Kenta Yamashita was at home in Pasadena when the March 11 earthquake hit Japan. But he felt the whole thing.
Yamashita, an aviation major at GCC, was in a Skype video call with his family in Tokyo that Thursday night. He was meeting his newborn nephew for the first time when the image on the screen started to shake.
He began to panic as his memory flashed back to a terrifying day just one week after his eighth birthday Yamashita moved to the United States six years ago. But in January of 1995, he and his family lived in Osaka. On January 17, 1995, a 6.8 earthquake devastated Hanshin, the area between Osaka and Kobe. Yamashita was only a child, but the destruction that resulted left a permanent mark.
“I experienced a huge earthquake, and right after that I saw the burning homes and buildings,” he said. “I was too young.”
Yamashita knew the Kobe area well. Seeing such a familiar place in ruins was nothing short of traumatizing. The television footage left him with a panic disorder that he still deals with today.
Though he was safe in California on the night of March 10, Yamashita felt the shaking in his own body. He cried out for his family to cut the gas line, to take shelter. His mother yelled back for him to finish cooking his pasta. He was more afraid than they were.
Yamashita’s mother, sister and nephew evacuated to Nagasaki on March 15 to stay with his grandparents. His father remained in Tokyo to continue working.
“Most people in Tokyo can’t leave,” he said. The Japanese culture puts great emphasis on hard work. After the disaster, many people just wanted to go back to work.
Yamashita’s friend Mikiko lives in Sendai, where the earthquake and tsunami hit the hardest. She was waiting for her friends at a train station when the ground began to shake. Unable to stand, she crouched to the ground.
“I can die like this,” she thought. The earthquake continued for two minutes.
When it was finally over, she walked home in high heels that left blisters. The tsunami that followed the quake had begun destroying her city. She passed a bus stop in ruins, and saw a road collapse. An hour later, she arrived home in the dark. The power was out everywhere.
“I feel so guilty because I have plenty of food and water,” she wrote on her blog. “My situation is much better than other people’s.”
Mikiko and her family remain safe in their well-designed home.
“Strict safety codes saved many lives,” Yamashita said about Japanese architecture. But he’s worried that aftershocks may weaken the buildings.
Yamashita frequently checked in with family and friends in the region. Despite his six years in America, his internal sense of time reset itself 16 hours ahead to Japanese time.
After the nuclear reactor coolant systems in Fukushima failed, the towers began to leak nuclear fuel. Yamashita stayed awake for days, constantly checking updated reports of Tokyo’s radiation levels.
“Japan should be in a state of emergency,” Yamashita said six days after the earthquake. At the time, it was still unsure whether the nuclear situation would elevate. “The radiation leak is small for now, but it could get worse.”
Since then, power has been delivered to the Fukushima plant, and the cooling systems are functional again. Radiation levels rose and then dropped considerably. Still, as of March 24, the leak continues.
A group of Japanese students at GCC began collecting donations on campus the Monday following the disaster. So far, the students have raised more than $1,000 to be sent to the Japanese embassy.
Donations will greatly assist Japan in rebuilding its cities. The maturity and diligence of the Japanese people have already proven to be a significant advantage in their recovery.
“We have a lot of experience with huge earthquakes,” Yamashita said. “I am pretty sure we can take care of this.”