Alumni in Japan Share Stories of Quake, Tsunami, Survival

Many Saint Mary's alumni live in Japan, and several of them have shared with us their experiences of the March 11 earthquake that triggered a deadly tsunami and nuclear plant crisis in their country. Here are some of their stories.

Kiyoshia (Joe) Ikemi '57
(In a letter to Tom McDonald)

Earthquakes are nothing unusual in our country, and I do not recall being really scared by a quake in the past. But the one that struck northern Japan Friday afternoon was totally different from anything I had experienced before. My wife, Yoshiko, and I were in Tokyo, which is about 30 miles from where we live. Initially, I thought I started feeling dizzy, but I soon knew that a real vicious tremor was beneath our feet. So, I grabbed Yoshiko's arms and rushed to an open space in a nearby park, where dozens of other people converged within minutes.

Both of us felt real scared indeed. The next problem was how to get home. All trains and other public transport services were suspended, and hundreds of people were queued up to catch taxis. So we worked hard to find a hotel with vacancy, and we were real lucky indeed to find one. What a blessing to be able to stay away from the chilly night and be able to stay warm and comfortable.

The damage to our house was only minor – some of the doors became hard to open and close. We did lose a few dishes and cups, which crashed onto the floor. A couple bookshelves fell to the floor, creating a total mess in my den. My computer is still working, though. Besides, even though we live only a kilometer from the seashore, we were not chased by a tsunami because the coast is at the deepest end of Tokyo Bay.

All of our daughters and grandchildren escaped any damage or injury. In our next exchange of emails, let us hope we will be able to deal with more pleasant subjects like the next reunion, the Giants and the Forty-niners.

Taiichi Yamabe '97

I appreciate your keen interest in this exceptional tragedy that occurred in the Tohoku area of Japan. I live in the Tokyo area, so my family and I have not gone through any difficulty fortunately due to earthquake, tsunami and radiation. However, as is recognized by many people worldwide, this was an historic tragedy, which took over 20,000 people's live in a moment, and the fact is that it will take many years and generations to be solved. Especially regarding the radiation issues, people have been terrified to be exposed, and many overreacted out of concern over potential shortages of water, food and gasoline, which showed the lack of reliable information from the government and mass-media.

Again, nothing has been solved and it may not be... It is not easy to talk this experience with effective words at this moment.

Sorry not to be able to convey more relevant information or stories, but somehow I strongly feel this is my destiny as a Japanese whose country has been fragile, with natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons. That is why Japanese must be tough, patient, industrious, intelligent...

David Case '90
The city I live in is called Urayasu City. Urayasu is landfill into Tokyo Bay, so it suffered from liquefaction. Once the earthquake kept going and going, soon the water table shot up out of the ground like a water main burst. The result is mud and sand everywhere. So I spent the 3 days after the earthquake unshoveling my house. The house itself came through OK, but some internal doors don't open and there are some bulges in the floor. But the whole town sunk about one foot.

When the earthquake hit, I was at work on the 26th floor of a new building, so it really shook back and forth. All elevators, trains and cell phones stopped. After finishing my work, I walked to my daughters' school around 3 miles away. My wife was 4 miles away, and it took her 8 hours to drive to the school. Yes, 8 hours. The roads were absolutely jammed. We got home at 2:30 a.m. that night, but everyone is safe and sound. We were without water for 10 days, so we spent a few days with our in-laws until water was restored.

(The photo shows David Case's daughters, Leia (left) and Kiana, at the earthquake-damaged Shin-urayasu train station.)

Ken Yokomizo '98

The morning of March 11, 2011, was just another ordinary Friday morning for me. Or at least I thought it was. I woke up just like any other work day and went to work.

It just so happened that my roommate from SMC (Sean Byrne) was visiting Japan from Hong Kong for business, and we had a plan to go out for dinner and drinks after work that very day. Morning, lunch and early afternoon went by very smoothly. Then, just before 3 p.m., I felt the earthquake. It was actually not that big at first, so initially I did not think it was anything special. After all, we do get a lot of earthquakes in Japan, and I simply thought it was just another one.

