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Vancouver-area woman reunites Japanese fisherman with item lost in 2011 tsunami

Hanako Yokota (left) and Karla Robison hoist a fishing pallet retrieved near Ucluelet, B.C. Yokota will board a plane to Japan to return the pallet to its rightful owner. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ho

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Hanako Yokota (left) and Karla Robison hoist a fishing pallet retrieved near Ucluelet, B.C. Yokota will board a plane to Japan to return the pallet to its rightful owner. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ho

VANCOUVER - A Vancouver-area woman will board a plane on Monday to return a piece of Japanese tsunami debris that washed ashore after the deadly 2011 earthquake, ending a cleanup in British Columbia while reconnecting a fisherman half a world away with his father's past.

Twenty-three-year-old Hanako Yokota, who worked on the debris cleanup near Ucluelet, B.C., is returning a plastic fishing pallet to a Japanese man who recognized it as equipment passed down from his father after seeing the distinctive markings etched on its side.

Yokota's trip will conclude a two-year cleanup effort by the District of Ucluelet and a student club called the Japan Love Project that removed up to 10 tonnes of tsunami debris from B.C. shores.

"It's like a final mission," said Yokota, who is originally from Yokohama.

In March, Japan Love helped a volunteer group from Japan travel to Canada's West Coast to clean up tsunami debris that washed ashore in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve's Broken Group Islands.

Volunteers found the 34-kilogram pallet, and writing on the equipment allowed them to trace it back to the Minami Sanriku region in Japan, which was hit hard by the 2011 tsunami.

A volunteer who returned to Japan showed a picture of the pallet to a local oyster fisherman, who asked for it to be returned after he recognized the inscription on the pallet as name of his boat.

The pallet was given to him by his father, who also fished for oysters.

The volunteer contacted Yokota, who will be giving the fisherman back his pallet.

Many fishermen in the region had their possessions swept away during the 2011 tsunami, Yokota said, and items with historical or sentimental value were lost forever.

That's why bringing the pallet back to the fisherman is so important, she said.

"This pallet that he's been using for generations means a lot to him, because it reminds him of his past," Yokota said.

Karla Robison, who also helped manage the cleanup, said the item is highly valued because most fishing gear manufactured before 2011 was lost in the disaster.

"This pallet has been used for many, many years up and down the coast of Japan," said Robison. "The majority of the fishing gear was replaced with new material because all the older gear was swept away, and so this pallet can act as a relic."

Robison, who is the Environmental and Emergency Service Manager of the District of Ucluelet, said reuniting the fisherman with the equipment helps strengthen relationships between Canada and Japan.

"It acts as a reminder to everybody to show their respects to all those affected," she said. "It also acts as a reminder for both countries — and other countries located in that ring of fire — to be prepared for emergencies."

"It also helps to illustrate the strong bonds that we have between Japan and Canada, and it showcases how we're connected by the Pacific Ocean."

"It's quite amazing," said Robison. "Everybody that's been part of these cleanup programs really hopes this fisherman and his family and the community he resides in can find peace and comfort and fond memories and inspiration from this item."

Mayor Bill Irving of Ucluelet said his district had been very active in the collection of tsunami debris.

"We are pleased to participate in the return of this item to its original owner and are thankful it brings some comfort to his family in Japan," he said in written statement.

The March 2011 earthquake disaster in Japan killed about 19,000 people. The quake also triggered a tsunami and multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. More than 100,000 people are still unable to go home due to fear of radiation contamination from the plant.

The Japanese government said the tsunami swept an estimated 1.5 million tonnes of debris into the Pacific Ocean.

The amount is equivalent to about half the solid waste produced in the Metro Vancouver area in 2010.

The items have been widely dispersed by ocean currents and winds.

Heavier debris sank close to Japanese shores while lighter materials have clustered in debris fields in the ocean.

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