At first, LSA junior Michelle Resnick’s school day at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan on Friday, March 11 started out like any other. But as she and her classmates sat in a school lounge eight hours from Tokyo, an earthquake and tsunami were uprooting the northeastern part of the country.
Resnick is one of the 10 University undergraduate students studying abroad in Japan. She, as well as other Japanese students on campus, had a personal connection to the disaster when the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit the northeast coast of the country, killing an estimated 18,000 people and disrupting nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.
University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the 10 undergraduate students and six graduate students studying abroad in Japan at the time of the quake are all safe and were not harmed by the disaster.
Still in the southwest city of Kyoto, Resnick said via a Skype interview this weekend that she is far from the epicenter of the destruction and didn’t feel anything at the time of the earthquake. It wasn’t until turning on the news later that night that she truly saw the impact of the disaster.
“I was shocked. This is the first time I’ve been even this close to a natural disaster on this level. You look at the pictures on the news and the destruction especially in Sendai, which is the epicenter — it was a lot to take in, honestly,” Resnick said.
As she watched the news, Resnick said the hardest images to see were people digging through the rubble looking for their family members.
While Resnick was watching the news in Japan, LSA junior Tetsuro Matsushima, a one-year exchange student from the University of Tokyo, was in Ann Arbor, where he avidly monitored tweets and e-mails from his friends and family in Tokyo. At first, Matsushima said he wasn’t sure if the images he saw were real.
“It was really hard to take in,” Matsushima said. “It took me a couple of hours just to grasp what was going on.”
Matsushima said he eventually learned that his family is safe, but was very anxious while waiting for the delayed delivery time it took for an e-mail to reach his mother.
In frequent communication with his family, Matsushima said he’s learned that though they had stocked up on rice and other foods before the disaster, Tokyo is now running out of food. His family’s home is also affected by planned power outages — which also cause a temporary loss of heat — so that power can be diverted to the northern part of the country.
Though Matsushima and people his age have experienced earthquakes before, he said he feels his age group was more affected by this quake than the older generation.
“This is the first time for all the people my age to experience something this devastating,” Matsushima said.
From a young age, Matsushima said his school held earthquake and fire drills, but even with this preparation, he said his friends were still unprepared for the level of destruction.
“The thing is, it really happens; we have earthquakes, so we have drills,” he said. “But we actually do that in real life too.”
LSA senior Kenta Hayashi, an international student at the University, said he also clearly remembers drills from his kindergarten class in Tokyo. Though his family has since moved to Taiwan, he said he has friends and extended family in Japan, who are safe but shaken by the disaster. He added that amid the initial shock, there is still civil order and no reports of looting.
Matsushima said he believes the reason for the lack of panic stems from the Japanese culture of respecting others.
“We’re basically educated to respect other people and to think about ourselves second and others first,” Matsushima said.
Matsushima said he has seen this awareness of helping others extend across Twitter feeds, with his friends re-tweeting basic first aid and emergency information.
In Kyoto, people of all ages are bucketing to raise money for those affected by the disaster, Resnick said. She said the city has seen an influx of people seeking refuge from the radiation and lack of food in the northeast. These refugees are almost indistinguishable from Kyoto citizens, Resnick said.
“Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart from ordinary people because they don’t look any different,” she said. “They act the same; it’s just that they’re here because they feel that here’s a bit safer.”
But even as students in Japan help garner funds for the victims, Hayashi said he and his friends don’t truly know how to help the victims of the disaster.
“There’s a lot of sense of hopelessness among the younger generation because they want to help but don’t know what to do,” Hayashi said.
He added that he believes because the older generation lived through the destruction of World War II, they’re able to help younger people cope with this disaster.
With her program canceled and her return to Michigan on Wednesday, Resnick said she and others in her program wish they could stay to help with relief efforts. She said she still feels safe in Kyoto, and this is an unexpected end to her program.
“I think we’re all kind of feeling shocked and wondering why (the program is canceled),” she said.
Resnick was part of the Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies headed by Columbia University. However, the University also canceled its undergraduate study abroad program in Japan for the semester since the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning to the country. The University has a policy not to host international study programs in nations that have U.S. State Department travel warnings.
The 10 University undergraduates studying in Japan are coming back to the United States and will be able to enroll in classes in Ann Arbor, according to Fitzgerald. The six University graduate students who are also in Japan this semester will decide independently whether to stay in Japan or return to the United States, he said.
Resnick said the prevailing feeling in Kyoto is that the country will recover from the devastation.
“I think that now the main feeling is a sense of we can rebuild and there is hope,” she said.
Here in Ann Arbor, Hayashi said the Japan Student Association — of which he is internal vice president and Matsushima is a member — painted the rock with the phrase “Pray for Japan” on Friday and is making wristbands and T-shirts to fundraise money for the Red Cross in Japan. The group is also fundraising by making origami cranes and area businesses have agreed to give money to the group for every 1,000 cranes they create.
But even with these efforts and his own donations, Hayashi said he wishes he could do more. He added that he felt strange on St. Patrick’s Day amid the celebrations in Ann Arbor while people in Japan were suffering.
Though Matsushima’s midterm studying was affected by constantly monitoring the situation, he said he and many of his friends who are studying abroad at other universities outside Japan feel guilty about going about their daily lives. But he said he hopes to take the education and skills he learns here to help Japan when he returns in May.
“We kind of feel guilt about us being happy and having fun, leading ordinary lives, doing homework, while our friends in Japan are migrating to the West and going to supermarkets in search of food and trying to donate whatever they can to the East,” Matsushima said. “We think we kind of have to live on and try to get whatever we (can) from the life we’re having here because we’re going back in the future.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.