DUBAI // For four days after the earthquake and tsunami overwhelmed Japan, the Kisaku restaurant was devoid of its 100 or so daily customers.
"Then they all came at once and started sharing their stories," said Chitoshi Takahashi, the restaurant's chef and owner, 56. "Mostly tragic ones of loss."
These days the Asahi Japanese news channel is always on in the background in the restaurant, which is on Al Maktoum Road in the Deira section of town. When customers began coming back, they were welcomed into a second Japanese home that quickly became a place to bond and share their shock and pain.
"One customer came in all calm," said Mika Yagi, the restaurant's manager. "Then, after he finished his meal and was leaving, he was fighting back tears and told me how he had decided to go back to Japan and search for his missing wife.
"She lives in Sendai, one of the places hardest hit, and so there is no way to communicate with people there."
The UAE is home to 3,600 Japanese citizens, the largest expatriate Japanese community in the Middle East and Africa. It is the third largest in the Islamic world, after Indonesia and Malaysia.
Restaurant staff have left a stack of paper at the front desk, each sheet bearing either names of the missing or statements from well-wishers, some printed from the Twitter website, many written by hand in the UAE.
Like many Japanese expats, Ms Yagi feels helpless. She is hoping to travel to Japan soon so she can volunteer for the relief efforts by cooking for some of those who have lost their homes.
"I never imagined I would see Japanese refugees," she said.
Both the chef's and the manager's families are living in areas away from the devastation, south of the disaster. Nonetheless, like people in most of Japan, they are struggling with shortages and worry about radiation poisoning.
Mr Takahashi, who has worked as a chef in the Middle East for more than 30 years, has seen tragedy before. "But it is not the same when it happens to your home."
More than half of the restaurant's regular customers have already left to be with their families in Japan, and more are planning to make the trip home. Mr Takahashi was among those planning to travel to Japan this weekend. He wants to take face masks and batteries for family and neighbours.
He has business concerns now, too: with imports from Japan interrupted, he needs to find alternative supplies of scallops and oysters.
Naoko Kishida's parents, who happened to be in the UAE for a visit when the quake hit, are insisting on going back - even though she and her Emirati husband think they should stay where it is safe. Mrs Kishida's father doesn't speak any English, but upon hearing the word "Japan" his eyes moistened.
"He says his soul is back there," said Mrs Kishida, a mother of five and one of the founders of the UAE Japan Cultural Centre. "He wants to go back to Japan no matter what."
Mrs Kishida's son Saif Tahnoun is studying in Tokyo, but avoided the crisis because he accompanied his grandparents on their trip to the UAE. "Japan is my other half, and I can't believe what is happening there," said the 19-year-old.
He has been in touch with his Emirati friends who are also studying in Japan but left the country within two days of the quake.
Officials say 70 Emiratis evacuated Japan, including workers at the UAE Embassy in Tokyo.
Mrs Kishida and the cultural centre's co-founder, Kaoru Makhlouf, attended Thursday night's opening of the Dolls are Us exhibition, which featured 200 dolls from across the world. The exhibition, which is being held at Corp Executive Hotel Apartments, is supported by the Dubai International Art Centre and runs until March 30. Small dolls are being sold for Dh5 to raise money for Japanese relief efforts.
The women contributed several handmade porcelain dolls to the exhibition. Mrs Makhlouf, who has lived in the UAE for eight years and has family in the affected Kanto region, said, "in many ways, these dolls tell the story of our culture."
Dressed in imperial clothes made of pure silk, the dolls represent a couple on their wedding day; despite the happy occasion, the doll's expressions are sombre.
"We keep it all inside," Mrs Makhlouf said. "We focus on being professional, and have difficulty asking for anything, let alone help."
Her husband's family, who are from Lebanon, asked her why people were not "screaming and panicking".
"I tell them we are," she said, "but on the inside."
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