Alaska earthquake family Japan Palmer Saroma tsunami

Letter from Saroma

A shorter version of this piece appears in the April 1st edition of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman.

On Friday, March 11th, I had three English classes at Hamasaroma Elementary School, a school of 29 students on the shore of Lake Saroma.  The day’s classes were my last of the Japanese school year, which ends in March.  The goal of the lessons was to have fun, and we did.  The younger grades played a treasure hunt game for which I dressed up like a pirate.  The other grades played a rock paper scissors battle game in the gym, and a very rowdy game of “Pit.”  At recess I played badminton and practiced riding a unicycle.

I have lived in Saroma for three years, working as the town’s Assistant English Teacher.  Saroma has been Palmer’s sister city since 1980, and has hired the English teacher directly from Palmer since 1994, making me, as a 2002 Palmer High graduate, the sixth Palmerite to hold the position.  I visit all of the schools from preschool to high school in this farming and fishing town of 5,900 people in the north of Hokkaido, the northernmost of the Japanese islands.  Saroma often reminds me of Alaska, with its frigid winters, wide summer skies, fields of hay, and the independent, resourceful people.  Saroma feels like home.

When my last class ended at 2:05 PM, I returned to the teachers’ room, got a cup of coffee, and began writing my lesson notes for the day.  After such a wonderful day of classes, I felt like the week and the school year were coming to a perfect end.  The week before I had just agreed to another year of teaching in Saroma, and the week before that I had become engaged to my Japanese girlfriend of several years.  All was right in my world as the clock struck 2:46.

At first it was slow and smooth, then rattling, then smooth again, like an airliner in the minutes after takeoff.  The earthquake as I felt it in Saroma lasted about two minutes.  Some of us got under our desks, but no one seemed particularly concerned, and when it finished there had been no damage at all.  Having felt dozens of earthquakes growing up in Palmer, I guessed it was a magnitude 6 or 7, perhaps located somewhere north, in Russia.

The vice principal turned on the TV, where the first images shown were of shaking TV studios in Sendai and Tokyo.  It was obvious that it had been strong, but that those cities were still intact.  Then the epicenter was announced off the coast of the Tohoku region in Honshu, Japan’s main island, over 400 miles to the south.  Tsunami warnings and watches were quickly issued for nearly the entire 18,000 mile coastline of Japan, including the Sea of Okhotsk near Saroma.  Several teachers immediately got in their cars and drove off to make sure students who had already walked home for the day arrived home safely.

The rest of the staff remained in the teachers’ room and watched the rising waters gradually swell to violent torrents, live and in crystal-clear high definition.  We slowly grew hushed as we realized the gravity of what was occurring.  To say it was like watching a disaster movie isn’t accurate.  It was worse.  I had been to those places, I had friends near those places, and I knew that these astounding images were happening as I watched, many which were cut away from quickly and never replayed in the following days because they were too disturbing.  I could imagine myself in that place, in their shoes.  Yet, out my window, the day seemed to continue as it had before.

Even though Saroma was spared from this disaster, the genuine concern expressed by the people of Palmer and all of my friends outside of Japan has been extremely touching.  My mother couldn’t believe how many people called her or stopped by to ask about me once they heard about a quake in “northeast Japan.”  Tohoku, the area hit by the tsunami, literally means “northeast” and from Tokyo, the capital, it is northeast.  However, Hokkaido and Saroma are farther northeast by hundreds of miles.  This caused family and friends at home to experience some unnecessary worry as well as get an impromptu lesson in Japanese geography.

While Saroma was not at all damaged and its people are doing fine, the town has experienced its share of natural disasters.  In October of 2006, over a foot of rainfall in 24 hours caused the Saroma River to swell over its banks, damaging large portions of downtown.  One month later a tornado hit the neighborhood of Wakasa, killing nine people, injuring 31 and destroying 38 houses.  It was the first tornado in Japan’s recorded history to take lives.  The next week a magnitude 8.3 earthquake off of the Kuril Islands prompted coastal evacuations in Saroma and caused a 10 inch tsunami on the Sea of Okhotsk. The same evacuations were repeated the next month, in January 2007, when a magnitude 8.1 earthquake hit the same area.

