BY GLENN PUIT
GLEN ARBOR — Ayaka Ogawa's parents always told her to stay strong and keep smiling, no matter life's difficulties.
Ogawa, 18, a senior at the Leelanau School in Glen Arbor, holds the advice close to her heart, even through the worst of times. About 21 months ago a tsunami slammed into her native Japan and wiped out her family.
"They were always telling me to be strong," Ogawa said. "To smile."
The tsunami killed Ogawa's mother, father, sister, uncle and grandparents. She now lives in Leelanau County and studies at the Leelanau School where she dreams of a career as a fashion designer.
Her teachers and fellow students said Ogawa almost always has a smile on her face. They find her positive attitude and good spirit remarkable, considering the tragedy she's endured.
"She's got a grace and joy about her that's very humbling," said the school's headmaster, Matthew Ralston. "She's a reminder to all of us of what a gift life is."
Ogawa lived in Kamaishi City, Japan. She was at her grandmother's house in a small community outside the city on March 11, 2011, when a massive earthquake struck. The quake measured 9.03 on the Richter scale.
"I was in my grandmother's home with my mother and grandmother," Ogawa said. "A huge, big earthquake. It was scary.
"We were watching TV, but TV shut down," she said. "Everything was falling down."
An evacuation order followed. Ogawa, her mother and grandmother fled in a car, then got out of the vehicle and began to run amid a sea of people. Ogawa became separated from her loved ones as chaos escalated. She climbed up a large hill with about 30 other people.
"The tsunami was right behind us," Ogawa said. "Too many people. So many people. We evacuated to a safe place."
She later recounted the morning after and said she walked across the debris and called for her mother and grandmother.
"After a few days, I learned that my sister had been killed and also my father was missing," Ogawa said. "I had no idea what was going on but I did understand that I was left alone; this cruel fact put me in enormous fear. When I was brought to my sister, I put my hands on her cheeks and repeated thank you. My tears soaked her face. I did not want to let her go but the cremation turned her into ash."
Months later Ogawa was invited to an event at the American Embassy in Tokyo, where she met pop star Justin Bieber and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Joseph Roos. She came to the United States through a charitable organization called Beyond International, and also with help from Brian Chatterley, director of admissions at the Leelanau School.
Beyond International picked up her travel expenses and the school agreed to cover her tuition and other costs.
She's been in Leelanau County for five months and is learning English. Her fellow students are astonished at her courage, friendliness and strength.
"She's great," said student Peter Arts, 17. "Amazing. A really hard worker. A really strong individual who is not afraid to talk about her past. I admire her a lot."
Ogawa, a senior at the school, said she's thankful to everyone who helped her come to the United States. She wants to study fashion design in New York City.
"I want to try new things and see new places — everywhere in the world," Ogawa said.