Social Work Dean Jeanette Takamura: A Personal Account of Japan’s Resilience

by Jeanette Takamura

March 16, 2011Bookmark and Share

Written by Jeanette Takamura, dean of Columbia's School of Social Work, who was in Tokyo to attend a conference when the March 11 earthquake and tsunami struck northern Japan. She was able to leave the country two days later. Dean Takamura is a sansei (third generation) Japanese American, born and raised in Hawaii.

Jeanette Takamura
Jeanette Takamura

I returned early this evening from Tokyo where I was invited to speak at a conference on human assistive technologies for the elderly.

At 2:46 p.m. on March 11, the earth shook and very heavy tremors—one wave of motion after another—continued on and on and on for what seemed like half an hour. The 8.9 earthquake was unlike any that I have ever experienced anywhere. Along with everyone else in all of Tokyo's and Japan's buildings, I walked quickly out into the street and stood as far away from buildings that are older or that have a lot of glass. The Japanese were very calm, no crying or talking, children and babies were quiet, and millions poured with purpose into streets and parks, all looking up at the very tall buildings that swayed around them like tall palm trees without relief.

Oddly, I had a premonition of the earthquake and was thus somewhat prepared, but nothing could have prepared me for the discovery that only two people in the crowd in which I found myself were fluent English speakers, and that they would be from Thailand. I looked like everyone else in the crowd, but could not speak Japanese and my cell phone could not transmit or receive. Without any trains, buses and few taxis, there was no choice but to attempt at least a six-hour walk back to my hotel, following a route parallel to the train tracks. An hour after starting, a taxi miraculously appeared, unloaded its passengers, and my new Thai friends and I jumped into it. It was a $60 taxi ride, but a bargain, since it would have otherwise been five more hours of traveling by foot. Then, of course, there were 64 flights of stairs that had to be climbed to the floor on which my room was located because the elevators were not usable.

That night, millions were sleeping in subway stations and office buildings all around Japan because the railroad system, which is usually so efficient, could not run until all the tracks could be fully inspected. Hotels brought blankets out to those who could not get a hotel room—there was not one to be had. I heard from our alumni, who were going to come together from Osaka and other parts that evening and the next morning, that they were unable to make the trip and thus were safe at home. The temporary discomfort of many does not compare to the devastation that the people in Sendai and other cities and villages in northern Japan are still experiencing. No doubt you have seen the reports on CNN and other news stations. It is horrendous.

Before leaving, I called a colleague at the American Embassy to see if they are in need of disaster volunteers and I was told that they are relying nearly entirely on the military, the Red Cross and international rescue organizations.

Because transportation systems were down and all of the major highways were closed to all but rescue crews, it took a three-hour taxi ride, two train rides and running on foot to get to the airport. Mr. Ohno, a remarkable man, was assigned to get me to Narita. His three colleagues at the Japan Travel Bureau (Ms. Yamada, Ms. Kubota and Ms. Fukushima) gave him and the taxi driver instructions by cell phone about side streets that could be taken and train schedules and routes.

Six hours later, we arrived at Narita, 40 minutes after the plane had departed without a full load of passengers. I am sure others were being as creative in their efforts to get to Narita as well. Mr. Ohno stayed with me until his colleagues had located an airport hotel room at which I could stay overnight. I could not get him to leave me so he could begin to find his own way home—he had no idea what transportation would be available to him and his trip would be at least three hours long, if he were lucky enough to find some mode of transportation. I will not ever forget him bowing to me from outside the hotel shuttle as the bus in which I was finally seated left for the hotel. It was only then that he would permit himself to begin his own journey home. I am hugely indebted to Mr. Ohno and to the conference organizers. I have never experienced such dedicated, thoughtful, determined, courteous service.

After a night and a morning full of earthquake tremors, I was finally able to get to Narita again, where those who recounted their experiences noted how awed they were with the calm, composed responses they had seen in the face of tragedy.

Now that I am back in New York City, I am seeking meaningful, appropriate ways to be of assistance to the communities that have been devastated. Many of you have also expressed an interest in the same and have written or called to express your concern. We will share information as we secure it.

Our heartfelt concerns are with the people of Japan. We are fortunate to be beginning spring break at Columbia. As we do so, let us do more than count our blessings. I trust that we will find our individual and collective ways to convey our heartfelt concerns for the people of Japan and for all others who are victims of natural and other tragedies beyond their control.