Berkeley -- Thousands of miles away from home, 300 Japanese high school students are in the Bay Area to learn how the rebuild the communities they lost to the March 2011 earthquake.
All of the students taking part in the three-week Tomodachi leadership program at UC Berkeley come from the Tohoku region of Japan, the area closest to the 9.0 earthquake that caused a tsunami and a partial nuclear meltdown. Many lost family members or homes.
"Most of the people probably, if they have not lost a family member, certainly had serious damage to their house or their family business," said Kaz Maniwa, senior vice president for the U.S.-Japan Council. "Somehow their everyday world has been overturned."
The Tomodachi program is designed to give the students a chance to move past the natural disaster by empowering them through community service projects and cultural ties with the United States. Tomodachi is a Japanese word meaning "friend."
"Part of what we want to do is show them that there is a world beyond that ... and also to feel like they have the power to create change in their communities, country and world," said David Beiser, director of grant programs at Ayusa, a foreign exchange service. "Right now, they're in a situation where nature showed them something pretty powerful. A lot of them, I think, feel pretty powerless."
Even though the program started July 24, organizers are already seeing students planning projects to take back
"We have to revive our hometown," said Natsumi Oikawa, a 16-year-old from the Fukushima province. "I want to make my hometown have a beautiful environment and solve the radiation problem."
The program is a collaboration between Ayusa, the U.S.-Japan Council and Softbank, a Japanese telecommunications business. Smaller groups are planned for Dallas, Portland and Washington D.C., but the Bay Area was chosen to host the largest because Masayoshi Son, the founder of Softbank, has ties to the university. Son, the second-richest man in Japan, according to Forbes, graduated from UC Berkeley in 1980 and wanted to re-create his educational experience for the students.
Out of 2,000 applicants, the 300 who were chosen were given free transportation, housing and even iPads for their trip that runs through Aug. 10.
Being fluent in English was not a requirement, and students had only to write an essay explaining why they wanted to come to the U.S. Response for the program was slow at first, organizers said.
"For most of these young people, they've never been outside of their area -- not even outside of Japan, but not even outside of their communities," Maniwa said. "It's a pretty big deal to say that I'd like to go to America."
While in the U.S., students are being shown what it's like to be a regular American teen. They went to an Oakland A's game Tuesday, and each will spend a weekend with a Bay Area family.
But the emphasis is on "being effective agents of change," Beiser said.
The students have had a chance to build water purification kits and even visit PayPal headquarters in San Jose.
"Really what we're trying to do is build people-to-people relationships between Americans and Japanese," Maniwa said. "We're hoping that this program will be a life-changing experience for them."