By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
The fifth anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that devastated Japan’s Tohoku region was observed March 6 at the LAPD building in downtown Los Angeles.
The goal of the annual Love to Nippon event is to remember the nearly 20,000 people who perished on March 11, 2011, to support the survivors, and to urge Californians to prepare for natural disasters.
The outdoor portion of the program included a musical tribute by Yuki Yasuda, Kozue Matsumoto and Shelley Yuki Ikebe on koto, Shoshi Kanokohata on shakuhachi, and Naoko Atkins on Tsugaru shamisen.
Booths and information tables were provided by the Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate kenjinkai, representing the three prefectures hardest hit by the tsunami; and representatives of American Red Cross-Los Angeles Region, Home Depot, Los Angeles County Fire Department, Ofunato (Iwate Prefecture) Fire Department, U.S. Coast Guard, and Japan Search and Rescue Dog Association.
An Interfaith service was conducted by Izumi Hasegawa, senior priest of Shusse Inari Jinja; Cantor Seth Ettinger of Wilshire Boulevard Temple; Rev. Mark Nakagawa of Centenary United Methodist Church; and members of the Nikkei Interfaith Group of Little Tokyo and Los Angeles Buddhist Temple Federation. Serving as emcees were Lori Gardea and Toby Mallen of Nichi Bei Fujin Kai and Kay Inose and Kitty Sankey of the Japanese Women’s Society of Southern California.
Attendees lined up to offer incense and flowers to the departed.
The indoor program was opened by Rev. Timothy Yee of Union Church of Los Angeles and Cantor Ettinger.
Serving as emcee was ABC7 news anchor and reporter David Ono, who covered the aftermath of 3/11. He described the event as “an occasion for the community to gather together to remember and to reflect … to send love and prayers to the people of Japan … (and) encourage conversations among family members, among schools, among the workplace and neighborhoods so that each and every one has a plan in the event of a natural disaster.”
The Love to Nippon project also seeks to establish March 11 as an official statewide natural disaster preparedness training day, Ono said.
Keiko Takeshita, a member of a prestigious opera company in Japan, sang “Kimigayo,” Japan’s national anthem, and Noi Maeshige, an eighth-grader at Musical Theater Conservatory of Orange County School of the Arts, sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Rinban Noriaki Ito of Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple noted, “In Japan, people remember the memorial date when their family members passed away more than they remember birthdays. Holding memorial services to remember loved ones on the date of their passing is a time-honored tradition. This one of the reasons why even five years after the tragedy we hold this memorial event.”
The 3/11 service is a reminder, he said, “to do the best we can to leave a better world for the children … to live with compassion not only for the family and friends of our inner circle but to extend that compassion to all human beings and all living things … May we extend our compassion not only to those who are still working to rebuild their lives in the Tohoku area but to all those being challenged everywhere throughout the world.”
“Hana wa Saku” (Flowers Will Bloom), which has become an anthem for the tsunami survivors, was sung in Japanese and English by students of Nishiyamato Academy of California, ranging from first to ninth grade, led by Chika Inoue.
The keynote speaker was Norman Mineta, who was U.S. secretary of transportation during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “Manmade disasters or natural disasters are both the kind of things that happen that we all respond to,” he said. “We respond because we’re struck by the tragedy of the event, the enormity of the event.”
He recalled the events of Sept. 11, 2001: “I was having breakfast that morning with the deputy prime minister of Belgium and Jane Garvey, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, when I was told about the Twin Towers in New York being struck. Then about 9:30 that morning the Pentagon was struck … Within a matter of about an hour and 20 minutes, there were three commercial airliners that had been used as missiles.
“As soon as that third one occurred … I ordered all airplanes over the United States to land, and at that point there were 5,368 airplanes in the air, and in two hours and 20 minutes they were all down on the ground safely and without incident.
“I remember being in the office on March 11, 2011 when I was watching television news and saw this tremendous tsunami … Seeing that wave go over the jetway at Sendai Airport is something I’ll never forget. I know that all of you will always remember what you were doing on 9/11 as well as 3/11.”
Mineta said he was impressed by the response to 3/11. “The goodness of people around the world responded to that earthquake and tsunami, and even though there are parts of the Tohoku area that they can’t return to, people are rebuilding their lives with the help not only of the Japanese government but many governments from around the world as well as individuals … and organizations who have devoted their time to try to correct things.”
After the 1995 Kobe earthquake, which claimed more than 6,000 lives, “there was a response from governments and people to help out (but) the Japanese government and the people said, ‘No, we think we can handle this on our own.’ That really struck me … But the 3/11 tsunami and earthquake were so overwhelmingly large and tragic in nature” that Japan accepted outside help, Mineta said.
He also compared 3/11 with Hurricane Katrina, which struck in 2005. “I couldn’t believe the results of the Katrina hurricane … in the Gulf of Mexico or in the rivers of Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. How does an 80-ton slab of bridge float down the river? But the force of wind and water are just inexplicable.”
Mineta praised search and rescue teams from the L.A. County Fire Department and Fairfax County in Virginia for deploying to Tohuku immediately after the tsunami. “They are ready to go wherever the tragedy might be … They have a very good disaster relief team.”
