Not just another earthquake
When he noticed that the graduation at Osato Junior High School corresponded to his Spring Break at the University of Richmond, Wesley Julian '08 thought that would be a great time to return to the small Japanese town where he taught English for two years. It was going to be a great day of celebration for many of the children he taught. Julian could reconnect with friends, colleagues, and students.
There was no way to know that on that same day, the strongest earthquake ever would violently shake Japan, sparking devastating tsunamis and a nuclear emergency.
Wesley Julian ’08 stands in the snow outside Osato Junior High School moments after the earthquake.
Osato is a small town with only about 9,000 residents, and it sits about 16 km north of Sendai. Julian spent two years there teaching English with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. Though he had left only about eight months earlier, he was excited to be back.
"The graduation ceremony on Friday [March 11] was beautiful," says Julian. "It started at ten in the morning. We had lunch at noon. Around 2:30, I was winding down with seven teachers in the staff room; the female teachers had changed out of kimono, their traditional dress, and everyone was about to go home. That's when the earthquake hit. For the first 30 seconds, I thought it was just another earthquake. Then the first big tremor hit and it got more intense. I could tell by the way my Japanese teachers were reacting that this was a really big earthquake."
Earthquakes are a regular occurrence in Japan, something that might seem strange to most Americans. They occur so often that Julian says he became used to them. He says, "I know it sounds strange, but low-level quakes are kind of soothing-like a little massage. At least that's how I used to feel."
There was no electricity and no phone service, only radio reports of the destruction. He was staying with another teacher, Sakai Sensei, and her husband in their apartment in the city of Rifu. Normally the drive would take about 20 minutes; it took them three hours.
Aftershocks were coming regularly and his friends' apartment was on the fourth floor of their building. He says, "I was worried, but they were okay with it. I tried to model my outlook on their outlook." Nonetheless, he slept fully dressed with his passport in his pocket.
The next morning they got up early, before many cars were on the road, and returned to the school. They spent the day cleaning, establishing the evacuation zone in the school gym, and checking the building for damage. He still had not been able to reach his family in the United States and was not aware of the extent of the tremendous damage caused by the tsunami the day before.
They returned to the apartment in Rifu and planned to drive the next morning before dawn to Yamagata where Julian could catch a flight to Tokyo.
Julian helped the teachers clean the school, including the library seen here.
"We decided that the car had enough gas to get us there-none of the gas stations were open-and we needed to leave early to avoid traffic. I had been trying to call home about every 20 minutes and it wouldn't go through. About halfway to Yamagata I tried and all of the sudden it started ringing. I started yelling, 'Pull over. Pull over.' My parents answered the phone and I was so relieved to hear their voices."
In Yamagata, Julian got a stand-by ticket to Tokyo. Thirteen hours later he boarded the plane for Tokyo's domestic airport. Once there, he took the train to Narida, the international airport, arriving at ten o'clock that night.
"All of the ticket counters were closed at Narida Airport. Hardly anyone was there. Security guards were walking around handing out blankets and pillows for everyone. They also had bottled water and crackers."
In that airport, Julian also started contacting his friends in Japan. "I met some American university students who let me use a computer. The airport had electricity and Internet, so I could finally relay some information and get information. I have to say that I've really learned how crazy technology is in this day. The only reason I could talk to my parents was by cell phone. I used wi-fi and my iPhone to get on the Internet. Using technology I got the Today Show's Ann Curry to find a missing friend. Within 72 hours, NBC found my friend in a small Japanese fishing village. I can't believe how quickly information travels."
A few more standby tickets and many more hours of waiting and travel later, Julian was back home in Richmond. In Japan, though, many families are still struggling to find loved ones, to find food and clean water, and to make sense of their uncertain future.
"I hope more is said about how prepared the Japanese are for earthquakes-their evacuation plans, their response, their infrastructure. Also, everyone was so polite and considerate despite being hungry and faced with so much destruction. I remember even right after the earthquake one of the teachers was trying to get by me. He would have been justified saying 'Get out of my way,' but instead he said, 'Please excuse me.' And I can't believe how well the buildings and bridges held up to a level-nine earthquake. It's just amazing."
His Spring Break trip to Japan was more memorable than he had imagined, and he certainly learned more than most students on vacation.
"I have a much better appreciation for friends and family, how many people care about us, and how important we all are to each other."