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Thoughts on the Great Tohoku Kanto Earthquake and Tsunami from a Japanese American in Denver

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Unless you live in California, most Americans can't imagine what it's like to be in a minor earthquake, never mind a major one. As a kid in Japan, I lived through lots of little quakes. They were no big deal. If the quake seemed serious or went on too long, we'd simply go outside and wait. But there was never a major quake when I lived in Japan.

In the 1990s, on a trip to Japan with my mother, an earthquake hit just after I checked into a hotel in Sapporo. I was hanging up shirts and jackets in the closet when they started swaying. We were on the 10th floor so I could feel the building swaying at least two or three feet. I had a flash of fear, and opened the door to the room and wedged myself in the doorway as a safety precaution (I think it's something I remembered from my childhood), but I knew if the building collapsed standing in the doorway wouldn't help. I looked out the door, and no one else seemed as concerned as me, except my mom poked her head out of her room.

As it turned out, the temblor didn't cause much damage in Sapporo, the largest city in the northern-most Japanese island of Hokkaido. But two days later when we arrived in Nemuro, my mom's hometown at the easternmost tip of Hokkaido, we saw the power of the "jishin," or earthquake. Roads were humped up in the middle and the pavement split like the top of a loaf of bread, and in the town's cemetery, my grandfather's memorial had crumbled into a pile of rubble. But life went on as normal. Luckily there were no casualties from that quake, and there was no tsunami that followed in its wake.

The Great Tohoku Kanto Earthquake, which is now what the Japanese call the March 11 disaster, is the strongest earthquake in the country's recorded history. That's saying something for a country where quakes are so common there are established rules for what you're supposed to do when they strike, like people in Kansas are taught from childhood what to do if a tornado touches down.

The fortunate (if that's the word) thing about this quake is that it struck off the northern coast of Japan, not east of Tokyo. It's unimaginable what kind of devastation it could have caused if the quake had been closer to Tokyo. As it is, there was some damage in the capital but not to the extent of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which demolished much of Tokyo, or even the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which was a lessor temblor but killed over 6,000 people in Kobe.

Although the tsunami hit in a more rural part of Japan, the damage and the human cost is enormous. I'm sure when the final tally is in, the death toll will be over 10,000. It breaks my heart to think of the entire towns close to the northern shore that were simply washed away by the tsunami.

I watched in horror when I first saw the email breaking news alerts about the earthquake and tuned in to CNN. The footage was terrible, and yet difficult to turn off. The power of nature to overwhelm human endeavors is incredible and truly awful.

Overall, I have to say that the U.S. broadcast news media have been stuck looping video clips over and over and not adding much of value to the news that I've been looking for, about damage to Nemuro, where my uncle still lives. I can tell when the anchors are just stretching their limits of knowledge and filling time. I've also been irritated by the mispronunciations of words such as "tsunami" and "Tokyo."

So my main sources for coverage have been news media from Japan, thanks to the Internet.

My favorite is Yokoso News, a project of Katz Ueno, a Japanese man who was educated in LA and normally uses Yokoso News as an outlet for cultural news and education about Japan for Westerners.

His dogged determination to translate every news development from Japanese to English in real-time on his site's video livestream has been absolutely heroic. He originally was on the air for 18 hours straight, then took a couple of hours off to sleep, and has been on mostly nonstop since. At times he's been joined by a woman calling herself "Ema" who lives in Tokyo (Katz is based in Western Japan, far from the quake's epicenter) using the Internet video phone service Skype.

Ueno has been reading the latest news as he sees it for 14-hour stretches, and has been answering questions people post to him via Twitter. He's been the best source for information, hands-down.

Here's his livestream. If he's not broadcasting it's because he's getting some shuteye, and because, as he says, "I need to make some money." As I write this he's about to take a break and promises he'll be back with the latest news in 11 hours. I'm sure he'll eventually return to his regular programming, but I swear, he deserves an international award for his efforts the past few days:


Video streaming by Ustream

I have relatives on Hokkaido, Japan's northern-most island. One uncle and his family are in Sapporo, which is inland and away from the tsunami. Another uncle still lives with his family in Nemuro, which is on the coast and probably vulnerable. My mom wasn't able to get through to their phones for a day, but finally was able to connect with her brother. He reported that the tsunami did hit Nemuro, but not with the force that it hit cities such as Sendai. He's fine, luckily.

My mom also has an old friend who lives in Tokyo who has kids about my age, and they're all fine too. So are a couple of online friends through Facebook and Tumblr, and some friends from the U.S. who had the unfortunate timing of traveling to Japan last week.

But that leaves thousands of victims who lost their lives, and many more who lost their homes and livelihoods. It's hard to imagine what life must be like for those people. It's hard to think how this disaster will affect Japan's economy, and subsequently the world's economy.

My biggest fear is that a man-made, nuclear disaster will overtake the natural one.

Here are some other resources to follow developments in Japan:

First, you can donate to the Red Cross by texting REDCROSS" to 90999. This will automatically donate $10, and the charge will appear on your next mobile phone bill (see note below about Red Cross vs Salvation Army, and also DirectRelief.org if you're uncomfortable with either organization's policies).

The Japan America Society of Colorado (and many other organizations across the country) are accepting donations for earthquake and tsunami relief efforts.

NHK World has been the go-to source for all the US media; this is the English version of NHK (Japan's public television network).

USTWrap.info is aggregating multiple video livestreams and Twitter feeds in Japanese.

Guardian UK Japan Earthquake Coverage has a different perspective than the US mainstream media. The BBC is also worth checking for their coverage.

The Nikkei Youth Foundation based in Tokyo has posted an online form looking for volunteers around the world to translate Japanese into multiple languages for relief efforts.

Since the beginning, Al Jazeera English has had different, and often more in-depth coverage than the US cable networks.

From Facebook, amazing street-level view of tsunami raging through town.

Google Crisis Response Page includes Google's "Person Finder" service and many links.

A note from Emily Nakano Co of Absolutely Fobulous (via the comment below) about donating to the Red Cross vs alternatives such as Salvation Army, and other links:

Quick note about the Red Cross (See here: http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2011/03/did-your-donation-really-reach-japan-probably-not/).

Red Cross is a good option but there is also the Salvation Army. The org has been in Japan since 1895 so it's an NGO that understands Japan's infrastructure, which is really important. You can also text "Japan" or "Quake" to 80888 to make a $10 donation to the Salvation Army.

NGO JEN specializes in post-disaster recovery and redevelopment.

AMDA International (emergency medical aid).

Shelter Box (on the ground in Japan in less than 24 hrs after the earthquake struck)

A reader pointed out on Facebook that if you're uncomfortable about the policies of either the Red Cross or Salvation Army, this organization seems to be a good alternative: Direct Relief International.

Update: I've posted on my Nikkei View blog (cross-posted to HuffPo Denver) about howSome people think Japan's earthquake and tsunami are payback for Pearl Harbor? Really?

(Cross-posted from the Nikkei View blog -- check there for updated list of resources!)