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Armenians in Japan Discuss Earthquake, Aftermath

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Resilience of Japanese, Importance of Outside Help Highlighted in Armenian Weekly Interviews

Varditer Harutyunyan was on the third floor of a building in southern Tokyo, while Nayiri Arzoumanian and her parents, Hrair and Arpi, were on their way to the subway in northern Tokyo, in Asakusa, when the 8.9-magnitude earthquake hit the country’s northeastern coast on Fri., March 11.

A scene from the devastation caused by the tsunami following the 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan.

“It takes a while to register, first that something is off and you’re not imagining it, and then that everything—the ground, the air, the buildings—is moving and that it must be an earthquake,” said Nayiri Arzoumanian, an Armenian American who works for a research institute in Boston and Tokyo, and also serves as copy-editor of the Armenian Weekly.

Arzoumanian and her parents hung on to a nearby tree at a safe distance from the buildings. “And then we just waited, swaying, unstable. Everyone had stopped in their tracks. An internal sort of panic sets in when you realize you have no control over anything anymore. You start thinking: Is it safer inside? Farther away from the buildings? Are these signs on the building going to fall on us? When is this going to be over? God, I hope we’re okay,” she remembered. The earthquake would last for over two minutes.

Harutyunyan, an Armenian citizen visiting Japan on business, was also in shock. “At first I did not understand what was going on, and I stormed out of the building. I was surprised to see the high buildings moving, but not being damaged at all.” Surprised, because she couldn’t help but remember the 6.9-magnitude earthquake that hit Armenia in 1988, destroying thousands of poorly built apartments and houses and burying thousands under the rubble.

Both talked about the calm, resilience, and preparedness of the people in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake—one of the strongest in recorded history. “They stood and waited for it to end. No one panicked,” Harutyunian noted. “I understand that they were prepared for such situations. Some were wearing helmets.”

“And then it was over,” Arzoumanian said. “We looked around, trying to gauge how bad this really was from the reaction of the locals, who are supposed to be used to this. You could tell from their faces that what had just taken place wasn’t common. But there was no panic. No fallen buildings, no broken glasses, no fallen signage. It’s as if everything’s the same, except that the people have changed. And those people can do nothing but continue walking, going where they were headed before. And so we took our cues from them, and went to the train station to go home.”

Getting back ‘home’

Transit was among the first perceivable problems in Tokyo after the earthquake. Train services were discontinued for hours, and at some places days, after the quake. Harutyunyan and the Arzoumanians joined the millions now on the street, trying to make it home.

“On the way, we saw an old woman outside of her ceramics store; inside, shelves of knocked over plates. We saw a tile that had fallen from a building, a crack in the façade of another. And inside a small store, the first images of the tsunami on TV. And again it sets in: This was big.”

The Arzoumanians managed to hail a cab near Ueno station. “Our driver tells us it’s going to be a slow drive. On the way, we see how everyone has emptied out on the streets. Our driver’s amazed at the number of people…” Back at the hotel, they wait with blankets in the lobby for the elevators to pass security clearance. Back in their room, on the 36th floor, looking out at all the high-rise buildings, “the view has gone from pretty to a bit frightening.”

Varditer Harutyunyan (R) was on the third floor of a building in southern Tokyo when the 8.9-magnitude earthquake hit the country’s northeastern coast on Fri., March 11.

Hartuyunyan was less lucky. She was staying at a hotel in the northern part of Tokyo, in Ikebukuro—a 6-hour walk away. “No metro, no taxi, no train, no bus. People had to walk back or wait for hours. In train stations, people were sitting on the floor, waiting. I decided to walk to the hotel because the next day I was scheduled to fly back to Armenia,” she recounts. “I was wearing a suit and high heels. It was cold, and windy. Halfway there, I could not walk any more. I took my heels off and continued my way barefooted. The locals were very kind to me. A Japanese woman gave me slippers. I was so cold and tired that I could not refuse. Another man offered me socks.”

Hours later, Harutyunyan arrived at her hotel and soon found out her flight had been rescheduled for March 16. Armenia’s ambassador to Japan, Arsen Arakelyan, personally called her offering help. Armenia’s Foreign Ministry would soon announce that all 30 Armenian citizens in Japan during the earthquake were safe and accounted for.

Tokyo returns to ‘normal’ as meltdown threat grips Japan

Within a day, a semblance of normalcy had already returned to Tokyo, although major aftershocks are still being felt. “No structural damage at all that I’ve seen,” Arzoumanian wrote on Monday. “Everything looks the same. It’s just that the people are more preoccupied, noticeably sadder.” People were experiencing only “minor inconveniences” by the end of the weekend: a shortage of gasoline, scheduled power outages, canceled trains. “If we didn’t know about the tsunami and the devastation in the north, all the possible long-term effects, the potential dangers with the nuclear reactors, it would be no different here than any other day.”

The world is now closely following the developments in the northeast of Japan, where entire towns are feared wiped out by the tsunami, and the threat of nuclear meltdown and radiation exposure become more menacing by the hour.

With radiation levels reported rising around Tokyo on Tuesday, Arzoumanian’s boss arranged for the family’s return to the U.S. on the first available flight, on March 16.

Bringing the best out of people

Armenian American scholar Henry Theriault has made numerous trips to Japan in recent years. “The unparalleled work ethic and commitment of most Japanese people, which I have observed in my many stays in Japan over the past decade, is the foundation of profound resilience in the face of the unfolding crisis and the long-term recovery that will test the resolve of the society,” he told the Weekly.

Theriault, a professor of philosophy at Worcester State College, said the earthquake had brought out the best in Japanese society. “Even in the midst of this great crisis, so many Japanese people are setting an example for the rest of the world, showing what a true spirit of social concern is,” he said, referring to the calm yet determined participation of many ordinary Japanese in the rescue and relief efforts alongside military and relief agencies. In many communities, locals had begun to collect money and supplies for the survivors hours before the arrival of military and professional rescue teams in the affected areas.

Yet, said Theriault, a lot more can be achieved with the help of foreign relief and aid efforts. His final words were a call to all of us to help Japan overcome the current crisis.

“In an age of mindless individualism, the greatest strength of individuals is turning out to be their deep connections to other human beings around them. Let us also show this commitment to Japan. Nihon, ganbatte!”

How you can help

You can make your donations through the local Armenian Relief Society (ARS) chapter of your country or city of residence or by visiting the ARS, Inc. website (www.ars1910.org) and making an online donation to the ARS Japan Relief Fund. Contact information of your local ARS chapter can also be found on the ARS, Inc. website under “ARS Regions.”

4 Comments on Armenians in Japan Discuss Earthquake, Aftermath

  1. Thank you for the article! I hope the damage from this disaster is contained and safe return to Varditer and Nayiri!

  2. Thank you for publishing information about how we can help our brethern in Japan. I remeber the article you published last year about Japanese generosity during the Armenian Genocide. http://www.armenianweekly.com/2010/09/29/japans-forgotten-international-humanitarian-relief-episode/
    All we have to say is: “Eiichi Shibusawa nous voici!”

  3. Very interesting read from our Armenian sisters’ perspective.. Thank you for the article..

    We pray to God for safe return home for Varditer and Nayiri….

  4. Great article!
    Thank you for putting faces and personal experiences with this story. Also suggesting a way to help through a trusted organization.

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