RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan — When a group of American high school students visiting Japan this week were asked to name the highlight of their trip so far, they didn’t mention sushi or the bullet train or the warm welcome they had received — although all those things had been great.
One word sprang from their mouths: Amya.
“She’s so impressive,” said Carter Costello, one of the students from Del Norte High School in Crescent City, Calif. Added Samantha Fuller: “It’s been an honor to meet her.”
They were talking about Amya Miller, a Boston woman who gave up her crisis management company and left her family behind almost five years ago to volunteer in this town after it was virtually wiped out by a tsunami on March 11, 2011.
“This is about hope. This is about recovery. This is about staying rooted to the community,” Miller told the visitors this week as they stood in front of the “miracle pine,” representing the lone tree from a forest of 70,000 that remained standing after the tsunami. (The original tree later died from seawater inundation.) Miller helped organize the exchange between Del Norte and Rikuzentakata’s Takata High School.
Forty-something Miller was born in Japan — her parents were academics teaching in Hokkaido — and spent her first 18 years here, attending Japanese schools. Her Japanese language skills are native, and so is her understanding of Japanese culture and society.
So when the disaster happened, she couldn’t sit back doing nothing. She contacted the State Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Agency for International Development, among others, resolving to respond to the first agency that said it needed her.
The first was a nongovernmental organization called All Hands Volunteers, and it needed her in Rikuzentakata.
Miller had never heard of the place. But she was on the ground on March 27, 16 days after the disaster, and has been here on and off ever since.
At first, she slept on the floor with municipal workers and worked for free. Over time, she started managing the town’s relations with the media and foreign embassies, translating and coordinating.
She learned early that she shouldn’t cry. She was interpreting for the mayor, Futoshi Toba, who lost his wife in the disaster, when she broke down. “He said to me: ‘If I don’t get to cry, you don’t get to cry.’ We were in survival mode,” she recalls.
But Miller soon found that while locals tried to keep a stiff upper lip around one another, they found an outlet in her, the outsider who could speak their language. She became a de facto counselor.
Now a special adviser to the town, she has a hand in policy development but still is reaching into her own pocket to do the work. “But this isn’t about, ‘Oh my God, she did this without getting paid.’ I’m here because I needed to be here. This has changed me,” she said.
Miller’s love for Rikuzentakata is apparent. She has co-written a children’s book about the high school’s boat that washed up in Crescent City after the tsunami and has worked extensively with local schools.
And it’s clear the town loves her back. When she walks into a shop, she’s greeted like a celebrity. At schools, she responds with decidedly American hugs.
“She’s been tremendous help in letting the world know about Rikuzentakata and preventing our experience from being forgotten,” said Koichiro Oikawa, an official at City Hall. “I’m grateful from the bottom of my heart.”
Kazuyoshi Kono, chairman of a local soy sauce manufacturer, agrees. “She is someone we can’t do without,” he said. “Her Japanese is better than Japanese people’s.”
Miller’s consistent presence means she has been able to be a “solid, steady, aggressive advocate for the welfare of the residents there,” said Ted Gilman, a Japan expert at Harvard who has spent a lot of time in the tsunami-affected area.
“Moreover, her commitment to the children of Rikuzentakata has been impressive,” he said. “She organizes and provides programming in local schools for holidays, for example. The kids enjoy the activities, the community appreciates her efforts, and Amya’s infectious sense of fun.”
But now, as the fifth anniversary approaches, Miller has realized it’s time for her to move on.
“I’d like to earn some money again, as opposed to doing something simply because it’s meaningful,” she said. “I would do it all over again. But now, I need to do something lighter. I would like to laugh more.”