Japan-Honolulu Earthquake Journal

One Worry at a Time: With resiliency, love and a lot of text messages, a Hawaii family separated during the Japanese earthquake and tsunami picks its way through the aftermath.

Houses swallowed by tsunami in Sendai, Japan on March 11.

 AP Photo

When the ground heaved in Japan, it also shook the Schumaker family, rocking the life they had built in Hawaii, yet strengthening the ties between them.

Scott and his wife, Yasue, met in Japan when they were both working at Stars & Stripes. They moved to Hawaii in 1995, and live with their son, Ian, 14, in Kapolei. In mid-January, Yasue returned to her childhood home in Sendai, Japan, to care for her ailing mother. Scott stayed in Hawaii to work (he is president of HONOLULU Magazine’s parent company, PacificBasin Communications) and care for Ian.

Being apart was difficult enough. Then the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami hit.

Not long after the quake, Scott began writing about his family’s experience at our HONOLULU website. It was, for him, a way to share news with family and friends, and to process what was happening.

 

Thursday, March 10

I’m OK. – 私は大丈夫

Ian and I were spending this night like most others since Yasue had left for Japan. We were alone, together. On one end of the couch, he had on his headphones, listening to music while connecting with friends through Facebook. On the other end, I had on mine, watching Netflix on my iPad.

Suddenly Ian said, “Dad, there was a big quake in Japan. Alex [a friend of his living in Tokyo] said it really rattled Tokyo.”

Only half interested, I responded with, “Hmm. They had a big one just a couple of days ago, too.” I returned to Dexter Season 3 to learn more about blood splatter. Some time went by. Ian worked harder to get my attention. “Dad, it was huge. It was 8.9.”

He had my attention. I asked if he knew where. He said north Japan. “East or west?” I asked. When he said east, my heart sank. Sendai is in northeast Japan. I turned on the TV and was stunned by what I saw. The NHK helicopters were showing the first tsunami wave slamming ashore.

I reached for my phone. Text from Yasue, 8:27 p.m.: Huge earthquake. I’m OK.

She was OK after the quake. But what about the vicious tsunami we just saw? Where was she? Was she still OK? Was she with her mom in Sendai City or at home? I frantically began texting questions.

Nothing. No response at all. I stared at my phone intently, willing it to give me a reply. Some time shortly before midnight, Ian said, “Oh, no, that’s Sendai Airport.”

I looked at the TV as the tsunami overran the airport Ian knew well. Every year, he and Yasue visit Sendai for a month or more. He would spend time with his grandparents. They would play in the parks, fish along the shore, net beetles and cicadas in the cool bamboo forests, hike to shrines. He also knew this tsunami was bad. I knew I couldn’t let him stare at the TV.

“Ian, get on Facebook and tell all your friends in Japan that your mom is in Sendai. She was OK after the quake, but we haven’t heard from her since the tsunami. I will start sending emails and making calls.” It was the beginning of a great new partnership with my son.

 


People react at a bookstore in Sendai when the ceiling came down during the earthquake.

Photo: AP/Kyodo News

Friday, March 11

Yes – はい

I called Yasue’s phone over and over and got nothing. No busy signal. No ring. Just an unsettling empty sound.

Text from Yasue, 12:37 a.m.: Yes.

Never before did one word communicate so much and so little simultaneously. Yes. She was still able to text. I knew she was all right. What I didn’t know was which one of my many questions she was answering.

I replied, Are U with your mom? Are U OK?

For weeks, her mom had been in a hospital in Sendai City, about seven miles from her home. Again, we waited for a reply and there was none. Shortly after 1 a.m., I sent Ian to bed.

Text from Yasue, 3:10 a.m.: Yes. I will walk home tomorrow. It is 10 kilometers. I want to get things, money. Cannot contact neighbors.

Walk home? Who in their right mind would leave a safe building to walk seven miles to a home that might not even be there on a road that might not exist?

I reply, No. Do not walk home. It is not safe. You are in a safe bldg with mom. Stay there. People are fleeing trying to get there. Do NOT leave there.