But it did not take long to figure out it was no ordinary earthquake. The shaking went on for a very long time, and it got stronger and stronger as the time elapsed. Then, it developed into a powerful shake which I had never experienced in my life.

The filing cabinets in our office were falling down, and I heard glasses shattering. It was a terrifying experience, but fortunately, none of us at work were injured. Looking back now, I don't recall anyone in severe panic. Rather, everyone was probably simply stunned as none of us had ever experienced anything like it.

Shortly after the earthquake, my company announced that we could go home for the day. The only problem was that the train system had completely shut down. In Tokyo, people rely heavily on trains for transportation. As a matter of fact, we have over 1,000 employees at our office, but everyone uses trains for commuting. This is pretty common in Tokyo, so the impact of the train system shutting down was severe.

That day, I ended up walking home. which took almost 4 hours. But I was one of the luckier ones. One of my colleagues started walking with me. We probably left the office shortly after 4 p.m. and I got home around 8 p.m., but my colleague did not reach his house until 6 a.m. the next day. Before splitting up with him, I offered to let him stay at my place, as it was clear that my place was a lot closer, but he was more concerned about his family and was determined to go home no matter how long it took. It did not help that the cell phone network also suffered from the earthquake and our cell phones proved to be completely useless as we were not able to reach anyone.

Mariko Sato '95

It was very lucky that my 7-year-old son and I met each other just 10 minutes before the earthquake. His school had a short day by chance, but he would have been left alone in a train otherwise. We were eating a snack in a cafeteria when the building started to shake. I hid my son under a table but decided to go outside a few minutes later ... because the earthquake seemed different from any of the ones I'd experienced in the past, and I was scared the building would collapse.

I pulled my car out of a parking lot 30 minutes after the quake stopped. The train station nearby was overcrowded and traffic signals were down already. Several roads were wet with the water from some broken water pipes, and the town was all confused. There were many strong aftershocks, and I needed to stop my car each time, so I dropped by a gas station and filled the tank. It was actually a very good choice because it became very difficult to purchase gasoline the next day. It also became difficult to obtain particular foods like rice, bread, milk, ramen noodles and bottled water at supermarkets.

The overwhelming destruction was discovered and broadcast on TV all day long. I felt a numbing sense of loss over a week from watching those tsunami videos repeatedly and hearing the news that several towns were flattened and many dead bodies were found in bays. But at the same time, I pushed myself to make sure to purchase enough food and prepare meals before the time of the planned power outages.

Things seemed to be starting to calm down a little in April, and the new fiscal and school year began. Cherry blossoms bloomed everywhere, and their beauty gave me courage. The nuclear power plants in Fukushima are still the biggest concern, and it is ironic that Japan is the only country ever to suffer an atomic attack and is now facing such an issue.

I also believe that it's my fate to be born as a Japanese and to have a young kid and live in Japan in this era. I just pray for its early solution.

Akiko Takata '03

First, I want to say thank you to all who have kept us in your thoughts and prayers. Never did I imagine I was going to experience a mammoth, magnitude 9.0 earthquake that triggered a tsunami and multiple issues that crippled Japan. The disaster has affected our economy and grabbed the attention of the international media. My heart still breaks every time I watch news about people in the severely affected area in northern Japan.

I was on the eighth floor of my office building, chatting with a few co-workers when the earthquake struck. The mild tremor rolled around and it soon became violent and rocked the office for about 5 minutes. Panicked looks flashed across our faces. We knew it was definitely different from the relatively small earthquakes that usually hit Tokyo. What scared us most was not only the size of the quake but not knowing when it was going to stop. By the time we started hearing a mixture of grinding and creaking sounds of the building swaying, we could not do anything but to duck underneath the desks, hoping Mother Earth would soon end this affair. Quickly, I grabbed my purse, dumped everything on my desk and started text messaging my family, just in case. For someone like me. originally from the southern region of Japan where earthquakes are nonexistent, this earthquake, measured at magnitude 6.5 in Tokyo, was indeed nerve-racking.

