Rimban Hiroshi Abiko of Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple leads an outdoor prayer service for the victims of the earthquake/tsunami.
Attendees gave incense and flower offerings.
The Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Urban Search and Rescue Team displayed equipment used to find survivors after a disaster.
Attendees were asked to write messages of encouragement to the people of Tohoku.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

The second anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan was observed Sunday at LAPD Headquarters near Little Tokyo with a ceremony and a discussion of lessons learned from the disaster.

Co-presented by the Love to Nippon Project, Japan America Society of Southern California, and Nichi Bei Fujin Kai, the event began in the plaza with an ecumenical service and prayers, led by Rimban Hiroshi Abiko of Nishi Hongwanji Los Angeles Betsuin and Rev. Mark Nakagawa of Centenary United Methodist Church. Well-wishers lined up to offer incense and flowers in memory of the nearly 16,000 lives lost.

Outdoor displays by local groups, including the Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima kenjinkai, offered information on how to help the victims as well as how to prepare for natural disasters in California. Attendees were asked to write messages of encouragement for the people in Tohoku. The Rescue Dog Association of Japan was also represented.

Organizers hope to establish March 11 as an official day of emergency preparedness in Los Angeles.

The main program, held in the Ronald F. Deaton Civic Auditorium, was emceed by Janet LeBlanc and Jennifer Usyak and opened with the national anthems of Japan and the U.S., performed by 2011 Nisei Week Queen Erika Olsen and the Holiness Youth Choir, which traveled to Tohoku and other regions of Japan last year. There was a moment of silence for the dead, the missing and the survivors.

Rev. Ken Yabuki of Union Church of Los Angeles said in his convocation, “We live in such a divided world, politically and socially, and yet when disaster strikes, it seems to have a way of bringing us together … May we leave this place spiritually enriched because of having been here for a common purpose.”

Cantor Seth Ettinger sang a memorial prayer from the Jewish faith.

LAPD Deputy Chief Terry Hara said that the disaster is “something that we will not forget anytime soon” and asked the audience to “remember some of the lessons learned from this tragic incident.”

Consul General Jun Niimi said, “The Japanese people still feel a great sadness over the loss of thousands of loved ones … At last year’s memorial, I expressed my heartfelt appreciation for the kind support we received from across the United States and here in Southern California. This year I wish to again convey my profound gratitude to you all.”

Noting that Japan has made strides in disaster prevention technology over the last two years, Niimi added, “The new administration of Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe believes it is both a duty and an opportunity to share Japan’s experiences and technology with other disaster-prone areas, including Southern California, and perhaps repay some of the generosity that has been shown us.”

Another positive development is the establishment of exchange programs like the Kizuna Project and the Tomodachi Initiative, he said. “I encourage you to participate in the exchange of ideas, business and people. Please come to Japan and see for yourself. We look forward to cooperating with you as we move forward.”

JASSC President Doug Erber talked about the 2011 Japan Relief Fund, which was established immediately after the earthquake and has raised nearly $1.5 million, all of which has been sent to Japan.

With the Asia America Symphony Association, JASSC donated musical instruments to the schools in Ofunato, Erber said. “These instruments were not a top priority for the city; their top priority is jobs and housing. But it was a top priority for our donors and us because the instruments will bring a sense of normalcy back to the students’ lives.”

With the Japan Society of Boston, JASSC also donated instruments to the Kamaishi Civic Wind Ensemble, which had lost everything. “This was seen as a real morale booster for the entire region of northern Iwate,” Erber said.

In addition, JASSC adopted an orphanage in Fukushima that houses 92 children “who still can’t spend the entire day outside because of the fear of radiation,” Erber said. “… We helped decontaminate an area for the younger children and buy new playground equipment and lots of things the kids can do indoors, as well as educational field trips they can take just to spend a few days outside of Fukushima.”

When asked how people can help, Erber said, this is his response: “If you have the means, visit Tohoku, spend money, buy some udon and smile, lots of smiles. Second, if you can’t make it all the way to Japan, make a donation to any organization that is a country-specific organization that you know the money is going to go to a good cause, then follow up to make sure they spent the money properly. Finally, if you don’t have the means to make a donation … please prepare yourself. Learn from the lessons that we saw two years ago.”

Co-presidents Toby Mallen and Lori Gardea spoke on behalf of the Nichi Bei Fujin Kai. “We made it our club’s commitment that we would keep the people in the affected region in our thoughts, in our prayers, in our hearts, and give whatever contributions we could for the long term, even a decade,” said Gardea. “We know it’s going to take that long or longer to rebuild that region.”

Madame Hisami Wakayagi, founder of the Hana no Kai school of Japanese classical dance, performed “Shinkyoku Urashima.”

The Orange County Friendship Choir sang “Hana wa Saku” (Flowers Are Blooming), commissioned by Japan’s NHK network and written by Sendai native Shunji Iwai to support the people of Tohoku. The choir also performed “Furusato” (My Hometown).

First Responders

Two members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Urban Search and Rescue Team recalled their experiences in Japan immediately after the tsunami. The team also helped victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake, and had just gotten back from quake-stricken Christchurch, New Zealand when they were called to Japan.

