First U.S. victim of Japan tsunami Taylor Anderson recalled as ‘ray of sunshine’

April 2, 2011

At the memorial for Taylor Anderson, the first American confirmed dead in the Japanese tsunami last month, the 24-year-old’s love for her adopted country was everywhere.

Colorful paper origami cranes, the Japanese symbol for long life, were distributed in her memory. Photos of a beaming Anderson wearing kimonos were on display. Her young Japanese students were quoted.

Family and friends say Anderson, who became enthralled with Japan in third grade when she saw a movie about the country, was living her dream when she arrived in August 2008 to teach English.

“I’m so glad to be back. And relieved that it feels so much like home,” she wrote in a journal entry on her first day. It was read by her father, Andy Anderson, during an emotional service Saturday morning that drew hundreds of family members and friends to St. Edward the Confessor Catholic Church in her home town of Richmond. They also heard a letter from the Japanese ambassador to the United States, calling Anderson a bridge between the two nations.

Taylor Anderson’s longtime boyfriend, James Kenney, said her close friends nicknamed her “walking ray of sunshine” because she was always so full of life, never afraid to try anything new — whether it was exotic food while traveling or a new hobby, such as origami or photography.


Taylor Anderson, an English teacher working in Japan, was the first reported U.S. fatality in the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. (AP)

“She was determined to squeeze as much fun as she could into every day,” said Kenney, his voice cracking. “She would find something to do and take you along with her . . . regardless of whether you wanted to do it or not, but you’d usually thank her later.”

Anderson arrived in Ishinomaki, a small factory and fishing village on the coast north of Sendai, on a one-year contract to teach English at eight schools through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program.

Her younger sister said Japan suited her. “Taylor doesn’t have a mean bone in her body. And the people there are very kind and sweet,” Julia Anderson said. “It’s also known as the Land of Cute. They even have a word for it: kawaii. She definitely fit that. She had a crazy collection of 50 pairs of tights decorated differently. She had a lot of fun with that.”

Anderson’s diaries, found after the tsunami, are filled with memories of snowboarding trips she’d organized, the Japanese drum she’d just begun to learn, karaoke outings with other foreign teachers in the area who had become close friends, and her goal of becoming fluent in Japanese. She made flashcards and had already mastered 800 kanji, the intricate Japanese characters that are exceedingly difficult for foreigners to memorize.

“Sometimes, she’d made up little stories about them to help her remember. Her favorite character was ‘umbrella,’ ” said her friend Kat Sheu, who taught at a nearby school. And her enthusiasm for Japanese culture was infectious. “She was a very high-spirited girl. When she wanted to do something, she was going to do it.”

Anderson thought perhaps she’d stay two years in Ishinomaki. But when the time came in August to decide her future, she chose to stay one more year and see the junior high students she’d begun to teach as sixth-graders through to their graduation, on March 12, 2011.

The day before, at 2:46 p.m., a 9.0-magnitude earthquake shook the ground around Ishinomaki where Anderson taught school.

As she had been trained to do in the earthquake-prone country, she led her students outside to a playground. Minutes later, when the tsunami warning sirens blared, Anderson helped evacuate the school and take students to a nearby school on higher ground.

Then she took off on her bike to head home. Her father thinks she went to retrieve her cellphone to call loved ones and let them know she was all right, but no one knows for certain. As it turned out, her school was not touched by water.

“Taylor was the victim of a natural disaster, but she definitely is not the victim of life,” the Rev. Donald Lemary said. “Her life was full. And even though her life was shortened, we are the last people to say she was not able to pursue her dream.”

In the days leading up to the service, Andy Anderson came across what was to be their last conversation over AOL Instant Messenger.

It was late at night for her, morning for him, on March 9. Ishinomaki had had a major earthquake that day. She didn’t even mention it.

They chatted and teased back and forth about celebrities, his age, her graduation posters, the family’s upcoming ski trip, plans to hit a favorite sushi restaurant and his promise to get her an iPhone powerful enough to play Angry Birds when she got home in August.

Finally, she said it was time for her to go.

“OK, it’s my bedtime,” she wrote. “Night. Love you.”

The Anderson family has set up a foundation to raise funds in Taylor’s name to help rebuild schools in Japan destroyed in the tsunami. Visit http://www.st.catherines.org/tayloranderson.

Brigid Schulte writes about work-life issues and poverty, seeking to understand what it takes to live The Good Life across race, class and gender.
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