It has been a decade since the Paris-based British singer and actor jumped on a plane to Japan in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. She watched the catastrophe unfold on television, and says she found it impossible to sit still. At the same time that many foreigners were fleeing the country over concerns about the uncertain nuclear situation in Fukushima, "there I was, almost alone on the plane, arriving in Tokyo," recalls the 74-year-old in an interview with NHK.
Birkin set about raising money for people whose lives had been upended by collecting donations through street performances, and a charity concert in collaboration with Japanese musicians. She also visited evacuation shelters in Tokyo.
"It was very emotional, but there was a lot of dignity, and a great concern for one another," says Birkin. "Everyone helped everyone. There was a lot of generosity around, and I was just proud to be able to do something. I thought I was incredibly lucky to have been able to arrive and show that people, including so many in Paris, were thinking of them."
Birkin, who is known as a muse and collaborator of the late French musician Serge Gainsbourg, gave concerts around the world to support reconstruction and recovery efforts in Japan. In 2013, she returned to visit regions where the scars from the tsunami were still raw, including the town of Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture.
The town is home to an ongoing project that Birkin supports to help women rebuild their lives. Amaproject, launched in 2012, sells handmade bracelets and other items made by women living in temporary housing.
Birkin first found out about it through her eldest daughter, Kate Barry, a photographer who documented the project's activities. In 2013, Kate died suddenly at the age of 46.
As Birkin grappled with grief and despair, she received a gift from Japan: origami paper cranes, handmade by the women from Amaproject. She says she felt consoled knowing that women whose family members died in the tsunami were sharing the pain of her loss.
"When my daughter Kate died, they made me maybe a thousand little paper birds. All these little paper birds, the women from Amaproject did that while thinking of Kate and me," Birkin says. "It was very touching. When you lose your own daughter, you think of all the people who have lost theirs too. [Before] I thought it was not possible to lose children, [but] I know it's possible now."
When Amaproject's sales declined as people's memories of the disaster faded, Birkin stepped in to help. She designed a t-shirt, as have her two other daughters, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon, that are offered on the group's website.
Murakami Kasumiko, an essayist who is a founder of Amaproject, describes Birkin as its "savior". She holds on to Birkin's words as motivation: "Don't let go of the hand you've held so easily."
Coronavirus travel restrictions mean Birkin is unable to visit Japan – but that doesn't mean the relationships she forged are out of her mind.
"I keep thinking of people who are there and for whom life is still difficult," she says. "It is unimaginable. I keep helping, because it's impossible for me to stop doing what I can to change a little bit of the fate of these people."