The city turned into a sea of people. Thousands of people were stranded on streets because it was gridlock without enough transportation services. I had never seen anything like that before in my life. Tokyo is population-dense. So imagine every single person from skyscrapers in the middle of the weekday was outside. All train lines stopped. Buses and cabs were running, but the traffic was badly jammed. Some walked for hours to get back home. Others patiently got into very long lines for the buses or cabs in the cold weather. My co-workers and I spent 7 hours or so in a cafe and a restaurant until the train lines were back in service again.

Only when I got home past midnight did I begin to learn about the scale of the disaster that wiped away thousands of lives, dozens of homes and towns. Tears trickled down my face as I watched various images of the destruction. I went to bed around 3 a.m., but strong aftershocks kept me awake all night.

I have been very fortunate to be alive and safe. It is so true that you realize how precious life is especially when you go through a major catastrophe. Aftershocks still continue today, and subsequent problems concern us, such as shortage in food and gas supply and nuclear issues. Despite all of these, what is amazing about the Japanese people is that there has been neither looting nor pushing in lines. People in Sendai have shown such a strong community spirit, helping each other out. Some leave their front doors open so others can come in. Others leave some food at doorsteps so people won't starve.

Many of my foreign friends left Japan. I took refuge at my parents' place in the southern part of Japan for about 2 weeks. Even though I was away from the disaster zone, I was glued to the news about the disaster day and night. My family and I joined some charity events and donated whatever we could for those people in the Sendai area.

My heart goes out to those who have been washed away by the powerful tsunami, lost the loved ones and are staying at shelters. Despite the continuous aftershocks, my focus now is on the efforts to help those in need. The overwhelming support and outpouring of love from you have been helping us to get back on our feet. Slowly it might be, but certainly steadily.
Thank you again for your care and love of us.

With love in return, to you all.

Antonio Cancemi '00

I live in Yokohama with my wife, Kahori, and two small children, Mino and Vivia. They are 3 and 1.

My sister Teresa and I are helping our father, working as managers at our family restaurant, which is probably the most famous Italian restaurant in Japan. It is the first and oldest Italian restaurant in Japan. My grandfather came to Japan as an Italian General`s chief cook during the WWII and opened the restaurant.

My grandfather and my father have survived through many crises in the last 67 years, but this has been the worst ever. Since the 3/11 earthquake, almost 99% of reservations at all the restaurants have been canceled. Because of the polluted water with radiation, we could not do anything for a while. Fortunately, the level of the radiation in water in Tokyo got back in normal in two, three days.

To be honest, when the air and water were polluted with radiation, I did not know what to do. Especially all the parents of small children had to face a lot of difficult realities, not being able to drink water and at the same time all the mineral water bottles were sold out, all the milk and yogurt were sold out, and we were not sure if we could wash anything - clothes, vegetables, etc. Can you imagine being parents of small children in this situation? Even if we wanted to go outside of Tokyo, we could not get any gas in many areas. And besides, for most of us, regular Japanese, we had no place to go.

Of course, even with this, this was a lot better than the people in Tohoku, where everything was destroyed by the tsunami, and this was a lot better than the people in Fukushima, where the radiation level was so high that they were not even allowed to go search for their lost families. Not only that, a lot of people refused to go in there, so people who could not escape from the Fukushima area had to survive with no help, no food and no hope.

In fact, a lot of people in Japan got sick just listening to all the bad news on TV, and we could not find a single hope for a while. Even in Tokyo, people were panicked, with a lot of things almost impossible to get. Almost all the foreigners in Tokyo left Japan in two or three days, and even in Tokyo, many places were like ghost towns, with no people walking outside for a while. I know a lot of people were shutting down their stores and closing their businesses.