Assistant Fire Chief David Stone said that the Japan quake was notable not only for its magnitude, 9.0, but also for its duration, about 6 minutes, and the height of the tsunami that followed, which peaked at 133 feet.

From its facility in Pacoima, the team arrived at Misawa Air Force Base, consulted with the U.S. ambassador to Japan and the Japanese government, and established a base of operations at an elementary school in Sendai. They were joined by another U.S. team from Fairfax, Va., and a team from the U.K.

“Japan has a really robust emergency management system … When we got into Ofunato, the majority of what we call surface rescue had been handled by the local law enforcement and firefighters,” Stone noted. “… For us, all that was left was the larger structures, debris piles, things that you need special equipment for … The partnership between us and first responders in Japan worked out very well.”

Stone noticed that many buildings were flooded up to the second or third floor, and in Kamaishi he saw “all these notes on the wall … (left by) people looking for their lost loved ones. That really touched me.”

Battalion Chief Larry Collins paid tribute to “the first responders in Japan … the other public servants, including schoolteachers and everybody else who lost their lives trying to help others … A lot of firefighters and police officers were killed in Japan by the tsunami because they held their ground and stayed in place. We saw a lot of fire trucks and police cars that were destroyed.”

This self-sacrifice exemplified “what we found in Japan in terms of people looking out for each other, total strangers helping total strangers … I saw the same thing in the Kobe earthquake in 1995,” he said.

The towns Collins saw in Tohoku looked “as if Godzilla had risen straight out of the bay … and started throwing ships around … It was that scale of destruction, almost beyond imagination.”

Two years later, “they’ve done an amazing job,” he said. “The rebuilding is well in progress. A lot of the scenes of devastation …  have been cleaned up.”

Describing Japan’s emergency response system as “seamless,” Collins said he has been helping to develop a plan for Southern California. “When we were dispatched to this earthquake, it demonstrated to me very clearly that we’re on the right path of trying to let people know that even in Southern California tsunamis are a potential (threat), even though it’s a remote possibility … The research tells us we could get tsunamis of up to 40 feet off our coast from … a locally generated earthquake or offshore landslide …

“It’s important to prepare our own selves, our families, our places of work, schools and our communities for disasters when they do happen.”

Teri Lee Hirano, representing the Marina Del Rey community, said that her first experience with a natural disaster was the Sylmar quake of 1971, which prompted evacuations and school closures. Growing up in San Fernando Valley, her idea of emergency supplies was items like hair spray and nail polish, but living through the 1994 Northridge quake caused her to become more practical.

“Now I always have 12 gallons of water, another two cases of water, an couple of cases of vitamin water, a few cases of coconut water, loads of chunky soups, cans of tuna and vegetables,” she said. “I buy things I like anyway so that way I can rotate it so the dates don’t expire … I also have a big giant flashlight that’s also a radio and then I buy the giant boxes of batteries at Costco.”

Hirano is also working on an emergency plan for her community, including helping senior and the disabled, and urging pet owners to get ID tags and microchips in case their animals run away.

Love to Nippon founder Masako Unoura Tanaka, who survived the tsunami, told family members to establish a meeting place in the event they are separated during a disaster. “When you go home tonight, you discuss about that, please,” she said. Her husband, Ted, said that the couple’s meeting place is the Westchester Golf Course.

Unoura Tanaka said that she was saved by a member of the Japan Coast Guard. Having heard that the tsunami had already hit Kessenuma Port and was fast approaching, he led her and her aunt to the top of a nearby building.

She was able to reach her husband in Los Angeles by cell phone. “I said the address … I exactly mentioned where I was. Otherwise, how would he be able to help me or rescue me? … He was able to connect with the rest of the world.”

Since she was given a second lease on life, Unoura Tanaka declared, “Today I am two years old.”

The program concluded with a video by Darrell Miho and Ken Matsui of the Ai Love Japan project; Yusuke Tominaga, a singer and composer from Fukuoka Prefecture, who performed “Himawari no Hana” (Sunflower) and “Arigato”; and a lively gospel number by the Holiness Youth Choir.

From left: Toby Mallen, Nichi Bei Fujin Kai; singer Yusuke Tominaga; Terry Hara, LAPD; Consul General Jun Niimi; Larry Collins, L.A. County Fire Department; Lori Gardea, Nichi Bei Fujin Kai; David Stone, L.A. County Fire Department.
The Orange County Friendship Choir sang “Hana wa Saku.”
The Holiness Youth Choir opened and closed the program.
Left: Yusuke Tominaga, a singer/songwriter from Fukuoka Prefecture, sang “Himawari no Hana.” Right: Madame Hisami Wakayagi performed a danced, “Shinkyoku Urashima.”
Left: Janet LeBlanc and Jennifer Usyak served as emcees. Right: Cantor Seth Ettinger (pictured) and Rev. Ken Yabuki of Union Church gave the convocation.
From left: Doug Erber, Japan America Society of Southern California; Teri Lee Hirano of Marina Del Rey; Masako Unoura Tanaka, tsunami survivor and founder of Love to Nippon Project.

Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo