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Japanese in Costa Rica mourn tragedy

Fuji Shiro only felt shock at first. Then he tried the phone. Then e-mail. Finally, he accepted the waiting game. At his sushi shop in Quepos, on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, Shiro waited for word from his family in Japan. His sister in Tokyo contacted him a couple days after the earthquake, saying everything was all right.

No word from his brother yet in Sendai, a Japanese city destroyed by a massive earthquake and partially wiped away by multiple tsunamis.

A couple more days passed and a short e-mail came. It contained no details about the earthquake. Shiro’s brother wrote that he and his family had no water, no gas and no electricity. But they were alive. Their home outlasted the destruction. Not much else did.

“They’re sharing food from the neighbors,” Shiro, 62, said. “Just surviving.”

Approximately 350 Japanese live in Costa Rica, according to Japan’s embassy in San José. Last Friday, they watched television footage as a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and devastating tsunamis ripped apart their homeland.

The hardest hit area was the northern coastal town of Sendai. News agencies  reported hundreds of bodies washing up on shore after the tsunamis struck. Death toll estimates for the island are as high as 20,000. Adding to the crisis, Japan is racing to prevent nuclear disaster at several power plants (see story on Page 9).

Emperor Akihito gave a rare televised speech Thursday to provide moral support for his country in a time of continuing crisis. The only precedent for the emperor’s speech came in 1945, when his father, Emperor Hirohito, announced Japan’s surrender to the Allies during World War II.

In Costa Rica, Japanese citizens hope the worst is over, and that their friends and family survived what’s been measured as the fourth largest earthquake since 1900.

At Hanabi Sushi in Sabanilla, in eastern San José, the fresh smell of raw fish and vegetables permeate the air. California rolls, salmon, spicy tuna. Tomomi Ishiguro brought these recipes with her from Nagoya, Japan. That’s the same place she met her Tico husband Roberto Ortíz. He worked odd jobs in Japan for eight years before returning to Costa Rica with his wife to open a sushi shop.

The surge of support they’ve received shows how well their small sushi eatery has endeared itself to the community. Ortíz said he and his wife received about 1,500 messages through e-mail and Facebook pages asking if their family in Japan was all right and asking how to help. Some of the e-mails came from the United States, Canada and Italy.

Ishiguro’s family in Nagoya felt the earthquake, but the city didn’t suffer much damage. However, Ortíz has friends in Tokyo dealing with rolling blackouts, low food supplies and no running water.

Ishiguro started constructing miniature versions of Japan’s flag. She placed a black ribbon on each pin to give out to customers, because she wanted them to be a sign of Costa Rica’s solidarity with Japan.

 “What happened is something that nobody could’ve imagined,” Ishiguro said.

Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla expressed solidarity with Japan, as did Foreign Minister René Castro and many local agencies.

On Tuesday, Ortíz decided to do more than express sentiments of camaraderie. From inside his restaurant, he fielded phone calls from the Japanese Embassy in Costa Rica about how to raise money for Japan.

“No, no, no,” he’d say as he dismissed unproductive but well-intentioned suggestions.  He was hoping to raise more than just a “symbolic amount” to offer Japan and the hundreds of Ticos living in Japan. The embassy finally settled on a fundraiser Sunday at the National Cultural Center (see story on Page 9). The restaurant also is selling brooches for ¢1000 ($2). All profits go to the Red Cross.

In the city of Nicoya, on Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, Shusuke Irabu saw his country torn apart by tremors and towering waves. A morbid sense of irony surrounded Irabu’s situation. Here was Irabu, a seismologist, brought to Costa Rica by the Japan

TT08 Japan

A Village Lost: Masako Nishiyama searches for the ruins of her parents’ house in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, following the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Japanese living in Costa Rica say they are anxious to return home to check on loved ones.

Kimimasa Mayama | EFE

International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to help the country better handle natural disasters. And for the past week, he has seen how even the seemingly best preparations are sometimes no match for nature’s wrath.Irabu can elucidate about all the basics. He can explain how Japan’s earthquake warning system is supposed to work. He can explain to you that Japan is located on a tectonically complex region of the Earth: a cross-section of the Pacific plate, the Euroasian plate, and the Philippine plate. He concedes that he’s so used to natural disasters in Japan that when his mother called him at 3 a.m. last Friday telling him what occurred Irabu, he assumed it would “not be that bad.”

But Irabu isn’t concerned about magnitudes and fault lines right now. He’s worried about his people.

“I listen to the national news broadcast [in Japan],” Irabu said. “I want news up to the date. I want it now. Minute-to-minute, second-to-second, on other earthquakes. I need the information. Of course, I am worried about Japan, the future of Japan.”

He said his family is safe, but he knows of friends in temporary shelters in Sendai. Irabu, 35, hears stories of Japanese citizens with nowhere to stay, trying to keep warm in sub-zero temperatures.

Next week marks the end of Irabu’s two-year commitment to his seismology project in Costa Rica. He’s awaiting word from JICA headquarters to inform him if it’s safe to return to Japan. Irabu is ready to go home.

Naoji Fujisawa, a Japanese and Spanish teacher at Escuela Japonesa in Tibas, said his family lives in Kobe, a southern city unharmed by the earthquake. But he knows first-hand the ferocity of an earthquake. The last major earthquake in Japan took place in Kobe in 1995. The Great Hanshin earthquake killed more than 6,000 people in and around Kobe and caused billions of dollars worth of damage.

“I hurt a lot for the victims,” Fujisawa, 50, said. “It was very damaging. But the Japanese are very capable at handling any obstacle. I hope they can recover soon.”

The majority of Japanese in Costa Rica live in the Central Valley.

Shiro, the Quepos sushi restaurant owner, said he knows one other compatriot where he lives. But the communities of Ticos and expats in the Manuel Antonio area, on the central Pacific coast, have reached out to him. He’s proud to own a restaurant that’s always busy. He likes that when he goes to the market other shoppers and vendors will say hello to him. They’ll ask how his family in Japan is doing.

Still, it’s hard for Shiro to ease his mind about his family. Not with the emotional images on television, and the rumors of nuclear radiation. His brother is 73, and Shiro worries he’ll catch an infection if repairs to the water supply and electricity aren’t made quickly. His sister is coping in a rattled Tokyo.

“It was very devastating,” Shiro said. “It’s like another war.”

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