The small Japanese fishing town of Minami Sanriku is half a world away from Chile, but the two places share a bond that crosses a vast ocean — Moai statues.
For two decades an enigmatic smiling face, carved locally in the mould of an Easter Island Moai, kept watch over what residents of Minami Sanriku came to know as Chile Plaza.
However, when the huge waves of the tsunami that hit northeast Japan on March 11 last year swamped the town, the statue, like hundreds of buildings, was toppled and its 2m head knocked off its body.
Much of the town’s infrastructure and most of its economy was wiped out when the gigantic waves swept ashore, killing 19,000 people along this once picturesque coast.
As the town gradually staggers back to its feet, the statue is providing inspiration and a glimmer of hope for the future.
When residents began the clear-up after the tsunami, they pulled the still intact head from the rubble of Chile Plaza and hauled it to a local high school, where it now watches the comings and goings of teenagers.
Shizugawa High School student Nana Yamauchi, 17, has never known Minami Sanriku without a Moai.
“It was already in this town when I was small and I would wonder what it was,” she said. “But now I know how important it is.”
Minami Sanriku’s connection with Chile, 17,000km away, dates from 1960, when a magnitude 9.5 earthquake struck the South American country.
More than 1,600 people were killed in Chile and 2 million left homeless, but the quake also sent a tsunami across the Pacific to Japan, where it claimed 142 lives, more than a quarter of them in Minami Sanriku.
Thirty years later, the two communities celebrated each other’s recovery and after a visit from the Chilean ambassador to Japan, Minami Sanriku installed the Moai statue in a coastal park, which local residents named Chile Plaza.
“People loved the statue,” Mayor Jin Sato said. “It was a symbol of recovery.”
The Moai are mysterious human figures found on Easter Island off the coast of Chile, where hundreds of enormous figures still stand in groups. Ancient islanders are believed to have built the figures, but details such as how they raised the huge stones are unknown.
Now students in the town are using the Moai for a scheme to raise cash to help get their community back on its feet.
The youngsters have designed a series of badges and other trinkets featuring the Moai, which they are selling to raise money to fund a community bus for the town’s seniors.
“There are many grandparents in this town, but it’s not easy for them to get around. The normal bus is very infrequent,” Yamauchi said.
The scheme has won friends in high places.
On a visit to Japan last week, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera took time out from high-level trade diplomacy in Tokyo to visit Minami Sanriku, where he and his delegation toured the devastation all sporting Moai souvenirs.
“This is a symbol of hope for the future,” Pinera said, pointing to his steel badge. “In this city, which was so badly hit by the earthquake and tsunami, it is good to see that faith and courage are still alive.”
Pinera was so inspired by the town that he has promised them a “bigger, more magnificent and more beautiful” Moai — this time the genuine article which the president said would be shipped across the Pacific.
Yamauchi and her schoolmates are now developing Moai-yaki buns — sweets with custard or bean paste inside — which they hope to be able to send to market.