Students, Professor Speak On Earthquake Experience in Japan


Author: Claire Diggins

Four members of the community returned to campus two weeks ago after experiencing the magnitue 9.0 earthquake that hit Japan. Ariana Frazier, Dayna Chikamoto and Kiana Dobson (juniors) were all studying abroad in Japan, and assistant adjunct professor of history Jeremiah Axelrod was in Japan celebrating a belated honeymoon.

Frazier, Chikamoto and Dobson had only arrived in Japan on March 3 to begin their semester abroad, as their study-abroad university’s academic calendar is different than Occidental’s. The students were in class together at their school in Kawagoe, about a 45-minute train ride from downtown Tokyo, when the earthquake hit.

“Normally in earthquakes it will feel really long, but then you will find out it was only 15 seconds, or something. But this one really felt like forever. We were able to have entire conversations during it,” Frazier said. Although Kawagoe is over 230 miles from the epicenter of the massive 9.0 magnitude quake, the students still experienced about five minutes of shaking.

The students were able to e-mail friends and family back home with the prepaid cellphones they had purchased.

In the short period of time that the students had been in Japan, they had already become very close with all students in their 25-student program.

“We all really clicked. It definitely felt like we’d known each other for a month already,” Frazier said. Chikamoto agreed and said, “It was good that we had such a good support system. I think it was good that we were all together at school when it hit so we weren’t freaking out worrying about each other.”

Frazier was able to bike home after the earthquake and assure her host family she was all right. Chikamoto and Dobson, however, took the train to school and were not able to get home until later that evening, as all of the trains were not operating.

“I wasn’t able to get home until 11 p.m. that night, and my host parents were up waiting for me. They were really glad I was okay. They opened the door for me as soon as I began to turn the doorknob. They had been pretty worried,” Dobson said.

Before leaving Japan, the students observed a fair amount of disarray. The country had established rolling blackouts in order to conserve energy, so they frequently experienced a lack of electricity.

Chikamoto observed that even though there were crowds and lines, people were not in a panic.

“The grocery stores were filled with people and running out of food, but everyone remained really orderly. They would take what food they could without creating any chaos. People were not shoving each other; it was very nice and orderly,” Chikamoto said.

Some families have been quietly pitching in to the recovery effort.

“People were trying to send supplies to the worst hit areas. Our friend’s mother was sending blankets because they were running out of blankets to cover all the bodies. People were trying to help out as much as possible, but otherwise people were still going to work and everything,” Frazier said.

Chikamoto was the first to leave, booking a flight for Tuesday, March 15, after her parents asked her to come home right away. Frazier and Dobson left at the end of the week and said by then the airports had become really crowded.

“The lines were horrendously long in the airport,” Dobson said.

All of the students had grown very close to their host families already and were very sad to leave them so abruptly. Dobson’s host family and neighbors even threw her a going away party.

“They had a big party for me with the neighbors I had gotten to know. We took pictures and ate- they made lots of food! My neighbors even brought me souvenirs. My eight-year-old host sister came to say bye to me before she went to school, and my host Mom told me that all night she had slept with an origami Pikachu I made her,” Dobson said.

 “I knew I had to leave because I wasn’t doing what I came to do. I was just eating food and taking up energy. Still, coming to terms with the fact that we had to leave, it was really sad. But we knew we couldn’t function there, we couldn’t even site see. We hadn’t even been to downtown Tokyo yet — we had planned to go that weekend,” Dobson said.

Occidental gave the students the choice to either return to campus for the remainder of the semester or withdraw from school for the semester. All three of them decided to return to campus.

“I would rather be here than at home thinking about Japan and how much fun I would have had there. Here I have my friends and things to do to distract me,” Chikamoto said. Frazier agreed and said, “I was super depressed at home, so being here with friends helps.”

For now, the students are each taking eight credits. They were placed into a Japanese language class and are taking an independent study together on Japanese film.

“A friend from the program who goes to another university told me her school hasn’t established any way for them to get credit, and they basically have to solve the issue on their own. We are really lucky to have such a supportive school,” Frazier said.

Although the students are all disappointed to have left Japan, they are keeping a very optimistic attitude. “It sucks that the program was so short —we would have liked it to go on forever, but I’m so grateful for the time I had there. It was a great experience,” Chikamoto said. “I definitely would rather have been there for two weeks than not at all,” Frazier added. Dobson agreed, stating, “I wouldn’t change it for any other program.”

Professor’s Honeymoon Cut Short

Adjunct Assistant Professor of History Jeremiah Axelrod was in Tokyo on a belated honeymoon with his five-month pregnant wife Lil Gomez Delcampo when the 9.0 earthquake hit.

Axelrod and Delcampo decided last minute to spend their last day in Japan relaxing in their high-rise Tokyo hotel rather than touring coastal towns, a plan they had seriously considered. Their hotel remained intact, despite some swaying.

“The whole hotel swung pretty radically, things flew off the walls, but I learned that in big Japanese hotels, everything is bolted down. There was a big picture frame above my bed and it was bolted to the wall, nothing fell in my room and no windows popped out anywhere in central Tokyo,” Axelrod said.

The professor and his wife spent the rest of the night in their hotel, where aftershocks of up to magnitude 6.0 continued. They had access to Wi-Fi and were able to contact their loved ones in the United States.

Axelrod and Delcampo were supposed to fly out of Narita International Airport the next morning, but trains to and from the airport were completely shut down.

“The failure of the transportation system was one of the biggest issues in Tokyo,” Axelrod said. “We spent six hours trying to get to the airport. We spent well over an hour just trying to go three stops on a commuter rail. It stopped for 45 minutes, that was a situation where I can’t imagine an American group would have remained calm, but everyone on the train was very calm, trying to use their cell phones.”

Axelrod and his wife were able to take a bullet train to Kyoto in the Southern part of the country, where they spent a few days in Kyoto before flying out of Kansai Airport on Tuesday, March 15.

Axelrod has been following the crisis closely since returning to the United States.

“This experience really teaches us some lessons about what to do when the big one hits California. I don’t think I ever took the shake out seriously enough; I will next time,” Axelrod said.

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