By Linda Scherer
WINSTED, MN When Christie (Engle), a Winsted native, and her husband, Eric Hanson moved to Tokyo, Japan in 2007, they were ready for a life-changing experience, but they were not prepared for the earthshaking one they encountered March 11.
On their recent visit to the US, the couple shared what it has been like living in Japan before, during, and after the earthquake which measured 9.0 on the Richter scale. It was the most powerful earthquake in Japan’s history.
The earthquake was followed by a tsunami, with waves that took down everything in its path. More than 22,000 people were reported dead or missing, according to the website, topics-nytimes.com.
Even more frightening for the Hansons, Christie was nine months pregnant at the time, and a few days after the earthquake, approximately 150 miles from where they were living, the Fukushima nuclear power plant was leaking radioactive gas into the atmosphere.
Before the earthquake, things had been going well for the couple, who had been living in Japan for almost four years.
“At least things were going as smooth as can be expected for us having a baby in a foreign country,” Eric said. “It can be kind of nerve-wracking, but we had gotten comfortable with the hospital and the doctors. Our hospital was 20 minutes from our house by train. I thought it was great.”
The Hansons had been sent to Japan by Global Missions Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA).
After Eric graduated from a Lutheran seminary in St. Paul, he learned about the ELCA’s opening in Tokyo for an English-speaking pastor.
The couple had both spent time studying abroad while attending St. Olaf College in Northfield, where they met. It had been their desire to go back overseas in some capacity as soon as they had their degrees.
“We just decided to take it,” Christie said, “but interestingly enough, Eric’s grandpa and grandma had been missionaries in Japan, and his mom was born in Kyoto and lived there for 16 years.”
Christie is a 1998 Mayer Lutheran graduate, and Eric is from Billings, MT. They married in 2004.
The fateful day of the earthquake, the couple had set out on their daily routines. Eric went in to the tax office, and Christie had gone to teach her weekly English class to several Japanese women (and one man), ages 50 to 70 years old.
“English is very important to them,” Christie said.
“We had finished English class and one of the ladies had us all over for lunch. She lives in downtown Tokyo, on the eighth floor of a 12-story apartment building,” Christie said.
The earthquake struck about 230 miles northeast of where the Hansons were located, but Tokyo residents still could feel it.
“We felt the big one. It was pretty big and strong,” Christie said.
At first, when the tremor started, no one really reacted because, according to Christie, Japan is an earthquake-prone country and the people are used to getting tremors once or twice a month.
“Then it escalated and my students started getting nervous saying, ‘it’s big, big’ and that I should get under a table,” Christie said.
“So I got under the table and it got stronger and things started shaking. Some of my students were actually bracing china cabinets and furniture, and I could hear glass breaking, and one of my students started praying in Japanese.”
When the tremors stopped, everyone ran to the TV to find there were already tsunami warnings, according to Christie. Then an announcement over a loudspeaker in the apartment building told everyone to stay inside, and not to use the elevator.
“The buildings are built to sway,” Christie said. “Skyscrapers are actually built on rollers and someone told me that some have big tanks of water on the top to stabilize them. So we were safer in the buildings.”
“But it doesn’t feel like that,” Eric said.
“I was like, ‘let’s get out of here,’” Christie said.
Approximately an hour later, Christie was told she could leave the building, and that was when she saw cracks in the building’s infrastructure.
“That was the most damage I saw,” Christie.
When she got outside, Christie called it a “war zone.”
“The trains had stopped running and everyone was on the streets walking and people didn’t know where they were going,” Christie said.
There are 27 million people living in Tokyo. According to Christie, “it’s the largest metro in the world, when you take into consideration the suburbs.”
“It’s very crowded. I still haven’t gotten used to it yet,” Eric said.
The Hansons said it’s so crowded normally, that to get everyone on the trains, people are employed, called pushers, who actually push the passengers onto the train and make sure the door closes and the people don’t fall out during rush hour.
“The people look like a bunch of sardines,” Christie said. “It’s not so bad for us, because we are taller than most of the people, but I see kids and women with their babies trying to protect them as they get on.”
But after the earthquake, all of the trains stopped running, leaving people stranded because most people in Japan don’t own cars. They walk, bike, or use the train.
