Local Community Leader Narrowly Escapes Tsunami


Masako with her husband Ted Tanaka. She was trapped on top of a roof in the port city of Kesennuma after the tsunami struck northern Japan on March 11.




“Greetings from Japan,” Masako Unoura Tanaka cheerfully wrote in a brief e-mail on March 9 to members of the Asia American Symphony Association (AASA), excusing herself from a planning meeting for the group’s upcoming golf tournament. Two days later, she would be stranded atop a building in Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture, barely escaping the powerful tsunami that claimed thousands of lives.

“I can’t die here,” Unoura Tanaka recalled thinking, as she was waist-deep in cold, black water, fighting to escape the rising tsunami.

Unoura Tanaka, wife of architect Ted Tanaka, is still in the Tohoku area and hasn’t decided when she will be returning to Los Angeles. Speaking to The Rafu Shimpo, she explained that she was riding in a car with her aunt on their way to a meeting in Kesennuma on March 11 when the 9.0 magnitude temblor struck.

Unoura Tanaka grew up in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, and graduated from International Christian University in Tokyo. She is active in many civic groups, including AASA, the Japan Business Association of Southern California and Nichi Bei Fujinkai.

After the earthquake, her aunt suggested they proceed to their meeting by the port, but once there the staff at the office told them that a tsunami was coming. A siren rang out and the townspeople were told to run to safety, rather than driving. The two women tried to escape by car but were soon stuck in traffic.

A man walks past the gate of Kamo shrine in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, Japan, Monday, March 21, 2011, after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

Unsure where to go, the two women met an off-duty Coast Guard officer by the name of Watanabe. He led the women to a two-story building with an exterior staircase. The water began to overtake them, but they were able to climb up to the roof and then onto the roof of an adjacent three-and-a half-story drug store.

For the next 16 hours, they were stranded on the roof of the store in the cold, sheltered only by some sheets thrown to them by survivors in a taller building next door. They helped a young woman, who was fleeing the tsunami with her cat, join them on the top of the building. Drenched from the water, the young woman was given a coat by Watanabe and a scarf by Unoura Tanaka.

All around them was the destruction of a vibrant fishing town. Unoura Tanaka described the horrific scene as one from out of a movie. Through the night, she recalled invoking the name of her deceased mother to watch over her.

The Economist reported on Thursday that Kesennuma, a town of 70,000, has suffered casualties totaling at least 25,600 dead or missing.

Back in Los Angeles, during those first hours, Ted didn’t know what had happened to Masako.

“I had a call from Masako on her cellphone at 3:30 a.m. local time, five hours after the tsunami. She called from the top of roof and said that she might die, but that she’s going to fight,” said Tanaka. “Then I lost her.”

For Tanaka, the first hours were an agonizing wait to find out whether his wife was alive. He would reconnect with her, after a tortuous wait of 40 hours.

“She called and said, “’I’m alive,’” Tanaka said.

Eventually they were rescued by members of the Self Defense Force and taken to an evacuation zone. Two days later, she reunited with her father, who lives in Ofunato. Since her mother passed away two years ago, Unoura Tanaka has been traveling frequently to Japan to take care of her father, a prominent doctor who delivered many of the babies of Ofunato, a town that was also devastated by the quake and tsunami.

Tanaka, who designed his father-in-law’s home, explained that it was built only two years ago, atop a hill, and largely escaped damage. The family bought the property 30 years after a tsunami caused by a 9.6 magnitude earthquake in Chile hit Ofunato. Since the disaster, the home, which has electricity but no running water, has been a base for a group of Dutch rescue workers that have been searching for bodies in the town. Unoura Tanaka has been assisting the team as a translator.

Tanaka, who is AASA president, said the symphony is planning to do a benefit concert on May 28 at the JACCC Plaza for victims from the devastated region.

“I have asked Masako to look into Ofunato. It’s perfect, one of the hardest-hit cities. Seems to me it’s best if we can find a specific place or organization or city to contribute directly,” said Tanaka.

For now, Unoura Tanaka will stay in Ofunato, seeking a caretaker for her father and helping the community as it struggles to rebuild.

“Ofunato is my hometown and this community is very tight-knit,” she said. “This is my time to give back.”


1 Comment

  1. Janet Pfeiffer on

    We are so relieved that Masuko and her father are alive and well. We have thought often of your anguish of not knowing what had happened, and, can not even begin to know what that feeling was. Can we help? Your friends, Dennis and Jan Pfeiffer

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