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Japanese Americans meet to share grief, offer prayers and raise funds

More than 600 gather in L.A.'s Little Tokyo, some suffering personal anguish over friends and relatives lost, villages obliterated and an ancestral homeland devastated.

March 18, 2011|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times
  • Japanese Americans light candles Thursday night for the victims of the quake and tsunami in Japan. Some have experienced anguish over friends and relatives lost and an ancestral homeland devastated.
Japanese Americans light candles Thursday night for the victims of the… (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles…)

North Hollywood restaurant owner Shigekazu Chiba lost a cousin who was swallowed by the sea as she sought to rescue an aunt from the deadly tsunami that engulfed his family's hometown fishing village of Minamisanriku in northern Japan.

Los Angeles architect Ted Tanaka nearly lost his wife, who called in desperation from a rooftop refuge in inundated Kesennuma northwest of the massive earthquake's epicenter. The phone line went dead, throwing Tanaka into frantic fear until she called again a day later, exclaiming, "I'm alive!" before losing the phone connection again.

As fallout from last week's massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear problems in Japan continue to mount, some Japanese Americans here are suffering personal anguish over friends and relatives lost, villages obliterated and an ancestral homeland devastated. On Thursday, more than 600 of them came together in Little Tokyo to express their collective grief, offer healing prayers, and raise funds for relief and reconstruction.

Photos: In Japan, life amid crisis

"The community needed an opportunity to gather and express their heartfelt condolences and hope," said Sandra Sakamoto, board chairwoman of the Japanese American Community & Cultural Center.

Christian prayers, Buddhist and Shinto chanting, and the scent of burning incense filled the cool night air as a couple hundred people gathered on the community center's red brick plaza in downtown Los Angeles. After speeches and an interfaith service, the silent crowd lined up to offer incense and light candles for those who died, and prayers of hope for those still alive.

Relief funds were accepted by representatives from such community organizations as the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Southern California, Japan America Society of Southern California and the U.S.-Japan Council. More than 40 Asian American organizations and businesses co-sponsored the memorial event.

"Everyone wants to help out in some way," said Yoshihito Yonezawa, president of the Miyagi Prefectural Assn. of Southern California, a Los Angeles-based group whose members hail from the Sendai region demolished by last Friday's 9.0 earthquake.

Since the quake struck, Yonezawa has been racing to raise money and field calls from people worried about the safety of loved ones. Yonezawa's own hometown of Kamimachi, located inland, was not hit hard. But several of his Miyagi association members have friends or relatives living in the flooded coastal areas.

Chiba is one of them. The restaurateur, who immigrated to Los Angeles with his family at age 11 in 1973, frequently visited Minamisanriku, which he described as a placid and picturesque fishing town amid rice paddies, verdant mountains and a shimmering sea.

But the sea that gave his relatives their livelihood of harvesting seaweed and seafood swept many of them away. Chiba said three relatives have been confirmed dead and countless others are missing.

"I'm devastated," he said. "I lost my family, my home and my roots. I'm here in California in the sunshine and there's nothing I can do."

Tanaka, the architect, has managed to restore contact with his wife, Masako, who was on a train station platform in Kesennuma when the tsunami warning hit. She had only five minutes to flee to the rooftop of a nearby building when the thunderous waves came.

Tanaka is now trying to find a way to get his wife and father-in-law to a regional airport for a flight back to Los Angeles, but many of the transportation systems have been shut down, he said.

"This has been the most miserable time of my life," he said. "I was so worried for her life, but felt so helpless that I couldn't do anything."

Photos: In Japan, life amid crisis

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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