Discover Nikkei

In Remembrance of the Tohoku Earthquake & Tsunami: An Interview with The Hidden Japan’s Derek Yamashita — Part 1

Terasaki Volunteer trip

Since 2011, March 11 has become a day of remembrance for the hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives that were changed forever by the devastating Great Tohoku Kanto earthquake. Many lives were lost due to the earthquake and subsequent tsunami. It caused numerous problems that affected the people and region in the weeks that followed, and continued for months and years to come. From the failure of the nuclear power plant in Fukushima to saltwater contamination of the soil to extensive water damage to buildings, homes, and cars—the residents of the area had an almost insurmountable obstacle to climb before they could resume normal lives. Twelve years later, many people in the region still continue to struggle.

The double disasters on March 11 caused shock around the world and changed the life trajectory of some living outside of Japan. One of those people is Derek Yamashita. Derek grew up in California as a fourth-generation Japanese American and due to his many personal and cultural connections to Japan, he felt a strong desire to find a way to help those in the Tohoku region. Derek’s journey started with a T-shirt fundraiser that raised over $11,000. With help from the Japanese American Society of Southern California, the money was sent to Japan so the funds could be used for recovery efforts where they were most needed, in the areas most hurt by the earthquake and tsunami. 

T-Shirt Fundraiser

From there, Derek became more involved with his Japanese American community in the United States which led to a career in Japan. Derek is an active volunteer in the Tohoku region and has established a travel company called The Hidden Japan, both of which he uses to help bridge cultural gaps between America and Japan and continue to help the Tohoku region he has become so close to and passionate about over the years. Last year, the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) recognized Derek as one of 30 Changemakers under the age of 30 that are making extraordinary contributions to advance the Museum’s mission through the arts, business, culture, education, politics, sports, and technology. 

JANM’s Discover Nikkei project interviewed Derek in commemoration of the 12th anniversary of the disaster. The events of March 11, 2011, as with many historical moments, will not be forgotten by those whose lives were directly and indirectly affected. 

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What inspired you to get involved with the Huntington Beach and Anjo Sister City program? How did your experience with the Sister City Project, as well as any other experiences you had with the Japanese American community here in California, inspire you to become so interested in Japan?

I grew up being told I was Japanese and identified as Japanese, so when the chance to actually visit Japan came, I jumped on it. This experience helped me form a deep fascination with Japan and my heritage and also sparked a love for Japan’s people and culture that would permanently change the path of my life. Just as I was coming off the highs of being amazed by my experiences in the sister city program and homestay in Japan, the disaster unfolded on TV. I felt anguish to see people and communities just like those that had shown me so much kindness, suffering unimaginably. 

Why did you choose selling T-shirts as your first fundraiser?

I knew that what I could do from Los Angeles (LA) was limited and of course what Japan needed most at the time was funds to help with disaster relief. That is why I sought out fundraising as a means to help. I also talked with my parents and school about this and decided that T-Shirts would be a great product to sell as they had a high profit margin and gave visibility to the cause at a time when the disaster was all over the news. I chose the JASSC as I had known the then-president Doug Erber and knew the money would be used very efficiently and quickly to reach those in need.  

What did it mean to you at the time to share your fundraiser for those affected by the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami with your family and friends living here in the U.S.?

I was most surprised by the outpouring of support for that small fundraiser. The mayor of Huntington Beach personally introduced me and the project on local TV, a Japanese American designer named Kevin Hosoda designed the T-Shirts for free, a T-shirt maker in Huntington Beach gave us discounts on production, and I had incredible support from my classmates who volunteered so much of their time at the many booths we set up. The Japanese American community was of course supportive as well and they helped me get booths at festivals and events and many shops even sold the shirts for us too.

What was it like to tour and volunteer in the eastern Tohoku region during college?

Yes, that was my first time to the Tohoku region which is starkly different from Tokyo and Southern Japan where I’d been before. Its beautiful nature and delicious foods stood out to me as did their slower pace of life. The great patience and warmth of the local people there was impressive.

Shonai, Yamagata Prefecture.

I was especially surprised that the locals there, many of whom had even lost family and friends just months previously, made such efforts to welcome our volunteer group as honored guests even when they had lost so much. It certainly did make me want to support them more. While studying abroad in Tokyo, I traveled north to the region over 20 times to volunteer, sometimes with the JASSC and Doug Erber.

Around the time you started to attend college and after graduating, you worked with or for the JET Program, Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC), Bridging Foundation, and eventually the Tokyo Olympic Committee; how did your work with these organizations come about?

I just applied for JET like anyone else and would be placed in Tohoku as I asked to be placed there. This is also uncommon as hardly any JETs ask to be placed in this region. This helped give me the chance to continue some of my volunteer activities including visiting the children’s home I volunteered at, which had received funding from the JASSC. More on my time volunteering at the children’s home can be found here.

I applied for the Bridging Foundation under its scholarships to help with my study abroad in Tokyo. This funding helped give me the financial support that allowed me to go on volunteer trips to Tohoku with the Team Asunaro volunteer group that were often self-paid. The Bridging Foundation also helped me get an internship at a law firm in Tokyo with Koji Yamamoto, a crucial mentor in my life who continues to guide me here in Japan.

The Team Asunaro Volunteer Group

The JACCC and Tokyo Olympic Committee collaborations happened much further down the line once I established a tourism and travel consulting agency in Tohoku. 

What lead you to start your travel company, The Hidden Japan?

My work and many visits to Tohoku made me realize that Tohoku was my favorite part of Japan. I felt it offered an authentic and deep look into a different side of Japan that simply could not be found along the crowded tourism routes of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka; and offered something unique that would appeal to a wide range of travelers.

I started by simply making a travel blog as a hobby as a JET. I then changed this to a proper website with some friends as a side job taking in advertisements. Once a large number of travelers and travel agencies began to contact us, my business partners and I knew it could become something bigger and we went full time making our company called The Hidden Japan.

The 3/11 Disaster had great effects on the shorelines directly hit by the tsunami, but there were also great economic and societal damages to the whole Tohoku region. This region is linked together in every way with families working in other prefectures and businesses working together around this region too. This can be seen in the creation of the Kizuna Festival, which brings together all the flagship festivals of the Tohoku region and was developed to help support this region after the tsunami. Our company has worked on the public relations for this festival, found here.

Yamagata Hanagasa Festival

Our agency is also quite unique being based in the Tohoku region as almost every other travel agency catering towards western tourists is either based in Tokyo or overseas. I feel this is not sustainable or beneficial for the Tohoku region, especially for the disaster hit areas since much of the profits and benefits of inbound tourism is lost in this way.

Our agents all live and work across Tohoku and form deep bonds with the local members of the communities where we send guests. We always work with local guides, prioritize locally owned hotels, local cuisine, and work with local governments to ensure we are respectful and sustainable in the way we do business here. All of my employees have a love for Tohoku and we all take pride in the fact that we have been able to establish a flourishing tourism company here. 

How has partnering with national and local Japanese governments working to revitalize the area allowed you to share the various areas of the Tohoku region with international customers and those who live in Japan?

For many years since starting our company we have wanted to do tours that told the story of the 3/11 disaster and the road to recovery that they continue to this day. However, this was difficult as creating such a tour and ensuring it stays mindful and respectful, posed many challenges.

Just last year we have finally been able to start making tour packages here in collaboration with the government of Sendai City and are beginning to welcome guests here. We have created packages that combine the great natural beauty, culinary excellence, and inspiring stories of the local people. This is very meaningful to me as this was one of the original reasons I had moved to Japan and I know that a key pillar to this region’s recovery will lie in tourism to help bolster the economies of these small communities.

I believe there is great potential in creating jobs related to inbound tourism here including hiring local guides, arranging special experiences with local people, sending guests to charming local lodgings, and so much more. Being involved in support projects for Tohoku for over 10 years has helped me see many needs for this region and I now believe this is the most important way I can support Tohoku. 

Are you still involved with helping the eastern Tohoku region and do you have any projects in the works there?

Yes, I am working with Glenn Tanaka and his Walk The Farm project. Walk The Farm has supported many farmers over this decade and is making new plans to continue to support the long path of recovery for these communities.

In Miyagi Prefecture for example, the tsunami wiped out the farming industry here and massive amounts of work to restore the fields here from the salt water were needed. Another issue is that local farmers are struggling to get by and their small towns are having a crisis where they cannot find new young farmers to take over the vacant fields as the farmers who remain are beginning to retire.

We are working with Glenn to help administer this project in collaboration with small farming towns along the coast. We are helping to identify the needs of some of the farmers here and think of new ways to attract young farmers to set up businesses. This also includes setting up farm-to-table experiences here where tourists can visit these small farming communities, meet the farmers, harvest crops together, and make local dishes that they enjoy together. More information can be found at Walk The Farm’s website.

What would you like readers to take away from or learn from your journey?

I would like to let readers know that many people around the world had learned about Tohoku through the tsunami disaster, but this should not be the identity or what it is remembered for. These communities are excellent destinations to visit for those seeking to get off the beaten path and away from ever-growing crowds of tourists that clog the big cities. Tohoku has come a long way in its recovery and is ready to welcome guests and I would love to help interested travelers plan a trip there. 

Part 2 >>


© 2023 Japanese American National Museum

2011 Tohoku Earthquake & Tsunami, Japan California Derek Yamashita disaster relief Doug Erber emergency management farms fundraising Honshu Irvine Japan Japan America Society of Southern California JPquake2011 Orange Coast Optimist Club Tanaka Farms The Hidden Japan (firm) Tohoku Region (Japan) United States Walk The Farm project Yamagata Prefecture
About this series

In Japanese, kizuna means strong emotional bonds.

This series shares stories about Nikkei individual and/or community reaction and perspectives on the Great Tohoku Kanto earthquake on March 11, 2011 and the resulting tsunami and other impacts—either about supporting relief efforts or how what has happened has affected them and their feeling of connection to Japan.

If you would like to share your reactions, please see the “Submit an Article” page for general submission guidelines. We welcome submissions in English, Japanese, Spanish, and/or Portuguese, and are seeking diverse stories from around the world.

We hope that these stories bring some comfort to those affected in Japan and around the world, and that this will become like a time capsule of responses and perspectives from our global Nima-kai community for the future.

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There are many organizations and relief funds established around the world providing support for Japan. Follow us on Twitter @discovernikkei for info on Nikkei relief efforts, or check the Events section. If you’re posting a Japan relief fundraising event, please add the tag “JPquake2011” to make it appear on the list of earthquake relief events.

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About the Author

Established in 1985, Japanese American National Museum (JANM) promotes understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity by sharing the Japanese American experience. Located in the historic Little Tokyo district of downtown Los Angeles, JANM provides a voice for Japanese Americans and a forum that enables all people to explore their own heritage and culture. Since opening to the public in 1992, JANM has presented over 70 exhibitions onsite while traveling 17 exhibits to leading cultural museums in the US, Japan, and South America. For more information, visit or follow us on social media @jamuseum.

Updated March 2023

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