As earthquake and tsunami coverage consumed the TV at the Canton Bojangles’ last weekend, frustration and anger welled in WCU student Josh Adams when he overheard diners commenting more on boat damage in the United States than devastation in Japan. “They weren’t thinking about people in Japan – people who lost their lives,” said Adams, a senior majoring in entrepreneurship and special studies for Japanese.
Adams is one of the Western Carolina University students assisting with an initiative to support earthquake relief efforts in Japan, where the estimated death toll exceeds 10,000. Students are folding paper cranes, which are a symbol of peace in Japan, and offering them this week to those who give at least $1 to support an earthquake relief fund at a table in the first-floor lobby of McKee Building.
In addition, visitors to the table are invited to give $1 to write a message that will be sent to the Miyagi prefectural government, where some of the worst damage has been observed, said Japanese instructor Yumiko Ono. For students such as Krista Lujan, a sophomore recreational therapy major and Japanese studies minor from Acworth, Ga., finding the right words to write in the message was a struggle. “I wanted to say something more than just that they were in my thoughts,” said Lujan, who is very supportive of the paper crane and message initiative. “I think it is the very least we can do.”
The effort was organized with leadership and support from Ono and Masafumi Takeda, Asian studies coordinator and Japanese instructor, after students asked them what they could do, said Ono. “The paper crane is a symbol of peace in Japan,” said Ono in an e-mail to the WCU campus. “Because of the devastating situation, it was only natural to think that the paper crane would be appropriate to wish for the peace as well as contributing to the earthquake relief fund in Japan.”
Students taking courses offered through WCU’s Japanese Program traced the connection they feel to Japan and Japanese culture to a range of experiences. Cassandra Small, a senior from Bessemer City, said her interest in anime grew into a fascination with Japanese culture, its structure, and emphasis on family and honor “to the point honor can decide life and death.” Olivia Muse, a sophomore psychology major from Asheville, said she was in second grade when she fell in love with the Japanese music that her sister introduced her to. Alfred Vendrell, a junior from Franklin, said he learned about Japan from friends while serving in the military and became intrigued with how an island isolated for more than 300 years from the west had developed, and with the country’s architecture and beauty. “It grows on your heart,” said Vendrell. “I want to end up in Japan.”
Most students said they heard about the disaster in Japan in text messages from their parents, on TV or on Facebook. Alex Berry, a WCU alumnus taking Japanese courses as a nondegree-seeking student, saw an update on YouTube about 3 a.m. regarding new video from the earthquake. The footage brought back for Berry, vice president of the WCU Japanese Animation Society, the scary images and stories captured in the anime series “Tokyo Magnitude 8.0.” In the series, characters struggle for survival and search for family members after an earthquake, just as many in Japan are doing now, he said. “It’s horrible,” said Berry.
Students such as Alex Smith, a senior from Parkton, and Matt Mugrage, a junior from Asheville, who planned to study abroad next year in Japan say they remain eager to go. “This is something you can’t prevent,” said Mugrage. “At least if I am in the area, I can help.”
Meanwhile, he joined students at WCU this week in their efforts to help from afar. On Tuesday afternoon, students Small, Vendrell, Jeremy Gregory and Glenn Manning folded paper crane after paper crane in the McKee lobby. They started with origami paper and moved on to whatever paper they could find, from old phone book pages to newspapers. Each one took from five to 10 minutes to complete, with the smallest – a paper crane with a less-than-inch wingspan – taking the longest. They scrawled messages in Japanese on them that translate to “Good luck,” “Get better” and “Please continue to have hope for tomorrow.”
WCU faculty members and a student from Japan say the initiative and concern has been meaningful to them. Anna Hunt, a junior originally from Yokosuka City, which is about an hour away from Tokyo, estimated she tried to call her father 20 to 30 times before she talked to him. Reaching her grandparents, who live near the beach, took much longer. “I thought I had lost them. Now, all I think about is those people who still have a person missing or who have lost someone,” said Hunt. “I think it’s good we are raising money for people who need it, and there are so many organizations you can donate to.”
Ono said she too is appreciative of those who have asked how she and her family are doing, and for the students’ interest in supporting the relief effort. When she woke up unexpectedly in the middle of the night, turned on the TV and saw news of the now estimated magnitude 9.0 earthquake, she immediately called home and spoke with her mother. “She sounded so scared. I was lucky I was able to reach her,” said Ono, who is keeping in touch with her family once or twice a day. Her parents live about 100 miles from one of the damaged nuclear power plants where workers are trying to prevent a nuclear catastrophe.
Having grown up in Japan, Hunt and Ono say earthquakes – small earthquakes – are common and expected. Hunt estimated she had experienced 30 or more earthquakes magnitude 3.0 or greater. Regular drills in schools teach students to get under their chairs and protect their heads. Ono said there are many community preparations such as the high seawalls, although in this case the waves from the tsunami went over the wall and destroyed a village, she said. Living in Japan, people are very aware that nothing lasts forever, she said. “In the blink of an eye, it could be gone. We know that,” said Ono. “Still, this time, it’s more than expected.”
By Teresa Killian Tate