Sarah Jane Weaver: The word I learned after the 2011 tsunami in Japan that has great meaning today

Ganbaru!

I learned this word while traveling in Japan in 2011 after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and powerful tsunami struck the nation — killing more than 15,000, displacing thousands more and destroying some 550,000 homes.

Ganbaru means to hold on or stand firm. It was written on prominent signs placed amid the miles and miles of devastation and destruction in Japan.

It is a word and sentiment that so many need today as the COVID-19 pandemic marches on — altering lives, economies and opportunities in its path.

Yumiko Yoshiki, the only Church member in her family when we met in Kesennuma, Japan, in 2011, is an example of ganbaru.  

When the earth shook and tsunami alarms sounded on March 11, 2011, she grabbed her money and some clothing, and with her adult daughter, started to run. Instantly they realized it would be necessary to flee by car. Yoshiki took one car, her daughter another.

The word, ganbaru, which means hold on or stand firm, is displayed in Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
The word, ganbaru, which means hold on or stand firm, is displayed in Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Credit: Sarah Jane Weaver

But when she crested the hill in her coastal city, her daughter was not behind her. She wanted to go back, but the story of Lot’s wife filled her soul and she knew she must look forward. She continued to drive upward.

Yoshiko never saw the tsunami that destroyed her city, her home and her husband’s fishing boat.

But when we spoke she was certain of one thing. “If I had gone back I wouldn’t have lived.”

Eventually, Yoshiki found her way to her brother-in-law’s home.

In a state of shock and confusion, she prayed for help. “I didn’t know what to do. I stayed awake all night. I wondered, ‘Should I live or should I die?’ My heart was hurt. I knew I needed God.”

She asked the Lord to send her branch president.

Miles away in Ichinoseki, Yoshiki’s branch president — Koki Yamazaki — was worried about the members. There was no electricity or telephone or cell phone service. Food, water and gasoline were in short supply.

Ichinoseki Branch President Koki Yamasaki traveled by scooter to visit members in Kesennuma, Japan. Three months after earthquake and tsunami devasted Japan, damage can be seen in Kesennuma.
Ichinoseki Branch President Koki Yamasaki traveled by scooter to visit members in Kesennuma, Japan. Three months after earthquake and tsunami devasted Japan, damage can be seen in Kesennuma. Credit: Sarah Jane Weaver

Still, two days after the disaster, President Yamazaki borrowed a scooter from a Church member and started toward Kesennuma, then home to Yoshiki and another Latter-day Saint sister. “The roads were destroyed,” he recalled. “The situation was very bad.”

He went from evacuation center to evacuation center looking for the women. Finally, he learned they were safe, but he was unable to find Yoshiki or see her in person that night.

He returned home, got some sleep and set out again for Kesennuma. After considerable searching and effort, he found Yoshiki and offered her a small bag of rice.

“I knew this was God’s help,” said Yoshiki — who was not reunited with her daughter or husband for weeks after the disaster. “No man could have done this. He really was an angel from God.”

As President Yamazaki started home, a tire on the scooter went flat. He rode on the rubber until it began to come off. Then President Yamazaki, knowing the trains and buses were not running, asked locals if he could borrow their tools. He cut the rubber away and ran on the metal wheel rim until he could drive no more.

“I left the bike. I was pretty sad at that point. There was no electricity. No people. It was raining, and I thought it would snow.”

He prayed and promised his Heavenly Father he would do whatever he could. He found rides in three different cars, each taking him closer to home.

“God got me home,” he said.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said a few weeks ago in October general conference that faith means trusting God in good times and bad, “even if that includes some suffering until we see His arm revealed in our behalf.”

Three months after earthquake and tsunami devasted Japan, damage can be seen in Kesennuma, Japan.
Three months after earthquake and tsunami devasted Japan, damage can be seen in Kesennuma, Japan. Credit: Sarah Jane Weaver

“The path to holiness and happiness here and hereafter is a long and sometimes rocky one,” he said.

The answer comes as we work together and wait together — just as did Yoshiki and her branch president.

It is a feeling of ganbaru.

President Russell M. Nelson made the same promise on March 14, just as COVID-19 was intensifying.

“My dear friends, our Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ know us, love us and are watching over us. Of that we can be certain,” he said.