However, we cannot be crying about the situation. We have to face the reality that we cannot run away, and we must live with what we have. A lot of Japanese people in Tokyo have started spending more money, started going shopping, and people are slowly coming back to Tokyo. Now watching the radiation news every day, a lot of Japanese people who are experts say that the level of radiation here in Tokyo is really low, and we should not worry about it too much. In order to support the economy in Tohoku and Japan, we should work hard, spend a lot of money and rebuild the Japanese economy.

However, nothing is over yet. We have lost hundreds of hundreds of people after 3/11, and this was first caused by the earthquake and tsunami. But what was worst? It was the nuclear power crisis. Without this, we could recover so much faster.

There is one important lesson that we want to teach and have learned from this major disaster: that this is not a natural disaster. We have witnessed that the nuclear power plants are far beyond our control, and the risk of having the nuclear power is way too high and dangerous compared to other energy sources. A lot of people believe this is the only way of getting electricity, and a lot of people were told this was really safe. Is it? We have wind, solar, water and so many other sources of energy. Especially now with new technologies, anything is possible.

We should really stop all the nuclear power plants in the world. Even if we start shutting them down now, it will take at least 10 to 20 years to stop all the nuclear power plants. I don't think this is political. I really don't care which party supports nuclear power or not. I hope the world has witnessed what has happened in Fukushima and the impact of this.

As you know, within a 30-kilometer radius of the Fukushima power plants, it is no longer livable. Even outside of Fukushima, there are so many farms that are closing down their business, all because of this leaking of radiation. Every day, we see farmers crying on the news because all of the vegetables they have raised are wasted. They have to throw them away because the soil is polluted. There is no way they can grow anything for the next twenty years. At the same time, a lot of farmers have to kill millions of cows, pigs and any animals that got radiation. None of the farmers I know can kill the cows, so they just watch them lose weight and get skinny every day. A lot of fishermen have lost their families, homes, ships and jobs. What's worse is that the ocean is polluted near Fukushima, so they don't even know when they can start fishing again. This is all because of the radiation. There are so many people who are struggling just to live and support their families and don't know what to do.

In Japan, even though the Fukushima power plants are all closed, we still have to worry about the other 50 power plants all over Japan. There have been more than a couple hundred earthquakes since 3/11. There will be more for sure, and earthquakes do not just happen in Japan. There are more than 100 power plants in the U.S., and people in California have experienced big earthquakes. Are the power plants in the U.S. really protected and safe? As you know we have so many natural disasters to worry about besides the earthquakes. What about terrorist attacks!? We should really stand up and start using other energy sources while shutting down all the nuclear power plants.

Everyone in Japan truly believes that what happened in Japan will teach all of us in the world a big lesson that the nuclear power plants are dangerous and beyond our control. We are hoping that the thousands of lives lost in this won't be wasted.

We do hear some good news since 3/11 that some of the countries like Germany have decided to reduce the number of power plants, and this is happening to many other places. We have realized that we just want to live safely with our loved ones. With the experience of 3/11, which is not over yet, it really makes us realize how important it is to be able to live a normal life in a safe environment where we can drink safe water and breathe air as much as we want.

One last thing, I really want to thank Natalie Birch for being there for me when this happened. Natalie was one of my best friends at Saint Mary's and I usually listen to her love stories. Right after 3/11, she kept sending emails to me and she made me feel connected to the world outside of Japan, and that was really important and helpful to me, especially after all the foreign people in East Japan were gone.
We felt left out from the world. Natalie tried to help us as much as she could, and she asked me if I needed anything. When we are in that kind of situation, even a letter or e-mail helps us both mentally and emotionally. Friends at Saint Mary's are always, always special!!

Since 3/11 we hear so many stories that make us cry. We were so touched by so many people outside of Japan trying to help us here and send us lots of donations. Every day, we were touched by hearing all the stories of people who have lost everything and helping each other in Fukushima and Tohoku. A lot of people, including Americans, are not leaving Japan and are volunteering to help people there.

Thank you for giving me a chance to talk about this. I really appreciate this, and I want all the Saint Mary's people and people in the world to know about this.