Japanese From Tohoku Worry and Wait in New York

Osaka, Japan -- When Aya Yabe-Duruz turned on the radio at 7a.m. on Friday, March 11th in Long Island, New York, she heard there had been a big earthquake in Japan but didn't think much of it because what else is new in the world's most quake-prone region. Even after hearing about tsunami, she wasn't especially alarmed. The gravity of the situation didn't sink in till she tried to call her family in Fukushima Prefecture.

"September 11th was the only other time I couldn't communicate with my family in Japan," she told me. "I felt really strange about this."

As news of the massive earthquake and tsunami spread throughout the diaspora of the one million Japanese expatriates around the globe -- with nearly 40% in the United States -- the shock waves hit hardest among those with friends and family in the northeastern region of Tohoku, which bore the brunt of the catastrophe.

After an hour and a half, Yabe-Duruz, a 52-year-old translator who settled in New York 25 years ago, finally got through to her brother, a physician who lives with his wife and three boys, with their mom nearby, in her hometown of Sukagawa.

In that first conversation, he said they were fine but uttered the C-word -- Chernobyl. Sukagawa lies 35 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which depending on who you ask, is a safe or maybe unsafe distance.

When four reactors there went rogue the day after the quake, the government evacuated 77,000 people living within a 12 mile radius. But on Wednesday, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended a 50 mile evacuation zone, which would displace 2 million residents.

Yabe-Duruz asked her 15-year-old nephew about an evacuation plan, and he said there was none. Without any gas, they couldn't go far anyway, so they will sit tight and wait it out. Her mother and sister-in-law were just happy to get their water back so they could do laundry.

"She told me everything will be okay because they are so far away from the plant and they haven't been told of any danger," she said.

Meanwhile, Yabe-Duruz has been fuming over the criminal irresponsibility of the Japanese government and the operators of the Daiichi plant, Tokyo Electric Power, which has a history of lying to the public and avoiding accountability in the time-honored tradition of big energy companies, enabled by government regulators who look the other way.

"They are the culprits in this disaster," she said. "The earthquake and tsunami were natural disasters, but the third element -- the nuclear power plant -- was a man-made disaster that could have been prevented."

And now, the government is keeping the public in the dark, and "just hoping for the best," she said.

Takayo Nagasawa, a 42-year-old freelance production coordinator and translator from Aomori, is also worried sick about her family in the quake's aftermath.

After hearing the news at 3 a.m. in New York City on Friday, she wasn't able to confirm her parents, two sisters, niece and nephew were all okay till 16 agonizing hours later. It's still hard to get through by phone, so she waits for their call every day.

They have enough food for another week, with heating oil and gas also in precariously short supply. When shipments are going to come in from the outside world, from which they are cut off, is anybody's guess.

Unanswerable questions plague her: what happens when heat and food run out? With no gas, what about emergency services? And medical treatment her mother needs, not to mention those radioactive plumes?

"But I don't talk about this with my family because I'm sure they're worried enough," she said. "I don't want to question, what about this? What about that?"

"Looking at where they are now, it's hard to think positively," she told me. "But they are not complaining, and their spirits are high," well aware of many others in more dire need of help. "I wish I were there to experience what they're going through. I feel guilty being here."

A friend of Nagasawa's in New York lost her uncle when a tsunami ripped through the town of Arahama, whose before-and-after satellite images circulated on the web.

Nobuhiro Hayashi, 43, who runs an export business in New York, was spared the grueling wait most faced. He knew early on his immediate family members in the fishing village of Kesennuma survived the havoc wreaked upon his hometown, which was ravaged by fires and a tsunami that rose up 50 feet, greatly exceeding the worst-case scenario of experts.

He was unable to talk to his family till Friday, when his sister broke the news that one relative didn't make it. The water came within a few blocks of their home, which they have since returned to, and neighbors are helping each other survive this. His main concern now is friends that populate the long list of the missing.

Another Japanese expat in New York told me about a friend whose family was unaccounted for in the hard-hit town of Watari, just over a mile from the sea, near Sendai Airport in Miyagi Prefecture.

With no word from his family, Shuichi Ohori, a 35-year-old professor of economics at Gifu Shotoku Gakuen University who lives in Kyoto, was reeling from the same unbearable uncertainty as his compatriots abroad until Monday night when his brother set out on a motorcycle and found their parents safe at the home of relatives. His father called the next day to say everyone was okay, though the house wasn't so lucky.

Right after the temblor, his dad said he stayed inside for a few minutes. But then he looked out and saw the yard liquefying and had a gut feeling a tsunami might be on the way.

"Before leaving, my father heard from his neighbors that some farmers had just gone to check on their fields," he said. "And not long after he drove away, the tsunami hit."

There's still so much uncertainty, but it seems many others in Watari, population 35,000, met the same tragic fate as the farmers.