When Ordinary Folks Become Extraordinary Leaders

I just returned home from a memorable and, at times, heart-wrenching week in Japan.  Led by Hawaii businessman, Duane Kurisu, we took a team of young Hawaii and Japan leaders to learn about leading from the heart. Over five extraordinary days, we visited some of the most ravaged areas of the 2011 Sendai earthquake and tsunami, such as Kesennuma and Rikuzen Takata.

To see the aftermath of the destruction and the heroic efforts to recover were some of the most awe-inspiring and life-changing days of my life.  What we discovered can best be described by retelling some of the amazing stories of courage, will and strength of the people we met on our journey...ordinary folks, who became extraordinary leaders...


When the 2011 tsunami devastated the little fishing village of Motoyoshi-cho, Mrs. Oikawa’s indomitable spirit and leadership emerged.  Ms. Oikawa had built a denim factory, where she produces Levi Jeans, on a hillside.  Being up on a hill, her facility was spared the devastation that engulfed this little village. Unfortunately, most of the other homes below were destroyed.  The villagers, trying to get to higher ground, ran up the hill near her factory. Left with no homes to return to, so she opened her heart and her door, offering her home as a refuge for 150 villagers who lost everything. Together, they shared very limited food and water and kept each others’ spirits up.

She delegated leadership roles to various individuals, putting people in charge of clearing debris, cleaning, cooking, babysitting and sorting out donated goods. Left without power to run her factory, one fisherman built a generator from one that produced emergency electrical power on fishing ships at sea to supply power to her denim factory.  This enabled Mrs. Oikawa to restart her garment business and get her employees back to work. To show her appreciation, she made bags out of the denim fabrics that the villagers had slept on and gave one to each of them.  This simple yet meaningful gift became the first possession they owned after the tsunami.  Recently, Mrs. Oikawa sent a few of these denim bags to the victims of the Oklahoma tornado.

Mrs. Oikawa stepped up and lead her community forward during a time of crisis by giving selflessly to those that had nothing.


Several years prior to the 2011 tsunami, Dr. Tomohiko “Tom” Takei’s sister committed suicide. Upon her death, Tom felt a desire to help make the world a better place and said to himself, “I have to do something.” 

This “something” revealed itself following the events of March 11, 2011. It was then, that Tom discovered his purpose and founded MAKOTO, an entrepreneurial incubation center in Sendai, which supports local entrepreneurs facing difficulties in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. 

The purpose of MAKOTO is to create a “paradise for entrepreneurs” who can then help rebuild the devastated Tohoku region of Japan.  Through MAKOTO, Tom assists entrepreneurs with a passion to serve and contribute to the greater good.  He seeks people with the qualities of “kokorozashi” or “strong aspirations rooted in self sacrifice.”  Over the past two years, Tom’s organization has become the region’s most active start-up incubator.

As we were leaving his center, I caught a glimpse of some words printed on the back of Tom’s t-shirt, which appropriately captured his desire to flip his sister’s suicide into something positive by helping others.  It simply read, “Resilience Now.


The 2011 tsunami completely destroyed and washed away Mrs. Osaka’s seaside home.  Swept away by torrential waters, she swallowed sizable quantities of contaminated “black water.”  Fighting for her life, she was able to get back to safety and rescue three elderly women, before finding herself again being dragged away by the force of the raging waters.  Swept by a thorny strawberry plant, she grabbed on to it and held on for dear life.  Her hands, pierced with thorns and bleeding, were barely able to hold on and she began to give up. Right at that moment, a young man, who was also caught in the swirling waters, yelled to her, “Don’t give up.  You have to live!”  He then grabbed her by the collar and pulled her to safety.  

Mrs. Osaka shared with us that given what happened on that fateful day, she is now on a mission to find the true meaning of her life.  She spoke of her desire to speak English, which she is now learning and, for some reason, is a part of her journey.  

Mrs. Osaka taught us to never lose hope and to keep moving forward in your life journey.  Mrs. Osaka is 80 years old! 

And, in case you were wondering, she has been looking for the boy that saved her life ever since that day, but has yet to find him.

Those are some of the extraordinary folks we met on our trip to Japan.  Without a doubt, having met such inspiring people, those of us who were privileged enough to go on this remarkable journey will never be the same.  Without a doubt, we will recall these stories and find ways to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, even in the face of death, devastation and despair.