LEWISTON — Bates College history professor Atsuko Hirai was listening to the radio in her Lewiston home last Friday when she learned of the crippling earthquake that struck her native Japan.
She spent the next 18 hours phoning her sister, who lives near Tokyo, before finally reaching her.
Although no one in Hirai’s family — all of whom live in and around Tokyo — was injured in the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami, they did not escape the disaster unscathed, she wrote in an e-mail interview.
“My sister, who is a pillar of strength, was audibly shaken on the phone,” Hirai said. “That spoke (to) the state of her psyche more eloquently than any words she uttered.”
Thousands of miles from the flooded paddies and fissures scarring her homeland, Hirai felt the effects herself, she said.
“On Monday ... as I glanced at the heavy doors inside Bates' Pettengill Hall and thought that they were moving up and down, I realized I was affected by the TV footage until my mind could make a fool of me," she said.
Hirai, who teaches Japanese history, said the northeast region of Japan most devastated by the catastrophe — known to locals as Tohoku — historically has been one of the poorest areas of the country. Though its inhabitants had begun to enjoy some level of material well-being following electronics-centered industrialization in the late 1970s, their past is laden with hardship.
Long, frigid winters have always been an obstacle for the area’s farmers and fishermen. And beginning in the 19th century, the region was marred by a sharecropping system that forced locals to turn over as much as 60 percent of their crops to landlords. Peasants had to wait until after World War II and the ushering in of land reform for an opportunity to purchase the fields they tilled.
Hirai suggested such an arduous past could be a source of hope in the difficult months ahead.
“Despite their poverty, or because of it, the Tohoku people have internalized the values of patience, hard work and perseverance,” she said. “These qualities will help them again.”
But it won’t be easy.
While Japan has a close relationship with natural disasters — Hirai recalled a story her mother told about crawling through a shaking corridor during the 1923 Tokyo earthquake — she was quick to point out that it is nearly impossible to expect or to prepare for the type of cataclysmic event that struck last Friday.
But now, the people of Tohoku have something they could not always rely on in the past: help. Assistance has been arriving from all over the world, including the United States' Operation Tomodachi. Hirai, who has been touched by Bates' colleagues and former students offering well-wishes, said that “tomodachi” translates as “friends.”
Even with all of the international aid efforts, the burden of disaster will weigh heavily on Tohoku, especially amid the possibility of widespread nuclear contamination in a region dependent upon agriculture.
“You can tell how outstanding is the quality of work of these people just by looking at the lovingly tended vegetable fields that the chocolate-colored tidal waves devoured mercilessly,” Hirai said.
“In an instant, these people lost everything that they have built and the loved ones with whom and for whom they have built all," she said. "I feel inconsolably sad to think about their losses.”