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JA Delegation Safe After Massive Temblor

The 2011 Japanese American Leadership Delegation: (back row, from left) Mari Watanabe, Genevieve Shiroma, Val T. Iwashita, Gary Oda, Gary Moriwaki, William Tsutsui, and Erwin Furukawa; (middle row, from left) Bill Imada, Susan Muranishi, Kathryn C. Ibata-Arens, Kenneth A. Oye, Phyllis Campbell and Susan Morita; (front row) Consul Toshio Odagiri, Irene Hirano-Inouye, president of the U.S.-Japan Council, and Tomoki Akazawa, Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership.

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UPDATED: Members of the Japanese American Leadership Delegation, who are currently in Tokyo, are safe following Friday’s massive 8.9 magnitude earthquake. The group of 13 Japanese Americans traveled to Japan on March 4 and is due to return to the U.S. on Sunday.

Speaking from her room in the Prince Hotel in Tokyo, Kathryn Ibata-Arens said the group was on a bus heading to a meeting at the New Otani Hotel when the earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. local time. Scientists said the quake ranked as the fifth-largest earthquake in the world since 1900 and was nearly 8,000 times stronger than one that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, last month.

“All of a sudden it’s like someone had put us on one of those platforms in a funhouse,” said Ibata-Arens, who is an associate professor of political science at DePaul University. “The bus started rocking back and forth, almost like it was going to fall over on its side.”

The delegates met with members of the Keizai Doyukai, the Japanese Association of Corporate Executives, immediately after the quake, in a meeting that Ibata-Arens described as “surreal.”

“We were sitting there listening to this CEO talk, watching this chandelier sway back and forth,” she said.

A meeting with Prime Minister Naoto Kan was canceled due to the earthquake.

JALD, now in its 11th year, is composed of Japanese American leaders in such fields as business, public organizations, education and the arts. The group travels to Japan to meet with business and governmental officials with the aim of better relations between Japanese and Japanese Americans. The delegation is led by Irene Hirano-Inouye, wife of Sen. Daniel Inouye and president of the U.S-Japan Council.

Southern California delegates are Erwin Furukawa, vice president of the Customer Programs and Services department of Southern California Edison, and Bill Imada, chairman and CEO of IW Group, Inc.

Furukawa said people were staying in the lobby of the Prince Hotel, taking shelter because they were unable to go home.

“It’s a beautiful morning here in Japan, there’s a certain serenity. What a contrast from last night,” Furukawa said. “I was up until past 2 a.m. in the morning. Cars are just all jammed and these poor people are not able to get home.”

Ibata-Arens said that most of the delegates were planning to leave in the next few days and were told that outgoing flights would be departing from Tokyo. She said that they were more worried about their Japanese hosts, who were unable to return to their homes due to the closure of rail lines. The professor, who speaks Japanese and has written extensively on the U.S.-Japan relationship, was struck by the orderly reaction to the disaster.

“It’s amazing. If something like this were to happen in the U.S., there would be chaos,” said Ibata-Arens. “Here it’s completely orderly. Everyone tries to remain calm. The disaster response here is amazingly impressive.”

Even as the sound of fire trucks could be heard from the street, she said her thoughts were with the victims in northern Japan.

“These farms have been swept away: the houses, cars, farms, it’s all gone,” said Ibata-Arens.

Furukawa said the delegates were talking about what they can do to help when they return to the U.S.

“We’ve had discussion about how we can go back and mobilize relief and support for Japan,” Furukawa said.

-GWEN MURANAKA

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