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Helping Japan

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Japanese residents appreciate local concern after earthquake, tsunami

By Stephen Lega

Shelley George was about to go through the TSA security check at the Narita International Airport when everything started shaking.

"At first, it just felt like a little rumble," she said. "I thought it was a big airplane."

As the shaking continued - and grew stronger - she became concerned.

"I said, 'Is this normal?'" George said she asked the TSA employee. "And he said, 'No, this is a really big one.'"

That "really big one" was the 9.0 earthquake that hit Japan on Friday, March 11, and triggered tsunamis that caused even more damage in the northeastern part of the country. George, a Lebanon native who now lives in Jeffersonville, Ind., said she'll always remember the sound of Japan's largest airport shaking all around her.

"It's a noise I'll never forget because it was deafening," she said.

After the initial tremors, the airline passengers were moved under the big archways at the airport.

"Then the second one hit, and that one was much stronger," George said. "It threw me down."

She was amazed that nothing fell or broke in the airport.

"I could see the glass bowing and moving back and forth, but it didn't break," George said.

George was on her way home after spending 10 days visiting her son Travis, his wife and their children. Travis moved to Japan in September as part of his work with Molex. His wife, Jenny, and their children, Ainsley (8), Addison (6) and Gavin (3) moved in December.

Travis was at the office when the earthquake happened, his family was at home.

"The kids were out of school that day," George said.

The March 11 earthquake and its subsequent tsunami are the biggest natural disasters to hit Japan in Ken Tsukagoshi's lifetime. Tsukagoshi is an executive vice president for NSA Corporation, which has factories in Lebanon, Hopkinsville and Merrillville, Ind.

"This was a little bit too extreme," he said.

Tsukagoshi has lived in Kentucky for more than a dozen years.

He remembered being told as a child that they could not build tall buildings in Japan because of the earthquakes. As technology improved, that became possible, and, as George's experience demonstrates, Japan and its people are earthquake ready.

Although no one in his family was harmed, he said he's seen the sympathy that Americans in general and Marion Countians in particular have for his home country and its people. Many NSA employees have asked Tsukagoshi questions when he has visited the factory floor.

"They are very, very concerned about Japan," he said. "I appreciate that."

Marion County's relationship with Japan goes back more than 20 years when Curtis Maruyasu opened a local factory. After Toyota opened its assembly plant in Georgetown, several of Toyota's parts suppliers opened operations in central Kentucky as well, Lebanon Mayor Gary Crenshaw said.

Many of the factories have shown their support for Marion County through contributions to local projects, such as the renovation of Centre Square, Crenshaw said. Marion County has returned that support in other ways, such as the annual Japanese Cultural Day (see sidebar).

Last Wednesday, the wives of some of the Japanese executives participated in a cooking class at the Marion County Family Literacy Center. They spoke about the ways Marion Countians have reached out to them.

"Many people ask, 'Are you OK? Can I help you?'" Saori Komura said. "The Japanese people appreciate the Lebanon people."

Komura has lived here for five years. Like many people, she first saw images of the damage on television, and at first she couldn't believe what she was seeing.

Yasuko Asakura said her uncle and her cousin live in Miyako City in the Iwate Prefecture, which was affected by the tsunami. Thankfully, they were not harmed, although their cars were washed away by the waves, and a nearby school was damaged.

According to Yumiko Hattori, Sendai (which has a population of around 1 million) is the biggest city in the area that was hit by the tsunami, but much of the area would be considered rural.

Another ongoing concern has been the damage to the nuclear plants in the Fukushima Prefecture. Plant employees and scientists are working in hopes of preventing a meltdown. The Christian Science Monitor reported that workers made progress over the weekend in their efforts to stabilize the reactors and the fuel storage pools.

In an effort to conserve electricity, the Japanese government divided Tokyo into five sections and  implemented rolling blackouts throughout the city, Hattori said.

After the earthquake ended, a Japanese-American woman translated the announcements for George and her traveling companion, George Heuser, when the airport was evacuated.

"We stayed outside for two to three hours until they completely inspected the airport," she said.

When they went back inside, everyone was given sleeping bags and water. George said several businessmen just slept in their suits.

As amazed as she was by the resiliency of the airport, she was equally impressed with how calm the Japanese people remained throughout the disaster.

"There was no screaming, no running," George said. "Everybody seemed pretty calm. They knew it was big, but everybody knew what they needed to do."

Relief fund in place

The City of Lebanon, Marion County Economic Development and Marion County Fiscal Court have created a Japanese Relief Fund in the aftermath of the recent earthquake.

The 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck March 11. More than 8,000 people are reported to have died, according to national news reports.

Donations can be made in cash or by check. Checks should be written out to "City of Lebanon Japanese Relief Fund."

For more information, call City Administrator John Thomas at 692-6272, Marion County Judge/Executive John G. Mattingly at 692-3451 or Marion County Economic Development Director Tom Lund at 692-6002.

Cultural Day postponed

Japanese Cultural Day has been postponed in light of the recent earthquake and tsunami that has affected Japan.

Mary Lou Brock from the Marion County Economic Development Office sent the following announcement regarding the plans for Japanese Cultural Day.

"The Japanese Cultural Day event scheduled for March 27, 2011 has been postponed. Our sympathy and prayers go out to the Japanese people that have been devastated by this terrible tragedy. The Japanese Cultural Day Committee will be meeting later this year to reschedule the event."