INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Sendai Quake, Tsunami Test Japan’s Spirit


(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on March 17, 2011.)


“History shows again and again,
How Nature points out the folly of men.”
— Blue Öyster Cult, “Godzilla”


Years of watching Godzilla movies and Ultraman TV shows in which giant kaijū destroy a Japanese city sure didn’t prepare me — or a couple generations of former kids who watched those same shows — for the extent of the damage wrought by the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that, as I write this, hit Japan less than a week ago.

That the area hit hardest was Japan’s Tohoku region made this epic disaster even closer to home personally, for my mother’s furusato is Sendai. She also has relatives in Ishinomaki, a nearby town that also felt nature’s fury; from my latest conversation with her, she still hasn’t heard from them. It took a few days to learn, but my mom’s younger sister and niece — Fukuko and her daughter, Tomié — however, are fine, with their Sendai home intact.

Although I never lived in Sendai, it looms large in my family. It’s where my parents met following the Korean War. It’s where many of my relatives are interred. I have fond childhood memories of visiting Sendai during its hot summer for the annual Tanabata Matsuri. From winter visits, I remember how cold it gets in this time of year, when we’d stay indoors and keep our feet warm in the kotatsu at my grandparents’ home. I remember visiting the city’s planetarium and shopping on Sendai’s Ichibancho. Sendai is the place where I have my last memory of my late Uncle Akihiko, who took me as a young man with his two sons to one of his favorite bars and introduced me to karaoke.

Compared with Kyoto, Tokyo or Osaka, Sendai and the Tohoku region were not well-known outside Japan — at least not until last week. Now, the name Sendai will forever be associated with the words “earthquake” and “tsunami.”


I first heard about the earthquake when I got a call from my sister, June, a week ago late Thursday night. She heard the news about the quake and how big it was. Trying to call Tokyo to check on our parents proved impossible; no calls could get through.

The next morning our calls did go through, but were taken by the answering machine. Where were they?! Well, as we eventually learned, both of them were fine. Although inconvenienced by the earthquake, the Tokyo area was, when compared to what happened hundreds of miles up north, unscathed by the quake.

Turns out my father, Jim, was running errands on Yokota Air Base when the quake struck. Trying to drive back home turned out to be frustrating exercise. What was normally a 45-minute-long commute turned into a six-hour-long test of patience. On a more humorous note, my mother, Toshiko, was also on a U.S. military installation, the New Sanno Hotel in downtown Tokyo, where she and a friend were playing the slot machines.

When the trains and other public transportation stopped after the earthquake, she and her friend just ended up getting a room there for the night. The next day she made it home but via bus, not the trains. As noted, other than being inconvenienced, they’re fine. Now if only my sister and I could convince them to get out of Dodge, even for a couple of weeks!


People collect donations toward relief efforts for victims of the Sendai Earthquake and Tsunami in Japanese Village Plaza in Little Tokyo. (George T. Johnston)

Thanks to this modern era of communications, so many around the world have been moved and touched by the visuals of the broken villages and devastated survivors in northern Honshu. What can we do? How can we help? Where does one make a donation?

As of now, there are many ways to donate, with money being the desired commodity. Thanks to Japan’s wealth, level of development, organization and manufacturing capability, things like food, shelter, blankets, food and the like are not immediately needed. Money, however, can cross borders quickly and help pay for what is and will be needed. The U.S. military is helping, as are organizations like the Red Cross; neighbors like China and South Korea are also stepping up.

Within the Japanese American community, trusted organizations like the JACL, L.A.’s JACCC, San Francisco’s JCCCNC and Seattle’s are all working to raise funds. Even UCLA’s Nikkei Student Union raised $1,500 in such a short amount of time.

Nevertheless, my stock answer to people who have asked me how to donate is to go through the Red Cross. As a blood donor, I can say they’re reputable, and they have the history and infrastructure for disaster relief.

I don’t like to sound mean or paranoid, but I am wary of just giving money to anyone on the street with a handwritten sign saying they are collecting donations for Japan relief. I’d say stick with a reputable group for donations.


In addition to the cold, the collapsed infrastructure blocking relief workers in northern Japan, fuel shortages and the like, the biggest worry is the situation with the nuclear reactor in Fukushima. Even the best-case scenario doesn’t sound that good; the worst-case “China Syndrome” scenario is something no one even wants to think about.

But, presuming that we do get a best-case scenario or at least something not as extreme as a “China Syndrome,” in which the molten reactor core penetrates the containment vessel and burns through the earth until it hits the Earth’s core and blows us to pieces, I hope we as a species wise up and permanently shelve the idea of nuclear power as a viable alternative power source. If the issue nuclear waste disposal isn’t enough to deter proponents, just couple that with the probability for disaster in a working reactor and it simply trumps all the other positive arguments. Period. If, as the song goes, there is a “folly of men,” then nuclear power is it.


Is there any silver lining to this disaster? If you’ve lost your possessions or loved ones, the answer would likely be an emphatic no. But taking a dispassionate long few from a few steps back, I’d have to say yes.

As a people, as a culture, the Japanese have endured more than their fair share of disasters through the centuries. The quiet resolve and dignity of quake and tsunami survivors on display makes me proud to be a part of the Japanese diaspora.

Five years from now, maybe less, I’m willing to bet the Tohoku region will be rebuilt and be better than it was. Order will be imposed upon chaos. As is often the case following a disaster, there could even be a small baby boom that results from this event, because something seems to happen at a primal level, as if some sort of survival mechanism gets triggered to make people reproduce in increased numbers following such a tragedy. With Japan’s declining birthrate, maybe this will be the event that changes things.

In my heart, I know Japan can and will overcome this awful, horrific turn of events. I think of speeches made by Winston Churchill when England faced ruin at Hitler’s hands and he called it “their finest hour,” or when a dying Lou Gehrig called himself the “luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”

Hard as it may be to believe right now, because of how the Japanese people dealt with the situation, someday the Sendai Earthquake and Tsunami will be regarded as one of Japan’s finest hours.

Evolving Role of Nikkei Newspapers Dept.: Just another reminder that at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 2, at the Japanese American National Museum, Discover Nikkei will be presenting a conference titled “From Newsprint to New Media: The Evolving Role of Nikkei Newspapers.” It promises to be a fascinating look at the past, present and future of Japanese American journalism, with Denver-based Gil Asakawa serving as the moderator. The panelists are Gwen Muranaka of the Rafu Shimpo, Kenji Taguma of the Nichibei Foundation, Shigeharu Higashi of Cultural News and me. It’s free, but RSVPs are requested, by sending an email to [email protected] or calling (213) 625-0414 at least 48 hours prior. Include the name, date and time of the program, as well as your name and the number in your party.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.


(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2011 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)