By Rachel Kytonen
Kenneth Johnson turned on his computer the morning of March 11, and like the rest of the world, was shocked to learn about the 9.0 magnitude earthquake, and ensuing tsunami, that struck Japan.
Johnson, a 1982 Braham High School graduate, has lived in Kamakura, a very historic city one hour south of Tokyo Station from 2004 until October 2010, when he moved back to the United States to take a position in Clearwater, Fla.
However, his wife Akiko, and son Kaj, continued to live in Japan to allow Kaj to finish out the remainder of his 8th-grade school year, which ended in mid-March.
The day the earthquake and tsunami hit, Johnson was scheduled to fly back to Japan to complete the sale of their home, with the entire family moving back to Clearwater March 19.
“When I woke up on the morning of the 11th, I was shocked when I turned on my computer and saw that a major earthquake had hit Japan,” Johnson said. “I was very relieved when I saw a short email my wife sent from her cell phone saying she and my son were okay. Because the power was out, I couldn’t call them. The tsunami footage I saw on U.S. TV before leaving was astonishing and what I saw on Japanese T.V. was even more dramatic. Surprisingly, my flight was not cancelled, and I arrived in Japan at midnight on Saturday, March 12.”
After arriving in Tokyo, Johnson realized he was fortunate Kamakura hadn’t seriously been impacted by the earthquake or tsunami.
“The juxtaposition of what I saw on T.V. in the Sendai area where the tsunami hit, versus what I saw in Tokyo and Kamakura, was unbelievable,” Johnson said. “Life seemed completely normal in Kamakura except for a few inconveniences like fuel shortages and lines at grocery stores to buy milk, bread and toilet paper.”
Johnson was very much aware of the threats of radiation while still in Japan.
“While we were still in Japan, there was a very morose feeling in the air,” Johnson said. “Although radiation is invisible, I remember one day the air and sky were kind of hazy and it made you wonder if what you were breathing was safe. Our main concerns in Kamakura were the potential for another big earthquake, which was predicted, and radiation if the plants at Fukushima were to melt down. There was a 6.5 quake on March 14, which jolted us, but people seemed to get accustomed to quakes of magnitudes that would normally be very frightening.”
After graduating from Braham, Johnson attended St. Olaf College, and graduated in 1986. He met his wife, Akiko, who is Japanese, while at St. Olaf.
While in Japan, Johnson worked for an agency of the Japanese government that funded and managed R&D of renewable energy and energy conservation technology.
“I was very fortunate to live in the neighborhood where my wife grew up, so I was warmly welcomed by the community,” Johnson said. “At 6’5,” I was pretty conspicuous, and I think the neighbors got a kick out of having a foreign giant among them. Unlike the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, life in Kamakura is more laid back. Because Kamakura was the capital of Japan from 1191-1333, it is filled with historic shrines and temples. It’s also situated right on Sagami Bay. The history, the location and the great restaurants and shops make Kamakura one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan.”
Johnson said there are many differences between life in Japan and the U.S.
“The food is very delicious and varied,” Johnson said. “In general, Japanese society is quite amazing for its civility and for its non-judgemental acceptance of other people’s opinions and beliefs. It’s also extremely safe. If you were to get on a train and accidentally get off at the wrong station, you’d really have nothing to worry about because pretty much anywhere you go in Japan is safe.”
Even though Johnson and his family are now safely living in Clearwater, he can’t help but feel for the people of Japan. Recent media reports report a death toll of nearly 9,000 and approximately 17,000 missing since the March 11 disaster.
“I think the quake and tsunami are going to have a long term effect on Japan,” Johnson said. “Already you hear about the shortage of parts and the breakdown of the supply chain. Economically, it’s going to be a massive rebuilding effort. I doubt that the area that was devastated will be rebuilt the way it was prior to the disaster. I would imagine many people relocating to other areas.
“The problem, however, is that the coast line is densely populated, so if another earthquake were to occur along another area of the coast, the same type of situation could be repeated. Japan is a very mountainous country so the population tends to be concentrated in areas that are flatter and oftentimes near the coastline. Similar to San Francisco, everyone talks about “the big one” that will hit Tokyo some day.” Johnson added.
Johnson is the son of Gerda Scheele, and the late Harold Johnson. Gerda re-married in 1978 to Jon Scheele, and they still live on the family farm.
Johnson said he was amazed by the spirit of the Japanese, even throughout the devastation.
“The impressive part about this disaster was how well Japanese people handled it,” Johnson said. “There was almost no crime, such as looting you would normally see when a disaster like this strikes. There has been a very generous outpouring of support for Japan since the earthquake from around the world. I think that has really helped buoy the spirits of the Japanese people.”