NPHS grad Angela Robins returns to Japanese birthplace to work on tsunami documentary

Painting a ‘mural’ on rice paper windows at a recently opened non-profit owned by Robbins’ Japanese grandmother.

Angela Robins, a 2010 New Paltz High School graduate, has returned to her birthplace — a small farming/fishing community in northern Japan that was devastated by the March 11, 2011 tsunami — to work with director/producer Linda Ohama ( interviewing people affected by this disaster.

The name of the village is Tanohata, and she has been visiting for the past several weeks. It is sandwiched between steep cliffs and lush mountains and, according to Robins, “The locals are deeply connected to the ocean and the land. From the coast they harvest abalone, wakame, sea urchin and kelp. From the mountains they gather wild vegetables and mushrooms.”


Robins has now arrived in Sendai, where she lived with her family for three years in the 1990s while they taught English, which was the closest city to the epicenter of the earthquake and again, seriously damaged. She attended fourth through sixth grade there in a regular Japanese elementary school.

“I’ve been wanting to return to visit old friends and help out in any way possible after the tsunami,” said Robins, who was finally able to make it to Japan this fall and be “lucky enough to get connected to a filmmaker who needed help with her documentary film.” She was introduced to Ohama through a mutual friend, Douglas Brooks, who specializes in traditional Japanese boatbuilding.

“Ohama is a Japanese-Canadian filmmaker, artist and community organizer,” explained Robins. “For the past year-and-a-half, she has been involved in the recovery effort in northeastern Japan, or Tohoku, and made many close connections with locals affected by the disaster.”

Because Robins speaks fluent Japanese, she was able to assist Ohama by coordinating trips to various villages, setting up a fundraising website and aiding her with equipment and interviews. “It has been incredibly inspiring to be able to work alongside such a talented filmmaker and artist,” said Robins, who was given the middle name of Ryden by her parents after a small Shinto shrine nearby their home in Tanohata. “Ryden is a god of thunder and lightning, and in Tanohata everyone calls me ‘Ryden-chan.’” Chan is the term of endearment for girls in Japanese, she explained.

The documentary is titled Tohoku no Shingetsu: Stories from Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima. According to Robins, shingetsu is the Japanese word for New Moon. “When the Moon goes from shingetsu (complete darkness) to the Full Moon (mangetsu or full light), people believe this is another beginning of the continuous cycle that we are all a part of.”

Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima are the three provinces of Tohoku that were most heavily damaged by the earthquake, tsunami and accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant; thus the title of the film.

Besides working on the documentary, Robins is also volunteering in her birth-town of Tanohata, teaching English to a young man who has mild autism. “After winning a national speech contest where he spoke about his experience of the earthquake and tsunami, he was invited to give his speech in English at a conference in Washington, DC. He works at the non-profit that my Japanese Grandma runs, which is known as Huck’s House (as in Huckleberry Finn), which is a not-for-profit organization that trains and employs people with disabilities.”

Robins is also volunteering in Otsuchi, Iwate-ken with a local community organizer who coordinates gatherings for local people. “Many of them live in temporary housing,” she explained. “Thousands of people were killed by the tsunami in Otsuchi, and everyone I meet has lost friends and family members. Getting connected with them and learning their stories has been a moving and powerful experience.”