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Common Ground : Student Survivors of Northridge, Kobe Quakes Share Memories

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They didn’t know each other. They didn’t even speak the same language. But when Japanese students who survived the Kobe earthquake met local students--survivors of the Northridge quake--they quickly discovered common ground.

“We are bound by an earthquake,” John Lim, a Van Nuys High School student, told the group at a gathering Monday at Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to be together this way.”

The gathering was sponsored by the Kobe-Los Angeles Youth Seismic Exchange, which brought 85 Japanese students from Kobe to meet with students from Los Angeles. Local sponsors and Japanese organizers say the groups can learn much from each other.

“The goal, of course, is to help them heal some of the wounds,” said Phil Shigekuni, one of the local organizers. “The wounds are a lot fresher for the Kobe kids.

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“Psychologists are not given as much value as they are in our society,” Shigekuni said, explaining the absence of dialogue about the quake in Japan.

Since their arrival last Thursday, the Japanese students have had the standard tourist experience, with trips to Disneyland, Mann’s Chinese Theatre and Rodeo Drive. But mixed with the fun has been a serious undercurrent: dialogue about the disaster that changed many of their lives.

The Kobe earthquake struck Jan. 17, exactly one year after the Northridge quake. At Millikan on Monday morning, the students broke into small groups, mixing the Americans and Japanese, and talked about the earthquakes.

“The Japanese students had not had a chance to do this before,” said Marleen Wong, director of mental health services for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “One student said, ‘I had to come 10,000 miles to talk about how I feel.’ ”

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In presentations after the small group discussions, the students shared their reflections about the quake. The Japanese students told of going for several weeks without water or electricity, of losing relatives, of being afraid. But many--Japanese and Americans--said the tragedies taught them priceless lessons about what really matters in life: family, friends, caring for each other.

“It snatched many things from us,” 12-year-old Mai Miyahara said of the Kobe quake. “It took away many houses, many offices and many lives . . . but it also taught us a very important thing--that is, cooperating with each other.”

The home of Hideko Morita, 18, was destroyed in the quake. For five months, the girl lived in a shelter with her family.

“What we learned with these experiences is larger than what we lost because of the quake,” Hideko told the group.

University student Atsusi Nakade, 21, said Kobe relief efforts have not been enough.

“Kobe is under reconstruction, but we need mental help for the people,” Nakade told the group.

Sitting at the lunch benches at Millikan, the Japanese and American students ate chicken, Spanish rice, beans and tortillas and continued the exchanges. John Grande, 17, of Sunland talked with his new friends, Hideko, Yuri Kuroshima, 16, and Mifa Ri, 18.

“They made me this origami--this is me,” Grande said, pointing to a lilac-colored paper neatly folded into the shape of a man.

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After lunch the students toured the recently reopened Northridge Fashion Center. A mall spokeswoman showed the group videos of the collapse shortly after the quake, then footage of the reopening events.

The students seemed even more interested in shopping. After the presentation, the Japanese students and their American friends hit the stores.

After the mall, the students headed off for a bus tour of nearby areas, including Cal State Northridge, the site of the collapsed Northridge Meadows apartments and a “ghost town.”

The trip, which ends Friday, is a collaborative effort involving several local agencies, including the nonprofit disaster relief organization, Operation USA, the mayor’s office, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Japanese American Community Center and the Kobe Lions Club.

The Rev. Ken-ichi Kusachi of a Kobe quake relief group, who came up with the idea of the trip, said he hoped the students would learn, “how the Americans handled the earthquake” and understand how much the two groups shared.


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