meaning "bond" in Japanese, is something Kanto takes pride in - acting as a symbolic link between the Airmen of Misawa and the local community.
Kanto often organizes clean-ups or visits to disaster-struck parts of the Iwate-prefecture, like Rikuzentakata Village, one of the most affected areas post-earthquake and tsunami.
"Kanto is an active volunteer coordinator and periodically brings our Airmen to a local orphanage to help with beautification projects, youth mentoring and great cultural interchanges," Steevens said. "His volunteer skills are something all of us should strive toward and I'm proud to be considered one of his friends."
These trips, taken multiple times each year, further the ties the Misawa Air Base community has cultivated with their Japanese partners.
"Each visit to Rikuzentakata brings so much happiness to the people who live there, many of who lived through horrors," said Kanto. "I'm humbled to simply act as the link between these people and our Airmen."
As the five-year anniversary of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami approaches, Kanto solemnly remembers the tragedy, but looks ahead, filled with hope for more opportunities for America and Japan to strengthen their relationship.
"I just want to say 'thank you'," Kanto said. "For everything I have learned working with the American community, the friends I have made and the opportunities I have been given."