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A scary wait for word on friends, family in earthquake-stricken Japan

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Forty-two years after leaving Japan, Akiko Keene waited alone in her spacious four-bedroom Potomac home, her heart and mind transported back to her native land as the hours ticked by during one of the longest weekends of her life.

Hour after hour, Keene waited to hear something, anything, from her older brother Masaaki Kawachi, who lives 6,600 miles away in Sendai and owns a vacation home in nearby Tohoku, areas devastated by the massive earthquake and tsunami off Japan’s northeast coast Friday. But for 76 hours, she heard nothing.

Her two other brothers and her twin sister, all of whom still live in Japan, also heard nothing from Masaaki. Their phone calls weren’t picked up, their e-mails went unanswered.

At night, when she couldn’t sleep and couldn’t bear to watch any more televised news coverage, Keene climbed onto a stool in front of a small Shinto-inspired shrine to her ancestors, rang a small bell, pressed her palms together and prayed.

“When I saw that my brother’s beach house area had been washed away, I just gave up,” Keene said Monday. “I tell you, I couldn’t sleep. All I could think of was to pray.”

For many Washington region residents with connections to Japan, the waiting after the quake was agonizing. Unable to reach their family members and friends in Sendai and surrounding areas, they constantly checked e-mail, Facebook and Twitter accounts for word that their loved ones were all right. For many, word came quickly through a brief status update — cold, shaken, but safe.

For others, such as Keene, however, the silence was frightening.

For Keene, who is in her 60s and runs a workshop in her basement on the traditional art of Japanese Kimekomi doll-making, it was the latest in a series of emotional family tragedies: Her husband, David, a retired Air Force officer, died at 68 of Alzheimer’s disease in 2008, just 18 months after their younger daughter, Sayuri, died at 33 of complications from childbirth.

Alone in her home, with her other adult daughter in Chicago, Keene relied on her 49 adult workshop students, a mix of Japanese and non-Japanese women, as her surrogate family. After her husband and daughter died, Keene said, the women cooked her dinner each night for a month.

“This is how I survived — because of all the people in this class,” she said.

It was Jean Kariya, a Japanese-American who has been Keene’s friend for 20 years, who broke the news of the earthquake with a brief phone call about 6 a.m. Friday.

“I said, ‘I have bad news,’ ” Kariya recounted Monday while sitting with five other women in Keene’s basment as they made Kaibina dolls out of clamshells wrapped in brightly patterned fabric. The dolls were to be used at the coming National Cherry Blossom Festival.

“She said, ‘Oh, my God!’ She didn’t know,” Kariya said. “I hung up because I knew she had to call Japan.”

Keene wanted to cry when she turned on the television news and saw footage of the wall of water crashing through Japanese villages. But her students were already coming to the house for a class, so she tried to keep her emotions in check. She eventually reached her twin sister, who lives in Yokohama, near Tokyo, more than 200 miles south of Sendai.

“She was walking outside for exercise in the park,” Keene said. “All of a sudden, the ground started moving. She thought she was having a stroke. After she returned home, every drawer in the kitchen and bedroom were open, and she realized what it was.”

Keene’s niece, who lives in Tokyo, reported that mirrors, lights and plates had crashed to the floor, leaving such a mess that the relatives were wearing boots around the house to protect their feet — usually a major no-no in Japan, where people are forbidden from wearing shoes inside.

None of her siblings could reach Masaaki, who lives with his wife in Sendai, near their children and two high school-age grandchildren. Masaaki had worked for the Tohoku electric company, but three years ago he and his wife, in their 70s, downsized to a smaller condominium in Sendai. Their Tohoku home, near the coast, had sat mostly vacant as they tried in vain to sell it.

Keene prayed that Masaaki was safely in the condo, which was reinforced to comply with Japan’s strict building code after a massive 1995 quake in Kobe had killed thousands. But most of her calls didn’t go through. She asked the Japanese Embassy to call for her, but that didn’t work, either.

Liz Symborski of Olney, another doll-making student, knew how Keene felt. Symborski’s daughter teaches English in the southern Japanese city of Osaka, and though that was far from Sendai, she was relieved when she heard her daughter was okay. Symborski knew Keene’s brother was in Sendai, so she e-mailed asking whether he was safe.

“She e-mailed back that she hadn’t heard,” she said.

Keene was also in touch with her son-in-law, who had remarried after Sayuri’s death, and now lives in Singapore with Keene’s 5-year-old grand-aughter, Kira Mariko, who survived the complicated birth. The son-in-law works as an analyst for the International Monetary Fund, but he also is in the Army Reserves.

Desperate for news, he called an Army friend stationed near Sendai and asked him to check on the condo building where Masaaki lives. The friend called back to say the building was still intact, and Keene’s son-in-law reported the news to one of her brothers, who picked up his phone to call Masaaki one more time.

At 9:45 Monday morning, Keene’s phone rang.

“I thought it might be one of my students who couldn’t make it,” she said.

It was her son-in-law. “He said, ‘Your brother is okay!’” Keene said, starting to choke up and covering her face with her hands. “‘Uncle Masaaki is okay!’”

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