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March 29, 2011 7:30 am

Japanese students struggle with scope of disaster

Written by Ilene Olson

Families of current, former NWC Japanese students all OK

Earthquake and tsunami victims of Japan were on the minds and in the hearts of many of the people who attended the annual Multicultural Showcase at Northwest College on Saturday.

No NWC students from Japan come from the area where the earthquake and tsunamis struck, and none have family members who were affected by the disaster, it was announced during the event. But current and former students from Japan still struggle to deal with the disaster that has been at the forefront of news accounts for the past few weeks.

“Since the day of the east Japan earthquake, I have been watching such terrible news,” said Yoko Otaki. “So many people died from the tsunami. So many people lost houses. So many people lost loved ones. The death toll (is) still rising,” she said in an email last week.

Mie Sahara, a former NWC student, now lives and works in the Washington, D.C., area.

In an email, she thanked friends who had expressed concern for her, her family and her country.

“I can really feel the sense of companionship and togetherness,” she said during an interview over the Internet.

“My family and friends are all safe, as none of them lives close to the epicenter,” she said. “However, this is absolutely a historical catastrophe, and I feel quite hurt when thinking about the people who have been affected by this massive earthquake and (who have) lost their loved ones.”

Sahara said earthquakes are not unusual in Japan, but this one was exceptionally disastrous.

“Kobe, 500 miles west of Tokyo, had a massive earthquake in 1995,” resulting in 6,500 deaths, she said. “In Kobe’s case, there was no tsunami. This time, because it happened in the Pacific Ocean, there was a tsunami, and it destroyed everything. I would say none of the Japanese people have experienced this size before.”

The greatest need for people in affected areas is for water, food and gas, she said. The Japanese government was attempting to provide those things, but the need was greater than the government’s ability to provide them. And unauthorized people who try to get into the area just add to transportation and congestion problems, she said.

Sahara said her family lives in central Japan, and life was continuing fairly normal there.

While continuing problems with radiation from the damaged nuclear power plant was a concern for Sahara, “they are still thinking it is happening quite far away, which is true, so they are not really worried about it,” she said.

Transportation in and out of the affected area has been difficult in any form, if not impossible, since the earthquake, she said.

As of a week ago, “The roads are down, ports are damaged so ships can’t come in, and at the airport, there is a bunch of debris and they are not allowed to land any airplanes,” though enough debris had been cleared that helicopter landings were possible, she said.

Otaki also was overcome by the scale of problems caused by the earthquake and tsunami.

“I have never seen a disaster like this in my country before,” she said. “It’s so heartbreaking to hear the news.

“We know that this quake is the most deadly natural disaster for postwar Japan. But we still don’t have a clear picture of the damage as a whole.”

Otaki said she began to feel very tired about a week after the earthquake occurred.

“Then I learned a new word: Compassion fatigue,” she said last week. “Some Internet site says that this word is usually used for burnout in medical staff, but it also could happen to people who keep watching negative images of other people.

“So it’s time to care for myself a little bit.”

Among other things, Otaki planned to do that by enjoying the Multicultural Showcase.

“I’d also like to say thank you to the people of the community who are concerned about the Japanese students and victims of the Japan quake,” she said.

The always-popular showcase was larger than ever Saturday, attracting hundreds of students and other attendees from around the Big Horn Basin. A silent auction raised $1,383 for a Northwest College scholarship for Luciana, daughter of former NWC student Carolina Parra Vera, who was killed in a bus accident in Chile last year. Participants donated another $500 to help victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  Sahara also thanked those who had helped.

“I truly thank to those countries, such as the U.S, France, Germany, New Zealand, Switzerland, Singapore, South Korea etc., which immediately offered the help and already sent out their rescue teams to Japan,” she said.

She noted that some of that help came from New Zealand, which still is dealing with the aftermath of its own devastating earthquake just weeks ago.

“The New Zealand government said, ‘Japan helped us, so we don’t have experience with tsunamis, but we do have experience with earthquakes, so we can do something ... It’s our turn to help you guys.’

A second bubble ceremony in honor of Japan will take place at 12:15 p.m. Thursday at the NWC Orendorff Lobby.

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