Former Lawrence residents describe post-quake conditions in Japan

The 8.9 magnitude earthquake and following tsunami has hit close to home for two former Lawrence residents.

Bill Tsutsui was in Tokyo the day of the earthquake, which he felt while getting out of a bus. Tsutsui, a former Kansas University professor of Japanese history who is now dean of humanities and sciences at Southern Methodist University, was in the country as part of a Japanese-American leadership delegation.

Tsutsui, who was at KU for 17 years, felt the tremor of the earthquake and saw buildings shake, but said the feeling was hard to describe.

“It’s hard to compare to what it feels like,” he said. “It does sort of feel like you’re in turbulence on an airplane.”

Tsutsui’s father was Japanese, and he visits the country every year. He said that residents get used to smaller earthquakes, and the Japanese had gotten good at recovering from disasters.

An earthquake in Kobe, Japan, in 1995 killed 6,000 people in the southern part of the country. The Japanese went in and reinforced buildings and strengthened their building codes, so even though the buildings in Tokyo moved, they didn’t collapse last week.

The epicenter of last week’s earthquake struck about 200 miles north of the capital. Tsutsui said northern Japan said held about 10 percent of the country’s population and was largely agricultural.

“Some people would think of it as being the Kansas of Japan — sort of like the breadbasket of Japan, except it’s like the rice basket,” he said.

Hiroshi Hayashi lived in Lawrence for a year and a half before moving back to Japan to take over his family media company. Hayashi lives in Obihiro in the northern part of Japan, but he said it was far from the epicenter of the quake.

“It was magnitude 4 in our town. We didn’t have much trouble,” he said in an e-mail. “However, we had the tsunami, and some damages in neighboring towns, Hiroo and Taiki. Fortunately, there was no human damage.”

Hayashi said he had not been able to get in touch with his uncle’s family, who lives in Sendai, an area heavily damaged in the disaster. He says people in his area are calm for now but don’t have much information and are worried about what will happen with the nuclear power plants.

A plant near Fukushima, about 150 miles north of Tokyo, was crippled after the earthquake, and authorities have been pumping seawater into overheated reactors to try to cool them down and prevent a meltdown. A hydrogen explosion occurred today at the Dai-ichi plant, the Associated Press reported late Sunday night, and was the second explosion at the plant since the earthquake.

Several other nuclear installations were under close watch for potential problems.

“If you have any Japanese friends, please say cheering words to them. We are now so much depressed by this disaster,” said Hayashi, who worked for the World Company, which owns the Lawrence Journal-World, while in Lawrence.

Tsutsui said if the quake had hit any closer to Tokyo, it would have been a much larger disaster, but he said people were calm there. The government is working to help people in the affected region, and most Japanese citizens were waiting to see how the government handled the problems at the nuclear power plant.

“People knew what to do, people were calm, nobody panicked,” he said. “Just imagine what would happen if something like this hit Los Angeles or San Francisco, and things would just be chaotic.”

He said Americans should take a hard look at this disaster and look at how the United States would be prepared for a similar disaster.

“As we know, disasters can happen anywhere,” he said. “The global community needs to pull together for a disaster on this scale. We have a lot to learn from the Japan incident. Someday we might be on the receiving end of international aid.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.