Without any transportation, Christie had to walk three miles to Eric’s church, and waited for him there. She tried to call Eric, but was unable to get through.
“I couldn’t get a hold of him for four hours after the earthquake,” Christie said. “There was too much traffic. Even on the land lines. When we connected, I was crying and he was pretty worried.”
During the earthquake, estimated to last approximately six minutes, Eric and several ladies at the tax office had also been hiding under a table.
“We didn’t know how bad it was because we didn’t get the news right away, so business just went on as usual in the tax office after that,” Eric said.
When Christie finally reached Eric, and he realized how serious the situation was, it still took him about 36 hours to get back to where Christie was.
Following the earthquake, life was kind of slow-moving, according to Eric.
“I still had to go to work, and, walking the streets, there was nobody there,” Eric said. “It felt weird because usually you are always surrounded by people and all of a sudden you have the whole street to yourself.”
“Buildings were still standing after the earthquake. It was amazing,” Eric said, “but the tsunami wiped the coastal towns in the northern areas out.”
“One town had a 30-foot-high tsunami wall built to protect it because it was on the ocean, and the tsunami went right over the wall and took out everything,” Eric said.
“We saw pictures of schools that got wiped out and backpacks were in the rubble,” Christie said. “It (Japan) will take a long, long time for it to recover.”
The Hansons began stocking up on some food items because they didn’t have any idea what was going to happen. They experienced waiting in line at the grocery store, and, even when they were able to get inside, would find there wasn’t any bread or water left to purchase.
“We were nervous,” Christie said. “Eric had his computer up and he was watching CNN, Japanese news, BBC because we didn’t know.”
The couple began talking about leaving Tokyo, at least until after the baby was born.
“My supervisor in the ELCA called us four or five days after the earthquake,” Eric said, “right when the power plant was really starting to have issues, and told us we needed to leave tomorrow, but we were already thinking we were going to leave.”
Since the doctors had told Christie she was too close to her baby’s due date to travel by plane, they made plans to take the bullet train to Kumamoto, an eight-hour ride.
The couple each packed a bag of clothes, a few baby clothes, and were pushed on to the train.
“There was standing room only,” Christie said. “I was nervous about standing for eight hours, but this nice college student let me have a place to sit.”
Later, after they had left Tokyo, they learned that the radiation was at dangerous levels for infants and pregnant women, so they were glad they had decided to leave.
The ELCA made sure Eric and Christie had a place to stay, and soon after they arrived, Christie was able to get an interview with a doctor at the Fukuda Hospital.
That had been a worry, because in Tokyo, it requires reservations be made months in advance for a hospital room.
“When Christie found out she was pregnant, she was able to get one of the only two rooms left in the hospital in Tokyo,” Eric said.
April 8, at 10:08 a.m. in Kumamoto, Japan, Aleaha Megumi (means grace or blessing) Hanson was born to Eric and Christie. She weighed 6 pounds, 14 ounces, and measured 20 inches.
Because Christie and Eric are citizens of the US, Aleaha automatically became a citizen of the US, as well.
And although she was born in Japan, according to Christie, she is not a Japanese citizen. To reach that status she would have to apply, and it’s difficult to be accepted.
The proud grandparents are Pat and Cindy Engle of Winsted, and John Hanson and Deborah Anspach of Billings, MT.
After five weeks in Kumamoto, the Hansons returned to Tokyo.
There were still a lot of aftershocks.
“But it was different,” Christie said. “When we first got to Japan, I would ask what the tremors were and the people would say, ‘that’s an earthquake,’ but nobody cared. Now, everyone stops, and stares waiting,” Christie said.
The Hansons returned to the US in July and will remain until September, while they visit 14 ELCA churches in Minnesota and one in Montana to tell the congregations about their mission work in Tokyo.
They will return to Tokyo Sept. 12, for one final year.
“They are trying to find a person to fill my position, and they have a year to do that,” Eric said.
After that, the plan is to move back home for awhile.
“We want to do some traveling again in the future, when Aleaha is older, but for now, the family is pulling us here,” Christie said.
The couple is especially appreciating the free babysitting being done by the Engles.
“In Japan we don’t have any grandparents around,” Eric said. “It’s nice to have grandparents; it means we are able to do things.”