When I tuned in to watch the news on Mar. 11, 2011, I immediately picked up the phone and dialed my home number. As I watched my country experience the most devastating natural disaster in recorded history, all I could do was follow the news and hope that my parents were fine on the other end of the line. As I watched — on a television screen — homes fall apart, crumble into pieces, and wash away, I felt utterly hopeless.
I stayed up all night waiting to hear back from family and friends. When I finally heard from my parents and relatives, they described to me a state of Japan so foreign to me: no electricity, no water, no gas and limited food supply. Knowing that I would worry, my parents initially downplayed the seriousness of the situation and told me that Japan was fine. But as the disaster escalated from an earthquake to a nuclear crisis, my parents no longer held back their feelings. All I could do was listen as my mother told me, choking back her tears, “I wake up every morning hoping that this is just a terrible dream.”
While I attempted to make sense of what was happening back home, I found comfort in my friends at Yale. Immediately after the earthquake, my roommate sent me a text message asking me if my family was safe. Over the next few days, I received numerous e-mails and phone calls from friends who extended their condolences to my family, friends back home and country. From the greater Yale community, I found support from different members of the University that cared about my family’s safety, were concerned about my well being and prayed for the people of my country.
I also found great comfort in the Japanese community at Yale. There are only a handful of students, scholars and faculty from Japan, but the simple exchange of information and common experience of being away from home during these difficult times have brought us closer together. The immediate e-mail correspondences that transpired within the Japanese community at Yale have now transformed into concrete actions. And with all of the support I received from friends and Yale, the sense of hopelessness that I initially had, has also transformed into a sense of urgency to help Japan in any way possible.
On a larger scale, I believe that we — as Japanese citizens — have been extremely grateful for the assistance we have received from the international community. As U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon stated, “Japan is one of the most generous benefactors of assisting those in need. The international community must now do all it can to assist Japan.” In that spirit, the relief efforts Japan has received from around the world has confirmed that there is a link formed between the people of Japan and those around the world. Operation Tomodachi, the relief efforts launched by the United States military forces, is just one of many efforts that have reaffirmed this link. “Tomodachi” is the Japanese word for friendship; the effort has lived up to its name and provided the Japanese people with a sense of belonging.
People have asked me why I remain so optimistic about Japan, even through a time like this. I am not sure myself. Perhaps it is because social order is intact in the country. In supermarkets, people line up to buy their goods and help pick up items that have fallen off the shelves. Women have set up booths outside their destroyed homes to provide coffee to evacuees, even though they are unsure if they have enough food for their own dinner. High school students are willingly give up their food rations for younger kids and pregnant mothers. Or perhaps it is because I have witnessed Japan recover from devastating natural disasters before.
My hometown of Kobe suffered the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995. The 6.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the area left Kobe with nothing but debris and ashes. Nobody could have imagined that the city would revitalize into the metropolitan area that Kobe has become. 16 years after the earthquake, Kobe is a major center of trade.
To me, one thing is certain. I am sure that Japan will recover from this crisis, but it will be a long journey. As Japan makes its slow recovery over the next few years, it is important that Japan continues to receive support from abroad. Media attention will subside and images of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crises will be replaced by other current events. But what I hope to see, and what the people of Japan need, is to feel a sense of belonging and to know they are not forgotten.