Tamaki’s story

Debris piles up at a local gas station in Sendai, Japan on Thursday. Cleanup efforts have made some areas hit by the tsunami passable, but much more work is needed to fix the catastrophic damage. Photo by Thomas Song.

Lauren Spilar

Kent State student Tamaki Kasakura, a freshman ESL major, was sitting at a café in Kichijoji, Japan, chatting with a few of her old high school friends. It was March 11, and they were talking about life in the United States, reminiscing about good times, when suddenly the ground began to shake.

Now back in the U.S., Kasakura sat down at a table in the Student Center with a pile of Japanese newspapers and began to explain how her life has changed in the last few weeks.

In early March, the 21 year old took a short break from her U.S. study abroad experience to take part in a one-week exchange program to Korea. From there, she made a side trip home to visit her family in Tokyo. Less than 24 hours after arriving in Japan, disaster hit her homeland.

“I’m still shaking,” Kasakura said.

It was 2:49 p.m. She and her friends were enjoying a reunion over lunch when the 9.0 magnitude earthquake began.

“Japanese are used to earthquakes, so we didn’t surprise,” Kasakura said. At first, it failed to even interrupt their conversation.

Then it got stronger. “Glasses were broken,” she said. “Noise was so scary.” Another customer told everyone to get out of the building. Kasakura and her friends went outside, and the ground was shaking so hard they couldn’t stand. They held onto each other and clung to a nearby utility pole.

“We were between building and building,” she said. “We were so scared.” The earthquake lasted 15 seconds. “I feel it’s forever shaking,” Kasakura said.

When the shaking stopped, the students and many other customers went back inside the restaurant. “We didn’t think the earthquake was really serious,” she said. That mentality changed when, about 10 minutes later, a second large earthquake hit. “We got so scared about this earthquake,” she said. “Everyone go outside so fast.” This time after the shaking stopped, customers flooded to the cashiers to pay for their meals and leave.

Kasakura was unable to reach her family after the quakes, her parents were at work and her younger sister was at home on spring break. “We couldn’t use cell phone,” she said. “I couldn’t contact with my mother and father and my sister. I worry about my grandmother.” She and her friends used Facebook and Twitter to find out what was happening.

After leaving the restaurant, the students made their way back to the Kichijoji train station, which was filling up with people. “All of the trains in Tokyo were stopped,” Kasakura said. “Many people were stuck.”

Kasakura was trying to get to Shibuya, where she still had a 4 p.m. hair appointment. Many people were trying to get home from work. Traffic jams grew as travelers tried to hail buses and taxis. Train service was not restored that day, so Kasakura and her friends spent the night at their friend’s house in Kichijoji.

The trains began to run the next morning, and Kasakura was able to reach her home in Hino at about noon. The rest of her family had already made it back safely. Her mother had been stranded in her office for a day. Her father tried to walk home from his office, a 5-hour walk, but found refuge at a relative’s house instead. Her younger sister had watched the disaster unfold live on television. “It was really terrible,” Kasakura said. “She watched exactly the tsunami hit people and hit cars. People tried to escape, but they couldn’t.”

While communication and transportation were temporarily disrupted, Kasakura said Tokyo had very little earthquake damage. Fires broke out in parts of her city and some older buildings had damage, but Tokyo was not hit by the tsunami.

Kasakura watched the tsunami news on TV and knew that many of her friends and family were experiencing it. She has friends whose homes were destroyed. Fortunately, they and their families are OK. One of Kasakura’s friends, though, is still unable to contact her grandparents who lived in that region.

Tamaki said she thinks many people in Japan are now having mental health problems, an aftermath that still isn’t being addressed.

“I couldn’t sleep for three days,” she said. “I think almost all Japanese couldn’t sleep.” About once an hour, the ground would start to shake again and everyone’s cell phones would ring to alert them of an earthquake emergency. “They was not bigger than first one, but I think they still big earthquake,” she said. “We felt sick because of always shaking.”

In the following days, Tokyo began to experience food and gas shortages. Houses were restricted to using no more than 21 hours of electricity a day. And, like international media outlets, local media focused on damages in the north, so Kasakura said it was hard to find out what was going on around her. “Even Japanese TV news they don’t focus on Tokyo or nearby Tokyo,” Kasakura said, “Actually, we don’t know how much damage in nearby Tokyo.”

Many people are evacuating, she said. “I think many people are trying to buy tickets to go to Korea or China. Maybe they are trying to escape from this earthquake and the nuclear plant problem.” At the airport, where earthquakes still threatened to cancel flights, Kasakura saw teary-eyed families being divided, husbands staying and wives and children leaving.

“It’s really sad,” she said.

Back in the United States

Kasakura left Japan on March 15 to return to Kent. “It was really hard,” she said, “But I thought, ‘I have to live my daily life.’” As sad as it was to leave, she said her mother thinks she is safer here. “She think if I am in U.S., she feel better, because I am OK,” Kasakura said.

Because of the time difference, she cannot talk to her family often, but she does stay in touch through email. Her mother says that buying food has become more difficult. The rolling blackouts continue to shut down parts of the city. Some days she cannot go to work because the trains aren’t running. Day-to-day life is becoming more of a challenge.

“Many people can’t live their own life,” she said. “Even if there is no huge damages, we don’t have enough food and gasoline in Tokyo.”

Both of her parents work in public service, and her mother will likely go to a disaster area soon to help victims. “I worry about radiation,” Kasakura said. “It’s really scary.” If things get worse, her sister may come to the U.S., too.

Kasakura said she feels bad about leaving Japan. The Japanese people are very grateful for the help they have been receiving, she said, and she knows they will need it for a long time. She hopes the world won’t forget Japan.

Contact Lauren Spilar at [email protected].