By Richard Reed, Oregonian –
“Our bus was rocking and rolling,” Watanabe said. “We could see the other buses in the parking lot shaking. People were pouring out of the hotel.
“I’ve been in some California earthquakes, and this one was strong. And then the fact that it lasted so long.”
Watanabe happened to be in Japan’s capital city for the massive, historic quake. She spoke by phone early Saturday, Japan time, as aftershocks continued to shake the Tokyo Prince Hotel where she was staying on the 10th floor.
Her overriding impression, as she drifted in and out of sleep in the swaying tower, was of the strength of Japanese engineering, which prevented her hotel and surrounding structures from toppling. She couldn’t help thinking that if an 8.9-strength quake hit the United States, the devastation would be far worse.
Watanabe, 52, is executive director of the Oregon Nikkei Endowment, which built Portland’s Japanese American Historical Plaza and the Nikkei Legacy Center, a history museum the organization operates in Portland.
The granddaughter of Japanese immigrants, Watanabe was chosen to join a delegation of 13 Japanese-Americans sponsored by the U.S.-Japan Council to spend a week meeting with officials and others in Japan. The point was to learn more about Japan and to discuss ways of strengthening U.S.-Japan relations.
Delegation members, who include academics and businesspeople, were looking forward to meeting Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan Friday. Needless to say, that was canceled.
But in classic Japanese style, unruffled officials from the Japan Association of Corporate Executives greeted Watanabe’s delegation at the New Otani Hotel, ushering them inside for their scheduled meeting. Soon after formal introductions, however, aftershocks disrupted the proceedings.
Hotel staff members told everyone to leave the building. The Japanese, and Japanese Americans, walked out into the hotel’s garden, an oasis in the megalopolis of 28 million. They stood among manicured shrubs and trees near a sloping bridge over a pond, gazing upward.
“There was one of those window-washing baskets that was swinging back and forth,” Watanabe said. “The ground was shaking.”
“There’s a new building being built a couple of blocks away. On top was a big crane.”
The spectators could hear the crane creaking as it teetered above them.
“We were worried that the crane would fall over, but it never did,” Watanabe said. “We were looking at the tall buildings and thinking, these are Japanese engineering marvels all around us. Glass didn’t fly off. The buildings stayed up.”
When the aftershocks passed, the group went back inside to continue the meeting. “The funny thing was, every time somebody said the word ‘earthquake,’ as a comment, it seemed like the floor would shake, because they were having so many aftershocks.”
The shocks continued Friday as the delegation returned to their own central-Tokyo hotel and office workers, stranded after train service shut down, began long walks home.
“At first we were not allowed to go up the elevators,” Watanabe said. “So some of the delegates actually walked the 10 flights to their rooms. But most of the rest of us just went to the bar and had drinks.”
Group members, who got to meet Japan’s newly appointed foreign minister earlier in their visit, expressed disappointment at missing the premier. “But he certainly had more important things to deal with than to meet us,” Watanabe said.
She paused in her hotel room during the phone interview, getting her balance.
“Oh, good,” Watanabe said. “Another aftershock. Here we go.”
“It’s not too bad. Just a little one this time.”
Shortly before the quake hit, Watanabe and her group had a meeting on the 24th or 26th floor of another hotel.
“I’m glad we had already done that,” she said. “It would have been a lot more exciting if we had been way up there at the top.”
– Richard Read