Nami Asoda, 17, was in Tokyo when the 9.0-magnitude earthquake rocked Japan in March, the country’s biggest quake on record.

“I was in school,” she says. “I didn’t know what happened.”

The epicentre was 130 km off the coast of Sendai, one of the major cities in the northern part of the country. The shaking, however, could be felt as far south as Tokyo, where Asoda calls home.

Phone lines were jammed from the number of people trying to contact loved ones, and the roads were closed for emergency vehicle use only. As a result, Asoda had to stay at her school overnight with provisions of only a blanket, a cracker, and some water.

As if the earthquake wasn’t enough, the tectonic shift caused a devastating tsunami, sending waves as high as 10 metres into northern cities, destroying homes and blocking escape routes.

Luckily, Asoda had already arranged to come to Vancouver with the help of family friend Glen Faester. She left Japan for British Columbia three weeks after the earthquake and tsunami to finish her last two years of high school at Howe Sound Secondary School.

“[I was] a little bit nervous,” she says about the move to Canada. But before she left, Asoda and her family had to contend with a lack of electricity, limited mobility in the country, the possibility of nuclear radiation, and most significantly, the constant aftershocks.

Even as she waited at the airport on April 2, Tokyo was hit by an aftershock. When it came time to fly out of the country, Faester says Asoda was quite happy to go.

While North and South American coasts saw little to no raised water levels, coastal cities like Vancouver can expect to experience the effects of the tsunami in a different way – debris.

According to scientists at the University of Hawaii, remnants of the tsunami are floating towards North America, and will reach the West Coast in roughly two to three years.

Jan Hafner and Nikolai Maximenko collaborated on a model that uses statistical analysis of buoys deployed from Japan to predict the path of the debris.

“It would hit Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, all the way up to Alaska,” Hafner says.

Photos taken by the US Navy shortly after the tsunami depict “debris fields” comprised mostly of wood. However, Hafner says it would be “difficult to say” exactly what will make the long journey across the Pacific Ocean.

“People [going to the] beach regularly might see unusual debris like pieces of appliances, pieces of furniture,” Hafner says.

19-year-old Loree Boehm believes there will be a niche for these objects in Vancouver.

Specifically, as found art – everyday objects that are given new life by being reused as a part of a sculpture or as a conceptual piece.

Boehm, a third-year fine art student at Emily Carr University of Art and Design says it would be a constructive use of the debris.

No stranger to found art, Boehm once made a 25 lbs sculpture out of discarded food to comment on how much food we waste.

After working at a catering company, she noticed the vast quantities of food being thrown away each day and asked to bring it home under the guise of “composting.”

“I basically got my idea through the medium,” she says. “Like what you discard is coming back at you.”

The Pacific is no stranger to foreign objects. The North Pacific Tropical Gyre makes it so that garbage eventually accumulates in a large patch in the center of the ocean.

Hafner says these places that usually receive marine debris should expect to see more than usual.

“One year’s production of marine debris from all of the North Pacific Basin” washed into the ocean on the day of the tsunami, he says.

While Hafner can only speculate what debris will actually appear on Vancouver coasts, those who are regularly involved with clearing debris from beaches can predict what may turn up.

Bryson Robertson, co-founder of the ocean pollution awareness group Ocean Gybe, has a clearer idea of what objects may make their way to North America.

With his brother Ryan and friend Hugh Patterson, Robertson has sailed to different beaches around the world to surf and to document their environmental health.

In 2007, the group became interested in finding the origin of the debris they encountered on certain beaches and began conducting studies while clearing garbage from the shores.

Robertson says “pretty much anything that is made” can turn up on the beaches of Vancouver Island.

He usually finds fishing equipment and plastic bottles, but he has seen things as odd as Barbie dolls, refrigerators, and even medical waste.

Ocean Gybe’s two most recent garbage studies are from Amos Creek and the Hesquiat Peninsula, both on Vancouver Island. They concluded that a significant amount of the waste could be from Japan or China.

“Roughly, I’d say 70-80 per cent of the garbage is Japanese, Chinese, Korean, on the beaches [in B.C.]”

Most of the debris found by groups like Ocean Gybe goes to a landfill, though Ocean Gybe often brings photos and videos of the vast amounts of beach garbage to schools.

20-year-old Shiyao Yu, a classmate of Boehm’s, agrees that reused items as an artistic medium can be very powerful.

“Generally, when you put a lot of something together, you draw attention to it and you notice something you haven’t noticed before,” Yu says. “If you’re making art out of discarded objects, it’s giving meaning to them again.”

Yu says using tsunami debris artistically could be well-received in Greater Vancouver, which is home to 27,000 people of Japanese origin, according to a 2001 Statistics Canada survey.

She thinks the found-sculptures will have no trouble attracting an audience.

“It’s the same everywhere in the world, there will definitely be people who treasure [the debris] as something that has significance,” she says.

Yu believes the chosen medium for a piece of art is often important to the meaning of the artwork as a whole.

“By making art out of a specific medium, you’re drawing attention to that medium itself,” Yu says.

The question becomes what aspect of the disaster a piece made from tsunami debris should convey.

Asoda believes that because the earthquake and tsunami were naturally-occurring, it’s not as important to dwell on the negative outcomes of the devastation. And instead, it is more productive to show the positive outcomes, such as the efforts of the public to send aid north.

She thinks the reaction to using tsunami debris in a creative manner would be a positive one, adding that the use of personal possessions would have a stronger meaning.

“If I see it, I will recall that day,” she says. “It will be good for me.”

Asoda plans to return to Japan later this summer and eventually wants to attend university there.

But for now, Asoda says she is enjoying going to school in Vancouver, and she remains positive about the situation back home, as her family and friends are all safe.

“I don’t worry so much about Japan because now is better than that day. I think everything’s going to be fine.”

— Photo courtesy of Nathan Bailey