ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay – As a teenager, Takashi Muto was one of the youths in charge of a tsunami contingency group in his native Yamata, Iwate prefecture, on the island of Honshu, one of the most affected by the March 11 earthquake.
Every time there would be an earthquake, Muto would run with other teenagers to check the shoreline, and in accordance with the longitude of the ocean’s withdrawal, they would calculate the height of the tsunami that would arrive about 30 minutes later, as they had been taught to do in school.
“We would all run to the refuges and be safe,” Muto recalls.
“But this time, that formula didn’t work,” Muto, 72, laments from his mechanic shop in Asunción, Paraguay. Wiping away tears, he shows a photo of him with his teenage friends and says they are all dead because of the tsunami.
Nevertheless, he is consoled knowing that his brother, Yuetsu Muto, and his nephew, Yuichiro Muto, survived, even though the enormous waves took away their homes.
“We waited anxiously for six days,” says Muto, who moved to Paraguay 40 years ago. “Every day we would check the Internet, but nothing about my town was posted. Finally, I saw my brother’s and my nephew’s names on the list of survivors.”
Muto is among 6,100 Japanese who live in Paraguay, according to data from the Federation of Japanese Associations in Paraguay. This organization is preparing a collection campaign among its 10 associations to help earthquake and tsunami victims.
“Primarily, we ask for voluntary support from the associations, what they want to and are able to give,” explains Toshiharu Oda, 69, president of the federation.
Oda said there are no official reports listing those who were killed during the natural disasters.
“But we are concerned about the threat of [nuclear] radiation,” he says, referring to what could happen if the damage to several of the country’s nuclear reactors is not fixed.
Marcelo Toyotoshi, 46, president of Toyotoshi, S.A., an importer of Toyota vehicles, said “Japan was prepared for the earthquake, but not for the magnitude of the tsunami.”
Toyotoshi, a descendant of Japanese immigrants, predicts the disaster will not affect the importation of Japanese vehicles into Paraguay, where an average of 2,020 new Toyotas are sold annually.
The association is collecting donations as an outreach effort to help the victims of the tragedy.
“We don’t have a specific goal,” says Masami Aramaki, vice president of the Federation of Japanese Associations in Paraguay, who is also involved in the outreach collection efforts.
“But this campaign will go on through April 20, and the support we receive will go through the Japanese Embassy in Paraguay,” Aramaki said. “We know it won’t be much in face of the magnitude of the situation, but actions are what count.”
Along with this outreach effort, on April 1 and 2, a public event will be held in downtown Asunción, where volunteers will hit the streets to collect donations.
“We will also light 5,000 candles as symbols to remember those who died as a result of the tragedy,” says lawyer Olimpio Rojas Villalba, director of the Servicio Nacional de Formación y Capacitación (SINFOCAL – National Service for Teaching and Training), an entity of the Ministry of Justice and Labor.
This Paraguayan governmental entity is co-organizing the two-day event, and it was Rojas himself who had the idea, along with a group of Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) volunteers in Paraguay.
“It is a way to give back for the help that the Japanese give to our country,” said Rojas.
The Paraguayan government is offering free telephone calls to those who want to call their friends and family members in Japan.
“I think that Japan can recover from natural disasters, but the true danger is in the nuclear threat, which will affect several generations yet to be born,” Muto said.
Argentina: Vigil and support
Akira Ikegaki was awakened by a telephone call from Japan, at 5 a.m. Buenos Aires time, on March 11.
His sister, Mariko Nagashima, urged him to turn on Japanese TV because the Asian nation had been hit by a colossal earthquake.
“She lives in Kobe, an area that was very much affected by [the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995]. It was a miracle that her life was saved [on March 11], as she was in Tokyo when it happened,” Ikegaki said.
“Since communications and ground transport were interrupted after the earthquake, my sister had to walk five hours to her son’s house, where her grandson was too, not knowing what she would find,” Ikegaki said. “They had lost their house and their material possessions, but thanks to God, everyone was alive.”
Ikegaki, vice president of the Japanese Association in Argentina (acronym AJA in Spanish) and president of the Federation of Nikkei Associations in Argentina (acronym FANA in Spanish), said there are 3,500 Argentines estimated to be living in Japan.
“Since most of them work in Tokyo, in food and car factories, located in the southern part of the country, up till now we haven’t had to mourn any deaths, thank God,” Ikegaki said.
FANA has opened a savings account for those who wish to contribute financially to the Japanese earthquake victims. Information for the account can be found on FANA’s web page.
“We must stress that we have received many calls, not just from the local Japanese community, but from the Argentines themselves who want to act in solidarity with Japan. And we are very grateful,” Ikegaki said.
Hundreds of Japanese residents in Argentina, their descendants and other members of the community met at the iconic Obelisk in Buenos Aires for a vigil in honor of those who disappeared in the earthquake.
“I don’t even want to see the news because of the anxiety it causes me,” said Diego Yonamine, 25, born in Argentina to Japanese parents. “That is why I think it is very important that people gather to show the Japanese people support.”
“It is very emotional to see this show of affection for the Japanese people. And it is even more emotional to see there are many Argentines here,” said Luis Chilén, 54, who attended the vigil. “I knew the Japanese people would come, but I was surprised to see how many Argentines came to the Obelisk today. I also have to point out the minutes of silence held at the soccer fields before the matches started. I found that to be very positive.”
Peruvians in Japan: No rice or bread
In Peru, the Japanese community also is doing its part to help.
According to the Peruvian-Japanese Association, an organization that brings the Japanese community together in this Andean country, there are about 50,000 Japanese and descendants of Japanese in Peru, including former president Alberto Fujimori and his daughter, presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori, and author Doris Monomisato.
Peruvian journalist Luis Endo, 38, of Japanese descent, lived in Japan with his four siblings and his mother for 13 years.
“We left Peru because of the economic and social difficulties our country was going through in the 1990s. It was a matter of looking for better opportunities and Japan became our second home,” Endo recalled.
Now Endo is worried about his brother Juan, who survived the earthquake and who has had to spend nights with his wife and two children in refuges, set up in public buildings, housing a total of 150 people.
“My brother has told me that there is no water in the supermarkets, no rice or bread, either,” said Endo, who currently has eight close relatives living in the cities of Yamato, Yokohama and Okinawa.
His family is dealing with restrictions on electricity, a scarcity of water, unemployment and the possibility of a nuclear meltdown.
“They are living through high levels of uncertainty,” Endo said. “That is why we are asking them to come back to Peru.”
But the resoluteness of the Japanese people, who have had to deal with so many tragedies throughout their history, always surfaces when they are faced with difficult times.
“Itsumo Ashita Ga Arimasu!” said Endo, explaining that this is the title of a song that means, “There’s always a tomorrow.”