Ted Bonnah, a Newfoundlander who’s been living in Japan for the past 10 years, has experienced earthquakes there, but says nothing compares to the magnitude of the latest natural disaster to hit his wife’s homeland.
“In the living memory of Japanese people, this is definitely particular. Nothing measures up to this,” Bonnah said Monday.
Bonnah, who was born in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and moved to St. John’s when he was 10, has been vacationing here with his wife Tomiko (Masumi) Bonnah for the past two weeks. They’re booked on a flight to return to Japan today.
They were visiting Bonnah’s grandparents in Happy Valley-Goose Bay when they first learned of the tragic earthquake.
Bonnah was ill with food poisoning last week and said his grandfather would occasionally call out to him to ask how he was doing.
“Then, about the last time, I was finally getting some sleep and he sang out, ‘There’s a big earthquake in Japan.’ I knew the day before there had been an earthquake in China and I figured he might be mixing the two up. But I thought I might as well go down and take a look, and it was unreal. It was like a Michael Bay film,” Bonnah said of the director known for films like “Pearl Harbor” and “Armageddon.”
A year after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, Bonnah had an opportunity to see the aftermath and reconstruction efforts.
“It all looked bad, but nothing of this scale of Sendai,” he said.
Sendai is about 580 kilometres from Kyoto.
Initially, the couple couldn’t make phone contact with Tomiko’s family on the southern island of Kyushu, but they were later relieved to learn that her relatives were safe.
“But everyone in Japan has friends from all over Japan, from either their school days or from their work. We actually have a friend who’s from Sendai, the epicentre, living in St. John’s,” Bonnah said. “We were very worried for that first day about her family.”
Bonnah said they later learned her family is physically safe but homeless after receiving a tsunami evacuation notice.
Bonnah and his wife live near Kyoto in the city of Otsu in Shiga Prefecture. It’s not near the epicentre and hasn’t been directly affected by the earthquake, but they have received email notifications of power outages and requests to save energy since the disaster.
On Monday, Bonnah said he had to pick up iodine pills before returning to Japan because iodine protects your thyroid from radioactivity. Since the earthquake, there have been concerns about radiation exposure from nuclear reactor explosions at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
“We contemplated putting off the flight, but (the) Japanese are very organized. They already got the airport open,” Bonnah said.
The only problem they might encounter is getting transportation from the airport to their apartment.
Bonnah said one of their friends in Newfoundland planned to go back to Japan to visit her family, but her relatives can’t pick her up at the airport because they can’t get gasoline.
“So, we know we can get in to Toyko, but public transit might be more expensive or might be unavailable,” Bonnah said.
“We do have our apartment and whole life there … so we do have to get back.”
Bonnah began working in Japan teaching English and is currently a university economics instructor.
He’s also a writer whose travel features have been published in The Telegram. He’s written short novels, copy for university departments and has a poetry blog.
Bonnah said he has meetings to attend later this week related to his university work, but he’s also hoping to contribute to the relief efforts.
“Maybe do some volunteering or donate some cash or just do something to contribute,” he said.
Bonnah said the disaster will likely have political as well as economic repercussions.
There’s a need for transparency and full disclosure from the politicians, he said, even though the knee-jerk reaction has been to minimize the catastrophe.
Another Newfoundlander living in Japan is Susan Mercer, the founder of an animal rescue operation, Heart, in Tokushima.
Mercer’s sister Liana Hepditch of Mount Pearl said Tokushima is south of the earthquake’s epicentre. “They did feel tremors,” Hepditch said, but added her sister is not in any immediate danger.
However, Hepditch said the news from Japan and concerns about radioactive emissions from the disabled nuclear plant make her feel sick.
Mercer is six months pregnant with her first child, Hepditch said, so the whole family is especially concerned about her now.
When the earthquake hit Japan, Hepditch said Mercer contacted her father in Newfoundland right away to let the family know she was OK. Since then, she’s been heavily involved with her animal rescue organization because there are now more abandoned and stray animals.
In an email Monday, Mercer said, “It has been hectic here for the past few days, as you can imagine. We have been blessed in our area to not have been affected by any of the devastation that has hit the northern part of the country.
“The TV and newspaper images almost seem surreal and it is heartbreaking that this is happening to the country that I have called home for so many years. I do feel safe, however, even in light of the nuclear concerns facing the country at the moment. Living in Japan for many years, we are all too aware of the dangers of earthquakes and tsunamis and we go about our days with the risk of it happening in the back of our minds.”
Mercer said the animals at the Heart shelter are safe and the organization has formed a coalition with two other groups to begin rescuing and supporting displaced animals.
“We have created a Facebook page for Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support (JEARS) where people can get information about animals affected by the earthquake and tsunamis and keep up to date about our rescue activities,” Mercer said.
“Of course, we are also concerned about the 200 animals in our care as direct donations to our organization will surely be affected by focus on the (human) victims of the earthquake.”