Akiko Sugawara’s daughter

Heartbroken watching her home country struggle with quake aftermath

Akiko Sugawara left Japan just days before disaster struck.

  • Mar. 15, 2011 11:00 a.m.

As Akiko Sugawara watched video footage of a tsunami sweep through farms, roadways and whole villages in her home country of Japan, she felt heartbreak.

She thought of all her friends and family in Sendai, the east coast city closest to the earthquake’s epicentre and where she called home for four years while attending college.

She thought of her parents, sister and other relatives in nearby Osaki, where the rice-farming family has lived on the same land for 500 years.

And she thought of the aquarium located on Sendai’s coast, where hundreds of bodies have since been found. Sugawara, 32, had taken her two young children to the exhibit during her most recent return trip home, just days before tragedy struck.

She had been visiting family for three weeks with two-year-old Anzu and four-month-old Heiwa (pictured below) before returning home to South Surrey March 6.

Four days later, an 8.9-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck the country’s northeast coast, killing thousands.

“The scary thing is she usually goes there for a month, so she would’ve been potentially leaving the day it happened,” husband Daniel Pape said.

Sugawara – who moved to B.C. from Japan eight years ago – was first alerted minutes after the quake hit by a friend’s phone call Thursday evening.

“She thought I was still in Japan and she wanted to let Daniel know what happened in Sendai. She was surprised because I picked up the phone. It was about 10 p.m.”

Akiko Sugawara and childrenSugawara didn’t initially worry, as earthquakes are common in Japan. She experienced up to three quakes during her last visit alone, and she remembers feeling a six- or seven-magnitude quake a couple of years ago.

It was when Sugawara checked the news online that she realized this one was different.

“I told my husband and he put on CNN. I started to call my parents but the phone didn’t go through. I tried and tried and tried. For six hours, I couldn’t get through.”

Pape said those six hours were “hell.”

It wasn’t until Sugawara’s sister sent a text message that the couple learned immediate family members were physically unharmed and Sugawara’s parents’ house – although still standing – was “smashed and destroyed” inside.

When Sugawara was able to let her family know what was being reported, her mother was shocked, Pape said.

“Because of the lack of communication, she (was) certainly not in the know,” he said. “She mentioned if she knew that was happening all around her that she would be in a panic along with the other survivors in the area.”

It took another two days before Sugawara reached her parents by phone.

“I told them what happened and the U.S. army is coming, and (that) kind of information. They were so surprised – they didn’t have any information about that.”

Sugawara learned her parents – who live about an hour from Sendai – still had no electricity, water or gas by Sunday. It had been recently snowing, and temperatures were expected to dip below 0 degrees in the next few days.

Sugawara said there were no stores open in the community, and a centre distributing food had hours-long lineups.

Her sister drove hours inland from Miyagi Prefecture to Yamagata Prefecture Sunday for food, gas and water, and was able to get phone reception and call Sugawara.

“I heard people are helping each other even though someone’s not organizing the situation. People are just patiently waiting for help and if somebody has extra stuff, people are just sharing. I think Japanese people are very strong and really proud.”

Sugawara said she doesn’t know what condition her family’s farm is in.

“It’s not really a priority right now. Thousands of people have been found dead – I think that’s most concerning.”

And while her family still wasn’t aware of the extent of the tragedy around them, Sugawara said they prefer it that way.

“They don’t want to know right now.”

Sugawara has a cousin south of Myagi Prefecture who she still hasn’t reached, and she has been looking for missing friends on Google’s people finder, but so far hasn’t found anyone she knows.

“All I can do is pray,” she said. “Even though we didn’t have much time to talk with my parents, they said ‘I am so thankful to God that you are there and our grandchildren are there.'”

Sugawara moved to B.C. when she was 24 to experience life in a foreign country for one year. She ended up staying after meeting Daniel and getting a job as a special-needs care worker. Now a stay-at-home mom, she and her family visit Japan once a year and she speaks with her parents daily via Skype.

While she lost regular contact with her parents in the days since the quake, Sugawara said she can still offer encouragement to the friends she is able to reach, and “just keep trying to cheer them up.”

Despite her shock and devastation, Sugawara said she has no doubt Japan – a country that rebuilt itself after the atomic bombings of the Second World War – will also make it through this catastrophe.

“Earthquakes happen often, typhoons are coming every year and it is such a small island, but people are really strong, so I believe after this disaster, they’ll rebuild again.”

This week, the country was still grappling with a nuclear emergency, attempting to cool three nuclear reactors at a quake-damaged power plant that had experienced two explosions since Friday and radioactive leaks. An evacuation zone has been declared within a 20-kilometre radius of the plant.

Pape said the quake has also affected his brother, a White Rock resident who met and lived with his wife for six years in Ishinomaki.

“That’s the city that was wiped out, where the entire village is gone,” Pape said. “It’s obviously very tough for them because a lot of the people they were very close to in that city are either missing or there’s no details yet about whether they’re OK.”

Pape plans to contribute to relief efforts with a fundraiser he is currently planning – a 24-hour relay in which people can skate, run, ride or walk.

Details will be posted at www.colaboinnovations.com as they become available.

To help support the effort, email customerservice@colabo.ca

This Friday, Saturday and Sunday, volunteers with the Tzu Chi Foundation will be accepting donations for relief efforts at T&T Supermarket (10153 King George Blvd. and 15277 100 Ave.) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Donations to the Red Cross can be made by calling 1-800-418-1111, texting the word ASIA to 30333 for a one-time donation of $5, visiting www.redcross.ca or making a cheque payable to Canadian Red Cross, earmarked Japan Earthquake/Asia-Pacific Tsunami and mailed to Canadian Red Cross National Office, 170 Metcalfe Street, suite 300, Ottawa, Ontario, K2P-2P2.

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