Hawaii resident Iwalani Walsh-Tseu was in Nagano, Japan, when last week’s earthquake struck.
She felt the shaking, but her horror grew when she learned the quake and tsunami had devastated Fukushima prefecture to the northeast. Images of an overturned train replayed on TV.
Her daughter, Miss Hawaii USA 2009 Aureana Tseu, a Tokyo resident, was supposed to catch a train to Fukushima that day.
"I was just bawling … I couldn’t find her," she recalled. "Cell lines were down, computer lines were down. I didn’t know what to do, where to go, how to contact her."
Tseu finally called.
"She said, ‘Mom, I’m not in Fukushima. I decided to take the later train.’"
"Had she been on that train …" Walsh-Tseu said, unable to finish the thought. "That was the train that was destroyed."
Tseu had been scheduled to perform hula at Hawaiian concerts in Fukushima and Sendai.
Walsh-Tseu was in Nagano at an English language school owned by Hawaii woman Cynthia Sato to collaborate on making it a Hawaiian cultural school.
They both returned home today, arriving at 12:30 p.m. on separate flights from Haneda Airport.
Even in Nagano, far from the worst damage, there are frequent blackouts to conserve energy, she said. Nights were snowy and freezing and gas lines long.
After experiencing about 40 aftershocks — even at the airport — she said she didn’t feel safe until stepping off the plane.
"I was crying so much, I was so happy to be home."
Walsh-Tseu said the Japanese news media appears to be downplaying the dangers at the nuclear reactor.
"We see about the tsunami and the earthquake," she said. "As far as the nuclear and the radiation, they’re really playing it down. I didn’t really understand the severity of it."
She said the people are bearing up despite the difficult circumstances with "dedication to their country and to each other."
"The Japanese are just so respectful there, and they’re not going to show their emotions," she said. "They’re just so obedient — that’s their greatest character — their pride, obedience and respect."
When Walsh-Tseu said goodbye to a former student who runs the Iwalani School of Dance Japan in Yokohama, she said, "’Come home with me.’
With tears in her eyes, the former student replied, "’I have to stay with my people,’" Walsh-Tseu recalled.
Walsh-Tseu said she was surprised to see few Japanese at the airport.
But one Japanese woman, who sat next to her on the plane, told Walsh-Tseu her husband, who is in the Japanese navy, instructed her to take their baby to the United States.
"’I don’t know when I’m going to see you again,’" she said he told her. "’What I’m saying is, I want my baby to have a chance.’"
The woman said, "It was so difficult, but we made the choice for our little girl."