I left for work knowing that we were far luckier than most. She was safe. She was with her mom. Somehow, we were able to text now and then.

Text 3:25 pm.: Mom is OK. Hospital giving patients emergency food, but no food for me. Stores are closed.

Blessedly, she had shelter. She had water. We needed food. I drove home and told Ian we needed to get his mom some food and we began exploring how we could make that happen.

 

Saturday, March 12

CNN – シー・エヌ・エヌ

One of my calls was to a friend of ours who works at CNN. Maybe he could get his correspondents in Sendai to get Yasue some food. Although it did not result in food, it did result in an interview, one of the first with a survivor to air internationally. This interview would expand dramatically the number of people wanting to help. We couldn’t be more proud of Yasue and how she handled herself in the interview. She had been through a lot. Her mother’s illness, the quake, the tsunami. She was very emotional at the end of the interview, which really hit Ian and me hard.

Our phone began ringing off the hook. First our home phone. Then my cell. Then Ian’s. The media was unbelievably fast. While Yasue was still being interviewed live on CNN, the New York-based producer for Diane Sawyer called and wanted to know how he, too, could reach Yasue. Then Anderson Cooper’s producer called. Then the folks from CBS’ The Early Show. KITV, Hawaii News Now and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser called as well. Some media members began connecting with Ian on Facebook, trying to get more information out of him.

 

Sunday, March 13

Hope in a Bowl – 丼ぶりの中の希望

The weather was increasingly getting worse as the temperatures began to fall. Still, Yasue needed food, so it didn’t matter how cold it was. Yasue walked to Sendai City Hall. At City Hall, she was told to go to the Ward Office, so she walked there. The Ward Office told her to go to an Evacuation Center, so Yasue walked there. She waited in a long line only to find out when she got to the front that people staying at the shelter had priority. So, she left. On her walk back to her mom, Yasue found people selling musubi and miso soup and she ate it on the street.

Text: Sooo good!!! I even got tamago-don [egg and rice] for mom and roommates. I am full tonight!!!


 

Monday, March 14

Food, Friends from the Outside World – 食料、海外からの友

Some of our efforts began to pay off. A team of reporters from Pacific Stars & Stripes, where Yasue and I both used to work, finally made it to Sendai. Elena, the team’s interpreter, is a friend of Yasue’s, and she thankfully had some food for her. This was the first success of the new “company” Ian and I had founded and called jokingly The FAB 2 (Food Acquisition Business, Too). He’s the chief technologist (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). I’m the old-fashioned phone/email guy. The FAB 2 is an ever-growing network of caring people helping us on what is currently a singular focus—getting food to Yasue.

 


THE SCHUMAKERS
Yasue, Ian and Scott in a 2009 photo while on a family vacation.

Tuesday, March 15

A Journey Home  – 一時帰宅

Yasue heard the road to her house was clear and decided she would try driving, as that would allow her to bring more things back to the hospital. She took the 7-mile drive, unsure of what she would find. It took a couple of hours, but she made it and, to our surprise, the house was still standing and sound enough to enter. There were broken dishes everywhere and virtually every shelf was cleared. The TV, however, still stood on its stand. When Yasue turned it on, she was amazed to learn she had electricity. Her neighbors said it comes and goes. She spent the day cleaning and then gathered up her valuables—some food, money, passport, blankets, clean clothes. The food, of course, was the most important thing but fresh clothes were a close second. She’d been wearing the same thing since the quake hit.

 

Wednesday, March 16

Aftershocks – 余震

Morning

A fantastic start to our day. Yasue’s cousin in Tokyo works for a construction company. They have sent a truck up to Sendai that should arrive later today for their workers there and have included boxes for Yasue. We don’t know what’s in the boxes, but it will be better than Christmas. We are more blessed than most and, if all the FAB 2’s efforts pay off, we will be sharing food with as many earthquake victims as we can. Yasue is feeding herself, her mother and the three other patients in her mother’s room.

Every once in awhile, a concerned person will ask me about the nuclear plant. That is not our worry right now. Our mantra at FAB 2 is, “Only One Worry at a Time.”

