Earthquake, tsunami hit Japan; Unionites feel loss

Sarah Krikke (left), sophomore nursing major, Emily Copeland, junior elementary education major, and Ramona Mercer, member of Union’s board of trustees and former missionary to Japan, stand in front of Mercer’s Japanese-style gazebo at her home on March 13. Krikke and Copeland both grew up in Japan. They hold signs (from left) saying what they would like to tell the people of Japan: “Our prayers are with you, find strength in the Lord,” (in Japanese) “Praying” and “I am praying for your recovery.” | Photo by Katherine Pullen

By Katherine Pullen

On March 11 at 2:46 p.m., a magnitude 8.9 earthquake hit 80 miles east of Sendai, Japan, and sent 30-foot tsunami waves crashing on shore.

Some waves traveled as far as six miles inland to Miyagi Prefecture in northeast Japan, reported Footage of the disaster shows airplanes, ships, cars and houses devastated as water rushed onto the land.

Estimates from puts the death toll above 1,500 but that figure is still rising as rescue workers penetrate farther into the areas with the most destruction. It is likely the full extent of the numbers of the dead and property damage may not be known for several weeks.

Josiah Hubin, sophomore applied linguistics major, is studying abroad in Tokyo during the spring semester. Tokyo is 231 miles southwest of the earthquake’s epicenter, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The area around Tokyo received strong shockwaves from the quake, but was not affected by the tsunami. Hubin confirmed in an e-mail that he is safe and uninjured.

“The earthquake was unbelievable,” Hubin said. “I was in my classroom when it happened, and out the windows I could see the surrounding skyscrapers literally dancing and rolling like waves.”

More than 250 miles of coastline was moved during the earthquake, said Bill Ellsworth, a USGS geophysicist. He said the earthquake is comparable in magnitude to the earthquake that struck Chile in early 2010.

Sarah Krikke, sophomore nursing major, lived in Japan 13 years before coming to Union. She said she has experienced a number of earthquakes of different sizes in that country.

“Japan isn’t a stranger to earthquakes,” Krikke said. “We have them all the time. You feel one coming, you brace yourself, you get through it and you go on with your day.”

Krikke said she was not alarmed when she first heard reports of an earthquake hitting Japan, but became concerned when she learned of the quake’s magnitude and its location.

“The buildings of Japan are structured so that they can withstand earthquakes,” Krikke said. “That’s why there wasn’t a lot of damage in Tokyo. But in the agricultural areas, where it hit in Sendai, (the buildings) aren’t that way. They’re traditional Japanese homes, built ancestrally. They’re not new buildings that tilt with the movement of the earth.”

More than 1,500 people are still missing or unaccounted for in the region of the devastation, according to This estimate does not include some areas of major flooding that rescue workers are still unable to access.

Ramona Mercer, a member of Union’s board of trustees, lived in Japan for 38 years. Mercer graduated from Union in 1952 and returned to Jackson as the first missionary-in-residence after she retired from her post in Japan in 1991. She has held several positions at the university.

Mercer said Japanese culture affects how people react to disasters like this one. She described the Japanese people as “stoic.”
“They don’t use their hands for expression,” she said. “They don’t scream and yell to get attention or to make a point.”

Mercer said the Japanese people are hurting now, but it might not be evident on their faces or in pictures on the news because they do not openly show emotions.

“If you were to meet a Japanese person from Sendai, for instance, out on the street, even if you expressed your condolence or your sorrow at what happened, the only thing they would probably say is, ‘Thank you, very much. Thank you, very much,’” Mercer said. “You wouldn’t know by the expression on their faces if they had lost a loved one, or if they had lost every family member — one or ten — unless they told you.”

Emily Copeland, junior elementary education major, was born in Japan and lived there until coming to Union. Her family was in southern Japan when the earthquake and tsunami hit, but their city did not sustain any damage.

She said the devastation of the tsunami is unlike anything she’s ever seen in Japan.

“(The Japanese) are so used to having everything because it’s such a technologically advanced country,” Copeland said. “Then — boom — they have nothing.”

Krikke said: “(The Japanese) are very group-oriented. I know that (the disaster) is affecting people down in the south of Japan too because I’m sure that they have relatives spread out across Japan. All of Japan, I know, is going to help out with this.”

The total land area of Japan is less than the size of California, and most of the northeast corner has been devastated. The damage is impossible to estimate at this point, but reports it could be the most expensive quake in history.

“When you come down to it, it’s the people who really count,” Mercer said. “Until they are taken care of and until they get some semblance of hope or some satisfaction from life and living, the (physical devastation) is just there and there’s nothing we can do about that in the immediate future.”

For more information on how Southern Baptists are responding, visit Baptist Global Response.

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