North Central College - Naperville, IL

North Central College students, alumni impacted by disaster in Japan

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Student Ereka Funkhauser photographed this scene near her home in Japan.
Student Ereka Funkhauser photographed this scene near her home in Japan.

Life in Japan is gradually returning to normal for North Central College student Ereka Funkhouser.

Funkhouser—a junior majoring in Japanese and classical civilization—studies at Iwate University in Morioka, a town of about 300,000 located in the Iwate Prefecture. She was shaken by the March 11 earthquake, but her school 40 miles from the coast was not directly impacted by the devastating tsunami.

“Our coastline was really decimated by the tsunami, but Morioka’s own earthquake damage was minimal since we're luckily on very, very firm ground,” she said in mid-April. “There aren’t too many things still being rationed, though the supermarkets are probably only 60 percent stocked.”
More than a month after the disaster, Funkhouser and her neighbors contend with numerous strong aftershocks and daily concerns about radiation leaking from the Fukushima nuclear plant. Morioka is about 100 miles north of Sendai, one of the hardest-hit areas in Japan. Where she lives, residents are eager to help others more directly affected by the disaster.

“Almost every store window, every street corner has a sign of encouragement, and there are school clubs collecting disaster donations all around downtown,” she says. “But if it weren't for those things and the earthquakes that have never quite stopped, life could almost feel completely normal by now.”

On March 11, Funkhouser was one of six North Central students studying in Japan, and there were immediate concerns about their safety. The 9.0 earthquake struck offshore at 2:45 p.m. local time on a Friday. Tokyo is 14 hours ahead of Chicago, so the initial quake registered at 12:45 a.m. CST. Long before most Chicagoans awoke on Friday, North Central’s Office of International Programs staffers were in action, contacting students in Japan. Within hours, all were accounted for as safe.

“We were able to get in touch with our partners over there,” said Jack Shindler, professor of English and director of international programs. “We rely on those folks a lot, and having close relationships with the heads of those programs is very important. Plus, we always keep students’ safety first in mind.”

Funkhouser and another student, Japanese and global studies major Gina Fazio, have decided to stay in Japan and plan to complete their studies. Four others returned home within a week of the disasters.

Mitch Graham, a junior majoring in Japanese and psychology, was doing homework in his apartment at Kanda University of International Studies, located in Makuhari, a city in the Chiba Prefecture located along Japan’s east coast about an hour south of Tokyo.

“Japan usually has tremors, but I soon realized this was more serious,” he said. “I got under a table and my stuff started falling all over the place.”

After the initial shaking stopped, Graham ventured out to find the typically bustling urban center eerily empty. Though he had been studying in Japan since August and would have liked to have finished his studies there, the strong aftershocks were unnerving.

“I was getting messages on my cell phone—alarms saying there was a 70 percent chance of another quake of 7.0 or stronger. That, plus the nuclear concerns,” prompted Graham to catch a flight out of Tokyo’s Narita International Airport on March 14.

The disaster affected others in the North Central community as well. A handful of Japanese students were studying in Naperville as part of an international exchange program, and there were concerns about their friends and family back home. There are dozens of North Central alumni living in Japan, and College staff contacted many to check on their safety.

One alumnus who studied and lived in Japan, Brian Hampson, class of 2003, and his wife Mika raised more than $1,000 in funds they donated to Direct Relief International’s Japan Relief and Recovery Fund. Hampson lived in Japan for six years and met his wife while living there. They started a blog, Japan Needs Helps 2011, to help with relief efforts.

“We started Japan Needs Help 2011 as a way to collect funds that will be directly donated to areas that are most affected by the earthquake and tsunami,” Hampson wrote on the blog. “We are truly grateful to those who have helped our efforts. We will continue these efforts to the best of our abilities.”

Japan Map