x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Students recount Japan quake, pledge to return

Students who were in Tokyo and have since returned to the UAE speak about their experience and desire to return.

DUBAI // Within seconds of the warning beeps on their Japanese mobile phones, Mohammed bin Tamim and nine other classmates ducked under their desks - waiting there as the classroom wobbled from side to side.

It was 2.46pm on March 11 and they were experiencing a historic earthquake followed by a tsunami that devastated the northeast of Japan, leaving the country crippled and shaken.

"I have felt earthquakes before, but nothing like this one," said Mohammed, an 18-year-old Emirati from Dubai.

At the time, he was studying at the Tokyo Japanese Language Education Centre with three other students from the Emirates, including his childhood friend from Sharjah, Rashed al Marzouqi. The rest of the students were from other countries in the GCC. Initially the teacher from Japan remained calm at his front desk, but then when a second wave of warning beeps echoed across the room, and another strong tremor hit within minutes, it became clear it was time to get out of the school.

"Everyone was in the central open square of the school," said Mohammed. "We didn't know what was happening."

Rashed called it one of the most frightening experiences of his life.

"I remained anxious to the last minute, even as we were landing in UAE," he said. "I felt unsettled and dazed. I couldn't believe what was happening in Japan."

Mohammed and Rashed, who have been living in Tokyo for the past six months, had experienced at least five tremors in the six months before the 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit the northeast coast. They said afterwards, there were aftershocks almost every 10 minutes.

"The worst part was that the communication network was jammed and we couldn't make any calls to our families back home," he said.

Back in Dubai, Mohammed's older brother, Saeed, 20, had just risen and was flicking through TV when he saw breaking news announcing a major quake in Japan.

Saeed came back from Japan a week earlier, before his brother, having completed his year at the language centre.

He is preparing to start his first term at the Tokai University in Tokyo, where he will be studying aerospace.

"I kept calling every hour and all I kept getting was a strange busy signal, as if the line was cut," said Saeed.

Their mother, who is from Thailand, cried until Saeed finally got a signal and reached his brother five hours later.

"I am OK," Mohammed announced to his family, over Saeed's speaker phone. "I am alive."

Mohammed and Rashed, driven partly by their passion for Japanese animation and Manga, moved to Japan to "learn a new way of life", and live as neighbors in a building 45 minutes away from the centre.

With trains down, the two friends and their fellow students spent the night at the school, sleeping on the floor - students sharing blankets and sweaters - and buying food and drinks from the vending machines.

"Japanese vending machines are not like any other vending machines," said Rashed. "They have rice, soup and proper food. We were just fine."

The 12 Emirati students that were at the centre then crashed at one of the student's closest apartments, where they stayed together and "bonded" like brothers.

"We watched the news, played video games and kept joking around, even though deep down we were worried," said Mohammed.

Less than 24 hours after the incident officials at the UAE embassy in Tokyo called for Emirati citizens to evacuate. They arranged buses to pick them up and take them to Tokyo's Narita International Airport. The first-class lounge was already packed with other travellers from other nationalities.

Within two days of the incident, Mohammed and Rashed were on an Etihad plane bound to Abu Dhabi, arriving Sunday night to a relieved family. Besides their essentials, the two came back carrying Japanese gifts for their families.

Officials say 70 Emiratis, mostly students, were evacuated from Japan.

One of the biggest surprises upon their return was seeing news on fears of radioactive debris from damages to the Fukushima nuclear plant.

The two brothers, Rashed and a fourth friend, Saif Tahnoun, who left Japan a week before the disaster during spring break, are all hoping to go back in time for the beginning of a new school term in April.

"If there is radiation in the tap water, then we will just drink bottled water," said Saif, a 19-year-old from Umm al Qaiwain, who has a Japanese mother. "There are always ways of taking extra precaution."

Saif, who has been studying in Japan for two and half years, is due to start his second term in renewable energy at Tokyo University. He misses feeding "Tama" the dorm stray cat, and the many Japanese friends he left behind.

Universities and educational centers in Japan are continuously posting updates on their websites, with most of them pushing the term's starting date to mid-April. Tokyo University also posted on its website a table providing updates about the level of "environmental radiation" at its campus.

Saif, who also has a friend who works at a nuclear plant giving him tips and advice, said the students are being kept "well-informed".

All four, who are on government scholarships, "love Japan" and don't want to live anywhere else. They say their time spent living there has changed them for the better.

"My family now comment on how quiet and well-mannered I have become after living there," said Rashed.

They also planned a long list of things to take back. They will be stocking up on "Rainbow milk" a favorite brand among Emiratis, iodised salt, and traditional Emirati gifts such as dates and chocolate.

"The Japanese are so kind and friendly, and do their most to try to understand us and what we need," said Mohammed.

His brother agreed.

"Sometimes, they even pull out a dictionary to help us," he said. "We can't give up on Japan."

rghazal@thenational.ae