PSS Spring '11

Crisis in Japan


Believed to be the closest American citizen to the epicenter of the earthquake, Jake Derector '09 reflects on his partnership with the people of Japan

by Melissa Sue Sorrells Galley '05


Immediately following the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that rocked the island nation of Japan on March 11, 2011, Hobart and William Smith students, faculty, staff and alums sprang into action. Within hours, several fundraisers were organized on campus to support the American Red Cross. CBS Reporter and HWS Trustee Bill Whitaker '73, L.H.D. '97 was on the ground in Sendai, covering the disaster for CBS Evening News. Dr. Robert Peter Gale '66, L.H.D. '87 who coordinated medical relief efforts for victims of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Accident in 1986, flew to Japan to help the government there manage its response to radiation leaks at Fukushima Daiichi and other plants.

And in the days following the disaster, HWS received word from our many community members who live in Japan as messages of hope and concern were relayed across the Pacific. Early in the morning on March 15, Hobart and William Smith administrators received a chilling e-mail from Susan and Richard Derector P'09, parents of Jake Derector '09:

[Jake] was shopping at a small convenience store in his village when the earthquake hit. He said the cash register just barely missed hitting him! This store was in the harbor area and at sea level. After the large earthquake ended, he went outside and looked at the sea and saw a huge black wall of water approaching. He helped the woman who owned the store to safety and then he drove his car quickly up to his apartment (which is at a high elevation) and then made his way on foot to very high ground (he followed the deer!) above his home. He watched while his village was obliterated by a 30 ft. tsunami. It has ceased to exist.

Based in Ayukawahama at the time of the quake, Derector is believed to be the closest American citizen to the epicenter of the disaster. "I could see the white crest coming toward us, and I watched the town move down the road on the water," he says. "Everything just washed away."

"It was absolutely terrifying," he says. "It put my everyday life into sharp perspective. I was buying Old Spice body wash. And in the blink of an eye, more than 80 percent of my city was wiped off the map."

Even as he watched the village float away, Derector's thoughts were focused on the children he had spent the past several months teaching. An English teacher at several schools in the rural and isolated fishing village, he had taken the day off. "I had no idea if my students were okay or if they were even alive," he says. "It was extremely difficult."

Many of the fundraising efforts organized by members of
the Colleges and Geneva communities following the
disasters in Japan have been in support of Asahi, Japan,
the hometown of Kyoko Klaus, Tanaka Lecturer in Asian
Languages and Cultures at HWS. In mid-April, Klaus
organized a Skype videoconference between members of
the Geneva and Asahi communities, including the Asahi
mayor. The men and women from Asahi thanked the
gathered students, faculty and staff, and reported on the
situation in Japan. Several weeks later, they sent photos
of the residents in their shelters, including the above
photo as well as photos of the displaced residents reading
copies of the Herald. "We are working hard toward
restoration and reconstruction," said Asahi Mayor Tadanao
Akechi. "We would like to thank you for your kind

In the hours after the quake, Derector assisted several senior citizens, helping them make it to a safe community center and procuring blankets and food. "One woman was so old and frail that I had to give her a piggy back ride to safety because she couldn't walk. But, somehow, she'd climbed up a slope to get away from the water," he says. "The people of Ayukawahama are amazing."

On March 12, Derector was able to make his way to one of his schools, walking through the rubble. He was overjoyed to find all of the teachers and students there, alive and well. "I was so happy to see them," he says. His students, though, immediately began teasing him about wearing jeans to school. "I was like, 'are you kidding me? I just crawled through rubble to get here, and you're asking about my clothes?' But that's kids."

Over the next several days, Derector and his fellow teachers slept in shifts, watching over the students. "We tried to keep the kids still to conserve their energy because food was extremely scarce," he explains. "We were feeding them half a slice of bread each at meals, and the teachers were forgoing food altogether."

Slowly, information trickled in and the teachers received word from other local schools. "Every single one of my students made it through the disaster. Many of their families were not so lucky," he says. "About a third of the students have transferred to other schools because they've had to move in with relatives. I'll probably never see a lot of them again."

Eventually, all of the students were sent home with family or community members, and the teachers were able to search for their own families. "It was incredible," Derector says. "We were all basically stewing in our own uncertainty and fear, but there was never any question that we'd stay until each student was safe. It was our duty to protect them."

With his duty done, Derector began the long trek to Aomori, the northernmost prefecture on Japan's largest island, where he lived for 12 months as a high school exchange student. "My host family in Aomori is my second family, no question," he says. "I had to make sure that they were okay."

Following tiny, mountain roads, Derector made the day-long drive, slowly and carefully while trying to conserve gas. "There were lots of places where the road was impassable, and I was driving on the sidewalk or through water," he says. "The scariest part was driving along the coast. I knew, at any moment, another tsunami might come along and wipe out the road–and me with it. But I made it to the city alive and with only 20 km of gas to spare."

Miraculously, the tsunamis had spared Aomori. Assured of his family's safety, Derector immediately went to work at the Aomori Airport. "I was giving news agencies and foreign aid workers directions," he says. "As an American and one of the only people who'd made the drive from the epicenter, I was the perfect person at the perfect time."

He planned to stay in Aomori until the end of April, translating while living with his host family, but he made a last minute decision to get on a flight back to America. "My parents were so worried about me, and I felt like I needed to go home to give them peace of mind," he says. "Coming home was one of the hardest things I've ever done."

Back in New York, Derector spent several weeks raising funds and awareness for his friends in Japan. He spoke with news reporters, appeared at fund raisers and lectured at Columbia University. In mid-April, he came back to HWS to appear on the Global Solidarity Panel to talk about his experiences.

Together with current students and faculty members, he spoke about the importance of pledging support to Japan. "Since coming back to America, I have been talking fairly regularly with my fellow teachers. There's still no running water, still no electricity," he said on April 19. "Aid is just starting to make its way to my home city. They're just starting to fix the roads. We have to work together to help them."

In May, Derector obtained a new visa and has returned to Ayukawahama where he is living in his old apartment and assisting with cleanup efforts. "This isn't about me; this is about my community," he says. "That's where I need to be."


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