Disasters, however unwelcome, have the power to bring us together.  In a time of such crisis, the differences between nations and cultures seem to dissolve as our shared humanity is reaffirmed.  This sense of shared existence, solidarity and deep empathy that so many around the world now feel for the people of Japan is what Saroma and Palmer have been building steadily for over thirty years, through hundreds of personal experiences, friendships, gestures of goodwill and shared commitment.  Times like this remind us how important these connections are that we have built.  In normal times they might seem inconsequential.  Some people might ask why they are necessary.  But they are real.

The full effects of this disaster are still being understood, but surely the Japanese deserve credit for their own preparation toward the inevitable, unpredictable menace of earthquakes and tsunami.  The evacuation routes, warning systems, and awareness education surely saved many more lives than were lost.  Alaska, three thousand miles clockwise from Japan along the Pacific Ring of Fire, can learn from their preparedness.

As the aftermath continues to unfold, I’ve noticed a big difference in the news coverage from within Japan and abroad.  For example, the threat from the nuclear reactors in Fukushima is grave, but the reporting on it has largely overshadowed the more immediate tragedy being endured by hundreds of thousands of people on the ground.  Foreign media outlets, particularly American cable news networks, have engaged in a lot fearful speculation regarding the nuclear threat.  While Japan grapples with half a million homeless and 28,000 dead or missing, there have been no deaths related to the Fukushima plant, radiation levels outside of Japan’s designated 20km evacuation radius are within safe levels, and the government continues to exercise extreme caution regarding the inspection of food produced in the area.  It’s a distraction from the more pressing human problem.

Life continues as it has before, but the television coverage is still focused overwhelmingly on the Tohoku region, whereas Libya has taken the spotlight abroad.

Here in Saroma, we have felt like many Americans have: unaffected, far away, and wondering how we can help.  Saroma has already sent monetary aid to the affected area, and has accepted two families displaced by the disaster.  Voluntary gasoline rationing and electricity saving measures have been in effect.  Hokkaido now has a surplus of electricity which is being sent to Honshu to compensate.  Over the last two weeks the Japanese have used 20% less electricity than over the same period last year, due to efforts to conserve.  Rolling blackouts have largely been avoided.  While essential items like toilet paper, water, and instant noodles have been disappearing from shelves in Tokyo, such items are plentiful here.  The only bare shelves I have seen are for yogurt, as many of those factories are in the Tohoku region.

Life in Saroma continues much as before, although everyone’s minds are still on the disaster.  Television coverage is still focused overwhelmingly on the Tohoku region, whereas Libya has taken the spotlight abroad.  Regular TV programming has returned, but news programs continue with report after report.  Commercials have also slowly started to be played again, although public service announcements account for the majority, with major stars giving messages like “I believe in the power of Japan.”

This morning’s news programs had report after report related to the ongoing situation. People sleep in their cars because their pets are not allowed inside evacuation centers and they refuse to abandon them.  An old man provides transportation of goods and people on his boat, out at sea during the tsunami, even though his own house is destroyed.  Community groups search through the rubble daily for family photos, cleaning, drying, and displaying them on the walls in local evacuation centers, trying to help salvage their former lives.  In all the myriad media coverage, I have not heard one single complaint, not one outburst of anger or incident of selfish behavior.  People are meeting difficulty with unfathomable integrity.

The hardship continues for the hundreds of thousands still homeless, for those who still have not found their loved ones, for those uncertain of their future.  Pessimism comes easy to some, and I have heard numerous grave predictions about Japan’s future.

They are wrong.  Japan is already recovering.  The Great Kanto Expressway, parts of which were demolished during the quake, was rebuilt and reopened only six days later.  After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, which killed 6,500 people, Japan’s economy actually grew.  I think that meeting the challenge of reconstruction could usher in a new age in Japan, pulling it out of the past two decades of malaise and perhaps fostering a new willingness to confront the country’s big problems.  The disaster might seem unimaginably large, but I trust in one resource that the earthquake and tsunami did not destroy: the ingenuity, cooperation, and resourcefulness of Japan’s people.  The people of Tohoku need our help, but Japan as a nation will emerge stronger.

I was spared from this disaster.  I don’t believe in luck, yet I feel incredibly lucky to know this country and its people, a place that has been my home for the better part of my adult life.  The Japanese people deserve our prayers, our respect, and our support.  Let’s give it to them.