Japanese Americans Await Word From Loved Ones

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Japanese Americans in California are scrambling to get word on family and friends in Japan after a massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake. Kelly Wilkinson of member station KQED in San Francisco brings us this report from the city's Japantown.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Many cities on the West Coast have large Japanese-American populations. Those communities are on edge, awaiting news and updates on loved ones in Japan. From KQED, Kelly Wilkinson reports on the mood in San Francisco's Japantown.

KELLY WILKINSON: In the hours immediately after the earthquake and tsunami, people in San Francisco's Japantown huddled around televisions watching Japanese news to learn more about the devastation.

Unidentified Woman: (Japanese spoken)

WILKINSON: Here among noodle shops, Japanese bookstores and kimono boutiques, people said it was agonizing to wait hours before reaching family and friends.

Ms. MARI WATANABE: When I first found out - it was midnight - about the earthquake, I panicked.

WILKINSON: Mari Watanabe works at a bakery in Japan Center. Her parents are in Japan.

Ms. WATANABE: We've been waiting, and until right now we just received the news that they're OK. So, it's been an up and down feeling.

WILKINSON: Even though Japan is one of the most earthquake-prone countries, people watching from this side of the Pacific said the images were surreal. Ako Hisa grew up in Japan and now lives in San Francisco.

Ms. AKO HISA: We were born in the earthquake countries and we were rather well prepared but it's actually happened and just so, we just couldn't do anything.

WILKINSON: Of course, California is earthquake country too, so the disaster has had particular resonance here. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee offered support and kinship for losses that people still have ahead.

Mayor ED LEE (San Francisco, California): They're not going to find members of their family; they're not going to find a lot of things. We are joining Japantown members as one whole family to offer our help.

WILKINSON: San Francisco is home to one of the oldest Japanese-American communities in the United States. Paul Osaki is head of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center. As with past earthquakes in Japan, the center quickly established local relief efforts. Osaki says the community here is still in shock.

Mr. PAUL OSAKI (Executive Director, Japanese Cultural and Community Center): I think people are still waiting to see really the true devastation of this. I mean, thousands are missing right now. And so I think it's going to take time to settle in.

WILKINSON: But it's not all somber here. This weekend, the San Francisco Asian-American Film Festival continues. Before each screening, organizers tell moviegoers how to donate to relief efforts.

(Soundbite of music)

WILKINSON: And at Japantown's outdoor Peace Plaza, under blue skies, fluttering red flags and a tower of pagodas, the Rising Star's Taiko Dojo Drumming Troupe took to the stage.

(Soundbite of drum music)

WILKINSON: Taiko Dojo is a powerful physical drumming performance. After the first song, a young drummer explained the composition was inspired by the force of a tsunami and dedicated to the victims in Japan.

For NPR News, I'm Kelly Wilkinson in San Francisco.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You're listening to NPR News.

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