“All of you who helped right after March 11, today you still show that same devotion to want to help people in that area … Thank you so much for what you have done and continue to do for everyone who has been impacted by the tragedy in Japan,” he concluded.
L.A. County Fire Department Deputy Chief David Richardson said that the annual memorial serves as “a commemoration for the future of Japan, the future of the U.S. as we move forward and try to prepare. If we don’t maintain memorials, what ends up happening is we become complacent. Natural disasters … fall by the wayside in our memories.”
Noting that Japan is “far more prepared than any Western country,” Richardson stressed that families need to have a plan in case of a natural disaster. “If we don’t practice these types of preparedness events prior to an emergency, then we are less prepared and more vulnerable … Classes are available throughout the county … Become versed in first aid as well as basic life-saving techniques … We never know when disaster’s going to strike.”
Battalion Chief Larry Collins remembered establishing at an elementary school in Ofunato. “We found out later that a lot of the students at that elementary school did not know where their parents were at that point. A lot of parents were missing.”
He praised the Japanese firefighters that he worked with. “Many had lost their own homes and had family members missing” but continued working to “protect the population that they serve — a tribute to the Japanese fire service and the Japanese people in general.”
Today, Collins said, “Our collaborations with our colleagues in the Japanese fire service and scientists that study tsunamis and other disasters has been invaluable. We constantly exchange information back and forth and then we test that information … when events happen. One of the true hallmarks of this approach has been the ability of different countries to lend help to each other at a time of disaster seamlessly, despite language barriers.”
Yoshihiro Chiba, a paramedic from the Ofunato Fire Department, thanked everyone for their help and reported that the wounds inflicted on the community are gradually healing. He also presented a framed letter from Ofunato Mayor Kimiaki Toda to Richardson and Collins.
The letter read, in part: “We invite you to visit our city as I would like to show you first-hand the impact your great contributions have had on the progress we are making. The road to recovery is a long and challenging one, but the citizens of Ofunato will keep working toward a better tomorrow …
“We are aware of the annual 3/11 memorial event taking place at LAPD headquarters … The L.A. County Fire Department have been supporting Love to Nippon every year and we are inspired by your initiative to take a more active role and serious measures to deal with natural disasters in your community … The commitment by the L.A. community … to keep us close to your heart is truly commendable and deeply appreciated.”
Architect Ted Tokio Tanaka of the Ofunato Support Network received a call shortly after the tsunami from his wife, Masako Unoura-Tanaka, who had survived by going to the roof of a tall building. But after a 20-second conversation, he lost contact with her for two days.
“Our life has never been the same ever since that day,” he said. “… She still has a difficult time talking about the experience because it was such a devastating, life-threatening experience and seeing so many other people going through the same and worse.”
Tanaka has been to Tohoku two or three times a year ever since to help the survivors. With funds raised in the Los Angeles area through a concert, a golf tournament and other events, his group has supported music and sports programs in the Ofunato area.
“They still need help,” he stressed. “People have been able to move out of temporary housing and live in a permanent home, but still probably 50,000 to 60,000 are living in temporary housing … I stayed in one of those … It was like sleeping in a refrigerator.”
Unoura-Tanaka, founder of Love to Nippon, said she still hasn’t healed from her harrowing experience and noted that in some cases only two minutes made the difference between life and death. While she survived on the rooftop, some people inside that same building drowned.
Pointing out that the same region was hit by a tsunami in 1933, she cited a Japanese proverb: “Nido aru koto wa sando aru,” meaning that if something happens twice, it will happen a third time. Reminding the audience that California is in the same situation, she said, “There could be another quake … Once a year I want to get together with you because … I would like to remind everyone … to make sure we will be ready for the next disaster.”
Douglas Erber, president of the Japan America Society of Southern California, said he has been to Tohoku nine times with other board members to ensure “good governance of the relief fund for which we raised $1.5 million.” One project, which had matching funds from the prefectural and national governments, was to rebuild a fishery that services 500 fishing boats.
Erber recently visited Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture with the parents of Taylor Anderson, a participant in the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program who “perished after she made sure all the elementary school kids she was teaching were picked up by their parents.” Erber was initially hesitant when Andy Anderson invited him on the trip. “I can’t imagine going to a place where your child was lost, but the outpouring of love not only for Taylor but for Andy and Jean was almost overwhelming.”
The Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund has built a community center in Ishinomaki and supports a special school for traumatized kids who associate school with the tsunami. These and other projects, including a new park just for children in Ishinomaki, show that there are “lots of challenges (but) a lot of good things happening,” Erber said.
Consul General Harry Horinouchi gave words of appreciation on behalf of the Japanese government. When roads in Tohoku were blocked and the airport was inaccessible, “the United States sent the USS Ronald Reagan (for a) massive operation of sending material, food and water,” he said.
Horinouchi added, “Many people in Southern California are still making contributions … Tohoku people will never forget.”
The Holiness Youth Choir, led by Mary Tabuchi, closed the program by singing “Sakura” and “Happy Day.”
For more information on recovery and preparedness projects, visit www.LoveToNippon.com.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo (except where noted)