The ‘surreal reality’ of the disaster in Japan
Aspen native John Hatanaka stood on a hill above his adopted hometown of Naraha Machi and watched as parts of it were washed into the sea. It was but one surreal moment in a series from the moment a massive earthquake struck Japan more than two weeks ago to his arrival in Colorado on Wednesday.
“What I keep telling people is that it has been a surreal reality … was this really happening? Was I really seeing this?” says Hatanaka, a 2004 Aspen High School graduate. “Did this really happen where I was living? Japan is a part of me.”
Hatanaka’s ties to Japan run deep: he is a fourth-generation Japanese American on his father’s side; at age 15, he was part of the Sister Cities exchange program with Shimukappu; in college at CU Boulder, he spent a semester abroad in Tokyo; and most recently, he was teaching English in the rural Japanese village of Naraha Machi.
“Japan is an amazing place. I have fallen in love with the language and the culture,” he says of his tenure teaching as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program. “Every day was a learning experience.”
But that all came to a sudden halt on March 11 when a three-part disaster struck: the earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear threat.
In Naraha Machi, the 9.0-magnitude earthquake destroyed buildings and property. The school where Hatanaka taught, and where he rode out the quake tucked under a desk, suffered serious damage but was not leveled. His home was similarly ruined; so much so that he fled with just the clothes on his back.
“Earthquakes are quite common in Japan, so at first it seemed normal. But then the shaking just didn’t stop, and things started crashing down around us,” recalls the 24-year-old Hatanaka, adding that they were fortunate in that no students in the building at the time were killed. “When it did stop, we ran outside. Everyone was just in shock. The street in front of us was split in half.
“And then the tsunami alarms went off.”
The ensuing tsunami wreaked more havoc. Hatanaka describes Naraha Machi as a three-tiered town; the bottom tier was completely wiped out by a wave of water nearly 10 meters high.
“It was horrible,” he says, still in awe of what he witnessed. “Entire homes were washed back out to sea; it was just like you see on TV. And at that point I knew this was a very serious situation, a very real disaster.”
But the greatest threat – and the one that ultimately forced him to leave the town he loved and has since forced a complete evacuation of the area – was from the nearby nuclear plant. Naraha Machi stands just 10 kilometers from the Dai-ichi Powerplant.
Thus, after making sure a few close friends and co-workers were OK, Hatanaka began the long drive south and away from danger. But, he recalls, danger – and indescribable destruction – was everywhere he turned.
“Roads just ended; at one place, there was a pothole big enough to swallow a bus,” he recalls. “And then there were fires everywhere. People were just parked watching it all unfold. Watching in awe. It was horrible. It was unreal in many ways.”
It was real, however. And at one point, Hatanaka wondered if he’d have to push his car the rest of the way as he was low on gas and filling stations were essentially shut down. He also wondered how he would eat, find water (he eventually found a bottle in a hotel vending machine), and get to safety. But this final point also created a problem of its own: to stay or go. His parents, and everyone else he spoke to in the United States, urged him to fly home as soon as possible. He was torn, however.
“I’m glad I left, but it was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” he says, recalling the generosity of strangers and acquaintances he encountered in his days of travel. “And in that situation, there is no right or wrong answer.
“You have to follow your gut.”
Ultimately, his gut was guided by this simple truth: “If I stayed I would be just one more mouth to feed. There aren’t enough resources to go around. I wanted to help, but realized I might be more help to Japan if I was back in the United States.”
Thus, Hatanaka began the long journey from Osaka, where he eventually ended his sojourn to the south, to Tokyo to Chicago to Colorado. Now, just a few days after arriving home, he says he has gained some perspective on what happened in Japan.
“I was amazed at how calm the Japanese people remained,” he says. “Tokyo, in many ways, seemed undisturbed.”
This was not, Hatanaka believes, the case of a big city turning a blind eye to the devastation in other parts of the country. Rather, it is the way the Japanese culture works.
“They know what’s at stake and they know they need to be calm, get back to work and dig in to reach the end goal of helping the country rebuild.”
This has, in many ways, fueled Hatanaka’s own drive to help, as he and his fellow JET Program teachers and alumni are about to launch a massive fundraising effort. For his part, Hatanaka has plans to return to Japan on April 15, or as soon as humanly possible.
“I want to help; I need to help,” he says, noting he is contracted to teach through August 2012 and had hopes of staying in the country long after that to purse a career in international business. “I feel very lucky to be alive and to be safe at home in Aspen, but Japan is also my home.”
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