Tsunami victims remembered 5 years later at Japantown vigil

- Five years ago Friday, Japan suffered what many Japanese people consider their own 9/11. The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on March 11th, 2011.

On this anniversary, there was a vigil with a simple message: never forget. People there said some victims worry that's already happened.

It was a quiet day at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center in San Francisco. People were organizing the vigil for what happened.

"It was just... incredible, and so horrific, I couldn't explain it," said the center's executive director Paul Osaki.

A 9.0 earthquake shook Eastern Japan, and less than an hour later, a wall of water hundreds of miles wide slammed into the coastline, wiping out entire cities. Nearly 16,000 people were killed and another 2,500 remain missing.

"Nothing can prepare you for it. Nothing," exclaimed Osaki.

Six months later, Osaki visited the region where hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes.

"That image will live with you forever. Just to see... it was just foundations all the way up to the sea and they went miles back and you knew they used to be someone's homes"

After raising $4 million for the recovery effort, the center hosts the vigil with an eye towards the future.

"Seeing the images again, you know, I think if you don't see them every day, or you're not living it every day, that sometimes it could get pushed to the back of your mind. I think for us, I think it's really important to bring awareness to everyone and let them know that there are still people there because although it's been five years, there's still a lot of people that need help," explains center Deputy Director Lori Matoba.

On display at the event were small paper mache cows called akabeko, a craft from the tsunami zone. They were painted by children, seniors and others at the center with messages of love and support.

Of course, tsunamis are possible in San Francisco. Ocean beach is one place where any tsunami here would strike hard. "So, we just have to be ready," said Mayor Ed Lee.

He says the city has been taking important steps, including investing in early earthquake warning systems.

"Being able to have that on your phone saves us a few seconds,” said Lee. “That’s going to be part of our next training, for people along the west side of the city; to have that training, early warning systems, the sirens that work.”

Event organizers say the people in the affected areas no longer ask for money or supplies. They just say, 'don't forget us'.

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