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Experience at Narita airport highlighted that we are all part of global ohana

LAST UPDATED: 7:56 a.m. HST, Mar 17, 2011

Last Thursday, my husband and I were in a waiting room at Narita International Airport. After participating in the Asia Pacific Association for International Education conference in Taipei, we were on five-hour layover at Narita for a return flight to Honolulu via Tokyo.

Suddenly, the floor began shaking violently. Everyone quickly realized this was a strong earthquake, although we didn’t know it was 9.0 in intensity. We held on to our chairs, with some people getting under tables and a few rushing to the windows, which is not advisable. We moved around for cover as parts of the ceiling fell and glass-covered pictures swayed.

The severe shaking continued for two to three minutes. The respite was brief, because strong aftershocks followed. Officials ordered an airport-wide evacuation, so all passengers (we were told there were 13,000 of us) were sent to wait on the runway until the building was surveyed.

After a couple of hours, many of us were led to an isolated departure area, where there were some chairs and restrooms. Folks settled in, spending much of their time on electronic devices to surf the Internet and communicate with loved ones around the world. Meanwhile, airport personnel offered all that they could to help, including handing out Ritz crackers, water and blankets. The airport shut down for the night. We were particularly grateful to the airport janitor who worked throughout the night to keep the restrooms clean and supplied.

We huddled around the lone TV set — seeing photos of the earthquake devastation over and over, only to be overcome with more dismay and sadness when the tsunami pictures appeared and ominous word of the threat to nuclear reactors followed. We were witness to an unfolding tragedy of unimaginable magnitude. My thoughts were split between Japan and Hawaii, because Japan was already experiencing the impact of the devastating tsunami, while Hawaii was getting prepared to deal with that threat. So e-mails and text messages were flying among our family members and colleagues around the world, as all tried to grapple with this disaster.

My soul was refreshed by seeing so many acts of kindness among strangers. For example, most of us had no Japanese money for the vending machines, so those who did have yen were quick to buy nourishment for others and share whatever they themselves had on hand. We often kept occupied by talking to others. We spent lots of time with Liz from California, as our threesome shared crackers, blankets, information and even moments of humor. We welcomed the sight of Trudy Schandler-Wong from Manoa, a wonderful United Airlines attendant who is married to Alvin Wong, the "happiest man in America" ("Manoa man singled out as happiest," Star-Advertiser, March 8).

As we finally boarded our plane with passengers from many different homelands, I was overcome with a great sense of sadness about the tragedies facing Japan and the impact to our own state, followed by pride that citizens and nations, including our own, have responded so readily with aid. I thought about our university’s motto: "Ma luna ae o na lahui a pau ke ola ke kanaka," which means "Above all nations is humanity." How true that statement is!

My trip to Taiwan may have begun with a focus on the importance of international educational relationships. But the experience in a Japanese airport magnified and solidified what those relationships truly mean — that we are all part of a global ohana strongly connected through times of both great joy and great tragedy.


Virginia S. Hinshaw is chancellor of the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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