Night

It is snowing in Sendai. Yasue will spend the night at the house—her first night away from her mom since the quake.

Earlier today, she drove to a nearby town, Izumi-Cho, to get the emergency rations from her cousin’s company. Eight tangerines, four apples, four bananas, six packages of soba noodles, 12 packs of miso soup mix, two boxes of instant soup, 14 packages of rice, six packages of ramen noodles,
two packages of curry, one package of gratin, 16 cans of mostly protein (tuna, clams, sardines, meat, etc.), four liters of water, two flashlights, two packs of AAA batteries, vinyl gloves, wet wipes, tin foil, plastic wrap, hand towels and face masks.

The house will be very cold and has no running water. Yasue is used to the cold nights—before the quake she slept there and they do not heat their house at night. Water is now our concern. The victims in Sendai have suffered through more than 400 aftershocks, many quite large. It is unnerving when the earth starts shaking again, and each aftershock is yet one more reminder of the misery Japan is suffering through.

 

Friday, March 18

The Nuclear Power Plant – 原子力発電所

For the first time, we discussed the unfolding tragedy at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The plant is perilously close to Sendai, about 60 miles to the south. That’s only about 10 miles outside the 50-mile evacuation zone the U.S. Embassy is recommending. The U.S. Embassy has arranged for buses to take Americans and their dependents to Tokyo for evacuation and they depart Sendai today. Yasue reiterated that she needs to stay with her mom in Sendai and that, “There is nothing I can do about the plant in Fukushima.”

 

Saturday, March 19

On, Off  – オン、オフ

Text from Yasue, 10:05 a.m.: Electric is out.

It’s 5 a.m. Sunday morning in Sendai. Every time the electricity goes out, Yasue is left wondering if it is just temporary or if this is her dark reality for days or perhaps weeks to come.

 


TWO WORLDS
Ian Schumaker has spent a collective year of his life in Japan, visiting his mother's homeland.

Sunday, March 20

Ian Schumaker – イアン・シューメーカー

Scott and Yasue’s son, Ian, discusses the events of the past week:

Sure, I have turned on CNN before and witnessed the destruction of natural disasters in places like Chile and Haiti. I was always struck with sadness, but soon the news moved on and so did I, even though I knew people were in distress. It was completely different when the earthquake and tsunami slammed Sendai. This was my nation, my family, my life. It was nauseating to see these people, family and friends, in such despair.

Since I was 6 months old, I have been regularly visiting Sendai. I would go fishing with my grandpa, practice the Buddhist religion with my grandma, attend a Japanese elementary school and experience the rich Japanese culture with all of my family and friends. One of my fondest memories is going fishing in Shizugawa, a coastal town. I met some great people there with truly wonderful hearts. An elderly man and woman in particular stood out. They told a story of a tsunami when they were younger.

In 1933, an 8.4 earthquake triggered a lethal tsunami. This elderly couple had been just children, but they explained their fear in such detail that it left me with enormous grief. They explained how they had run to the top of their houses and saw houses, buildings, basically the whole town get washed away. This fishing village had nothing. All the fish farms were ruined. The clams at the bottom of the ocean were gone. When I went there last summer, the town was still not the same as it was before 1933.

Now, I see what this most recent tsunami has done. It’s much worse this time. So many sad questions pop into my mind. Can they ever recover? Are the people I met still alive? Can I ever go back and fish there? I sure hope that the answer to all of those questions is yes. I want to take my kids there and fish and share with them the strong, loyal, Japanese pride.

 

Sunday, March 20

Day 10 – 10日目

Yasue reports on her day:

It is still so cold. I decided I would walk to get a kerosene heater at D2, a home improvement store similar to Home Depot. It would take me about 45 minutes to walk there. On the way, I realized my cellphone battery was nearly drained, so I stopped at a taxi office and they were kind enough to allow me to charge my cellphone. After that, I walked to the store and waited about 30 minutes in line. Inside, the store was still a mess and they said they had not received any new stock. They were selling small items like toilet paper, buckets, paper goods, dry cereal, etc., by the store’s entry.

