They had travelled more than 5,000 miles to improve their English skills, make friends and immerse themselves in the culture of New Zealand, a country the Japanese consider safe and welcoming.
But on Thursday, almost three days after a powerful earthquake struck Christchurch, the families and friends of 26 missing Japanese students are coming to terms with the prospect that they may never return alive.
The tragedy unfolding in New Zealand, and the fate of the students, many of whom were on their first trip abroad, has received widespread media attention in Japan, a country with firsthand knowledge of the death and destruction that ensues when the earth shifts violently and without warning.
As Japanese rescue workers arrived to help search what remains of the CTV building, police said that as many as 120 people, including dozens of students from other Asian countries, may still be trapped inside.
Reports said the Japanese victims, who were studying at King’s Education language school inside the building, had been having lunch in the fourth-floor cafeteria when the earthquake struck.
Police said 23 unidentified bodies had been recovered from the site on Thursday, bringing the death toll inside the building to 47.
Several Japanese students and their female teacher have been brought out alive in the past 24 hours, but police operations commander Dave Lawry said there was little hope that anyone else had survived.
“The situation is that we don’t believe this site is now survivable,” he told reporters. “This particular site had a number of overseas students in it and my heart goes out to those families that are away knowing that some of their children, family, have probably been killed in this incident.”
Some of the parents of the missing Japanese, including 10 students at Toyama College of Foreign Studies, arrived in Christchurch on Thursday. “I am scared,” one told the Kyodo news agency. “I keep wondering how it is possible that my own child might have been involved.”
The father of one missing Toyama student, Saori Kikuda, told reporters: “My daughter was looking forward to going to New Zealand. The only thing I can do now is pray. There is no doubt she is trapped under the rubble.”
The other missing Japanese include 10 female students who were on a private study tour, three women and a man studying independently at King’s Education, and a student from Nara Women’s University.
Kento Okuda, a 19-year-old student at the Toyama college, had to have a leg amputated to free him from the rubble. “I realised I couldn’t move in the dark because my leg was caught in something,” he told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper from hospital in Christchurch.
“A teacher who was also trapped with us encouraged us, telling us we’d all survive and go home. I called my brother with my mobile phone and asked him to tell the embassy we were there.”
When rescue workers told Okuda, who was on his first overseas trip, that they would have to remove his leg to free him, he replied: “All I want is to live.”
The 67-strong team of Japanese rescue workers includes coastguard officials, police officers, doctors and nurses, and firefighters with experience of working in disaster zones. They are using sniffer dogs and fibre optic cameras to try to locate the missing victims.
The Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, told his New Zealand counterpart, John Key, that Japan would give its full support to the rescue and relief efforts.
The chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, told reporters in Tokyo: “We are putting all possible efforts into the support we are sending, as well as confirming the safety of our citizens. Japanese rescue teams are also doing everything they can.”
The organisers of this Sunday’s Tokyo Marathon said they would donate 1m yen (£7,570) to victims of the earthquake via the Japanese Red Cross Society.