A Close Watch from Afar

By John Lynds

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Sonoko Kamada during a recent visit with her host family in East Boston

As fears about an increase in radiation levels from a damaged nuclear power plant in Japan rise in the wake of the worst earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit the Pacific country last week, some in East Boston are keeping a close eye on the developments.

In Eastie, there are several host families that take in Japanese students as they study English at the FLS International Institute on Tremont Street in Boston. These families over the course of a few months or up to a year become very close to their students as they have dinner nightly and help with their understanding of the English language.

Sonoko Kamada was one of these students that lived with a host family on Bayswater Street for a year in 2008. Kamada recently visited her host family and returned to Japan a few days before the devastating earthquake hit.

East Boston resident Phil Amara and his wife Hiroko in Japan.

Kamada, who lives outside of Tokyo said her country’s National Broadcasting Channel (NHK) is reporting that some shelters in the disaster area cannot get any food since the earthquake happened.

“The rescue parties cannot get to those areas yet because of rubble of buildings,” she reported. “And damage is expanding. NHK says that 1,898 people died and there are more than 15,000 victims whose well being is still not determined.”

Kamada said many people still do not know if loved ones or friends are safe.

“Still, many people cannot reach their family, including my friend who cannot make a phone call to her family because cell phone line are still confused and crowded,” she said.

Kamada said overall, all of the people in northeastern area of Japan and Kanto are scared of a second earthquake and aftershocks.

“I personally cannot sleep well because of the aftershocks,” she said. “We had magnitude 4.1 earthquake at 5 a.m. Tuesday morning. The epicenter was the gulf of Tokyo.”

Former East Boston student Takako Ohnishi (right) and a friend in Japan.

Also, people in Kanto are trying really hard to save electricity because of electricity shortage.

Takako Ohnishi, who lived with the same host family as Kamada in 2010, is from Chigasaki, Japan, which is south of Tokyo and was in a building when the earthquake struck.

“It was pretty shaky and still the aftershocks are lasting, so I’m scared,” she said. “I don’t know whether we are strong or not? We are very afraid of the aftershocks. The Japanese Government has been doing their best not to cause more suffering. This is such a terrible disaster.”

Eastie resident and former Curtis Guild Elementary School teacher Phil Amara, who now teachers at the Quincy School, lived in Yokohama, Japan where he met his wife, Hiroko.

The couple now lives in Eastie and is closely watching the developments in Japan.

“Thankfully Hiroko’s family is okay,” said Amara. “I do a pen pal program with a school in Osaka, and they are fine, too. I saw the footage of a school Sendai, with the truck in the hallway. I’m trying to see if I can do a class to class or school to school connection with them, once the nuclear threat has closure.”

Hiroko, who worked for a Tokyo computer company is now a teacher in the U.S. She teaches third-grade in Japanese for the Japanese Language School of Greater Boston on Saturdays. The school is for Japanese kids living in the Boston area.

“It’s devastating,” said Hiroko. “I experienced the Kobe earthquake, about 15 years ago, before I lived in East Boston. We are trained since we are kids to deal with things like a tsunami, but it can’t prepare you for it when you see buildings fall or water fill the streets. When I hear ‘missing people’ on the news, I hope they found a way to survive.”

Mayor Thomas Menino urged residents to help in any way they could to relief efforts assisting in the emergency service agencies, like the Red Cross, in Japan.

“I was deeply saddened to learn of the tragic earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan,” said Menino. “My heartfelt condolences go out to the families affected by the disaster, especially those that have lost loved ones. The people of Japan and their relatives abroad are in our thoughts and prayers today. My staff has been in contact with the Consulate-General of Japan’s office here in Boston, and we will continue to monitor the situation to offer assistance in any way possible to locally affected families.”

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