Sarah Jane Weaver: Why the Olympics are a symbol of moving forward in Japan

Yumiko Yoshiki was standing in her home in Kesennuma, Japan, on March 11, 2011, when the shaking started and things around her began to fall. Tsunami alarms followed.

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. Sister Yoshiki took one car, her daughter another.

But when Yoshiki, a Latter-day Saint member of the Ichinoseki Branch, 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.

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

It would be weeks before she was reunited with her daughter and husband. Still, when we met three months later after I traveled to Japan to write about the earthquake and tsunami, she was certain of one thing: “If I had gone back I wouldn’t have lived.”

I thought of Yoshiki this year as I watched the opening ceremony of the 2020 Olympic Games, held one decade later in her now-recovered nation where the earthquake and tsunami claimed 20,000 lives, displaced thousands and destroyed more than 551,000 homes.  

Yoshiki found safe ground by looking forward during the disaster. The Olympics, delayed one year by the COVID-19 pandemic and held without spectators, represent a similar moving forward.

In a largely empty stadium, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach spoke directly to the athletes. “You had to face great challenges on your Olympic journey,” he said. “Like all of us, you were living with great uncertainty through the pandemic. You did not know when you could train again. … You did not even know if this competition would take place at all. You struggled, you persevered, you never gave up, and today you are making your Olympic dream come true.”

The themes of overcoming and persisting are etched into miles of coastal cities destroyed by the 2011 tsunami. They are also evident in the Olympics.

Mykayla Skinner, of United States, poses for a photo with her silver medal for vault after the artistic gymnastics apparatus finals at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Mykayla Skinner, of United States, poses for a photo with her silver medal for vault after the artistic gymnastics apparatus finals at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis) Credit: Ashley Landis, Associated Press

MyKayla Skinner, a Latter-day Saint gymnast representing the United States, failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympic trials, was an alternate on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team, and then qualified to represent the U.S. this year. For many days during this Olympic competition, she thought her Olympic dream had ended after scoring well in the qualifying round but behind two other U.S. gymnasts, until the withdrawal of another athlete opened a spot for her to compete in the individual vault finals. She would go on to win Olympic glory and an individual silver medal in Tokyo. Her path was filled with discouragement and disappointment and a lot of moving forward in spite of them.

Peter Bol, a Latter-day Saint runner from Australia, came in fourth in the 800-meter race, following record performances for his country in the semifinals and preliminary heat. He led early in the race and held the lead until the final 200 meters, when he was passed by the three athletes who ended up on the podium.  

The gratitude he showed on social media reflected his moving forward. “4th but Feeling the support and love of the whole nation. I thank you and I appreciate you,” he wrote.  

In October 2020, as the weary world still dealt with the lingering pandemic, President Russell M. Nelson stood in general conference and delivered a talk titled “Moving Forward.”

“During the past few months, a global pandemic, raging wildfires and other natural disasters have turned our world upside down,” he said. “I grieve with each of you who has lost a loved one during this time. And I pray for all who are currently suffering.

“Meanwhile, the work of the Lord is steadily moving forward. Amid social distancing, face masks and Zoom meetings, we have learned to do some things differently and some even more effectively. Unusual times can bring unusual rewards.”

That evening he would tell Latter-day Saint women that turbulent times are opportunities to thrive spiritually and influence others. “Let us not just endure this current season,” he said. “Let us embrace the future with faith.”

I will never forget viewing the miles and miles of destruction left by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the sight of entire cities destroyed by those powerful forces, nor the resilient and faith-filled Latter-day Saints who moved forward in spite of all that was lost.

On June 15, 2011, three months after earthquake and tsunami in Japan, boat stands as reminder of destruction in Higashi Matsushima, Japan, a coastal community devastated by the disaster.
On June 15, 2011, three months after earthquake and tsunami in Japan, boat stands as reminder of destruction in Higashi Matsushima, Japan, a coastal community devastated by the disaster. Credit: Photo by Sarah Jane Weaver

Naoki and Setsuko Yamada are Latter-day Saints whose home was destroyed by the tsunami.

When the catastrophe struck, Setsuko Yamada went to an evacuation center; Naoki Yamada to his mother-in-law’s home. It was four days before the couple reunited.

Unable to contact his wife, Naoki Yamada prayed for several hours. “I felt she would be OK,” he said.

Finally, four days after the disaster, Setsuko Yamada made her way to her husband. “She came through the back door of the house and she was crying. We were able to call [our family] and tell them she was OK.”

Setsuko Yamada took her Book of Mormon with her to the evacuation center. In the days before she was reunited with her family, she read stories of faith and patience and overcoming trials.

There, in the evacuation center, facing the loss of so much, the scriptures taught her a lesson of hope. “I read that we have to move forward; we have to move forward with God.”