Memorials recall Japan’s tsunami a year later

She doesn’t remember the details of that horrific day one year ago, when she was nearly swallowed alive by a massive tsunami triggered by the largest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history.

About all Masako Unoura-Tanaka remembers is the cold. Her wet hands. And the words she screamed to her aunt as she slipped into the debris-choked waters while trying to climb to a nearby rooftop for safety: “I don’t want to die here! Help me!”

Unoura-Tanaka, a Los Angeles resident who was visiting Japan at the time, spoke Sunday in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles, where more than 300 people gathered at three memorial events to burn incense, offer prayers and pay tribute to those who died and those still suffering from the tragedy in northeastern Japan.

The 9.0 magnitude quake struck at 2:46 p.m. local time on March 11, setting off waves that rose to more than 100 feet in some coastal areas. The tsunami killed more than 16,000 people, left more than 325,000 homeless and destroyed tens of thousands of buildings. Some towns were almost entirely erased. About 3,000 people are still missing.


Nuclear reactors in Fukushima were seriously damaged, triggering the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.

The events also set off an outpouring of donations and volunteer efforts from Southern California, strengthening ties between the area and Japan’s less traveled coastal regions.

The anniversary observances began with a traditional Buddhist memorial ceremony at Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, where a gong was struck and a moment of silence observed at precisely 2:46 p.m. Pacific time. At the next event at the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters, a KABC-TV Channel 7 documentary on the disaster was aired, and several speakers described their volunteer efforts to help find survivors, clean up the ravaged communities and provide comfort and friendship.

Later, representatives from the Buddhist, Christian and Shinto traditions led a candlelight vigil at the Japanese American National Museum.

“We are here to light candles of hope that will bring light into the lives of people in Japan who continue to suffer,” said the Rev. Mark Nakagawa of Centenary United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Noriaki Ito of Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple offered a Buddhist memorial chant and said that those who perished offered lessons for the living, including the importance of cherishing each moment in the face of life’s impermanence.

The day’s speakers included Cmdr. Larry Collins of the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s urban search and rescue team, which arrived in Japan 28 hours after the earthquake struck. The Los Angeles team is one of two in the United States deployed to global disasters by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

In an earlier interview, Collins said his team brought 60 tons of heavy equipment and six search and rescue dog teams to look for survivors. After nine days in Ofunato and Kamaishi, amid frequent snow flurries, the team did not find any. But Collins said he gained valuable information that will help his team adjust its disaster planning for Southern California. This region, he said, could be vulnerable to tsunami swells as high as 40 feet, particularly in flat areas such as Huntington Beach and Venice.

Collins learned the critical need for simultaneous air, sea and land rescues and for those on the coast to “high-tail it to high ground” the minute the earth begins to shake.

Unoura-Tanaka underscored the point, recalling that in the coastal town of Kessennuma, pedestrians and drivers seemed not to respond to tsunami warning sirens and continued to go about their business. She shouted at them to evacuate, and some just smiled at her, she said.

“Minutes later, they were gone,” she said.

Douglas Erber of the Japan America Society of Southern California, which was the afternoon event’s lead sponsor, said his organization raised $1.4 million in aid to the Japanese Red Cross and other aid groups. The society is now helping a 112-year-old orphanage in Fukushima, an area still contaminated by nuclear radiation. Erber said his society is planning to fund field trips outside of Fukushima for the children there, who are still largely confined to the indoors.

For Hitoshi Abe, chairman of the UCLA department of architecture and urban design, the disaster was both personal and professional. His family has lived in Sendai, close to the affected areas, for eight generations, and Abe maintains an architectural practice there.

An aunt in the coastal city of Ishinomaki was washed away by waves but was rescued. His office was damaged by the quake and took two months to repair.

Abe has thrown himself into volunteer work, starting a nonprofit organization involving 15 U.S. and Japanese universities to help reconstruct the area and revive its architectural education. As director of the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies at UCLA, Abe has also organized a photo exhibit documenting the disaster and recovery efforts. It is on display until April 15 at the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

Despite his long hours as a volunteer, he said, he wants to do more. “I still have this guilty conscience,” Abe said in an interview last week. “I could do more if I was there, but I’m here. I always fear I’m not doing enough.”

Unoura-Tanaka lost 15 relatives in the disaster. She has helped organize donations of food and clothing and served as an interpreter for international rescue teams in Japan. Now she is concentrating on the mental health of tsunami victims by visiting shelters to offer friendship and a sympathetic ear, she said.

“This has given me energy,” she said. “Not being sad, but trying to help people has really healed me.”