I bought a large kerosene heater for 10,000 yen (about $120). I started walking with the heavy stove. A gentleman was right behind me on the narrow sidewalk and I paused to let him go first. He offered to help carry the heater. I could not believe it, as his house was the opposite way. At first, we carried it together, but he insisted on carrying it himself. Luckily, after about 10 minutes, I found a taxi and thanked him for his help.

I called Mom at the hospital. The nurses washed the patients’ hair today! Mom said it felt so good after nine days with no bath. I am so thankful for the nurses as their hard jobs were made even harder by first having to heat the water.

 

BEFORE THE DAMAGE
The coastal area near Shizugawa where Ian would fish with his grandfather.

Monday, March 21

Staying Put – とどまる

Morning

When talking with reporter Michael Tsai for his story in The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, I was asked a question both Yasue and I get often: “Are you trying to get her out of there as quickly as possible?”

No. We are not trying to get her out. We are trying to get her things she needs to remain there for the foreseeable future. I knew nearly 20 years ago when we married that Yasue was an only child and would be responsible for caring for her mother and father. When Yasue’s father fell terminally ill, she spent three months in Sendai. When her mother got sick this January, there was no question that Yasue would go.

With her ailing mother and the quake aftermath, we are planning on her remaining in Japan for months. Ian and I fully support her decision. She has promised us she will be careful and take good care of her mother. I have promised her that I will ensure Ian continues to do well in school, hang out with friends and lead as normal a teenage life as possible.

Last Thursday, a media friend sent me a release from the U.S. Embassy announcing that they were sending buses to Sendai to bring American citizens and their dependents to Tokyo. Yasue has many friends in Tokyo and could stay with any of them. But only she would have a seat on the bus; her mother’s illness would prevent her from boarding. I forwarded Yasue the release even though I knew what her response would be.
Text from Yasue, 4:25 p.m.: Thanks! I wish I could go home!! Ha ha.Sin

 

Monday, March 21

An Update from Yasue – やすえからの最新情報

Yasue shares more on life in Sendai after the quake and tsunami:

Japanese hospitals do not provide towels and pajamas for the patients. There is a coin-operated washing machine and dryer at the hospital. Currently, to conserve energy, we are not allowed to use them. So, I have to wash mom’s clothes at home and carry them to and from the hospital.

My neighbors, a young couple, left a few days ago to visit their relatives in Iwate prefecture. They are not back yet. They are both from the same small, coastal fishing village. Both of their parents’ houses were swept away by the tsunami. Her mother was found dead, but her father and sisters survived. His parents were safely evacuated. She told me that her family is very lucky that they found her mom’s body. Many people are still missing and their bodies might never be found.

 

Tuesday, March 22

Signs of Life – 生命のしるし

With each passing day, Yasue sees more stores open, more people on the streets. Her friends and family in Japan have successfully mailed her some aid packages. The commercial delivery services are now accepting larger packages, but will only deliver to their branch offices. Recipients must go to the offices to pick up their packages. In a few days, gas will become more plentiful and the delivery services are expected to resume home delivery in the areas not impacted by the tsunami.

Text from Yasue, 10:06 p.m., yesterday: I have enough food to survive! My friends are sending me even more. How can we politely tell people asking for my address that they shouldn’t send more to me? Others are in more need.

 

Wednesday, March 23

Bread and Blurs – パンともうろう

Yasue sends a picture of bread she purchased at a neighborhood bakery. One loaf of white bread and a small raisin pastry. Her text is succinct and joyful.
Text, 5:12 p.m.: Got bread this a.m.!!!


I am having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that today marks two weeks since the quake, tsunami and the threat of a nuclear meltdown all converged on Sendai. These past 14 days have been a blur. No matter how hard I try, I cannot distinguish individual days. It will take years for Japan to fully recover from the enormous damage. Yet somehow, I feel Yasue has already made tremendous progress in our small corner of this disaster.

Editor's note: For more on what has happened to the Schumakers since this story came out, click here