Arrow-right Camera


GU grad in Japan: ‘My body is shaking’

Fri., March 11, 2011, 6:30 p.m.

“The earthquakes just keep coming.”

For recent Gonzaga University graduate Matthew Gilles, his dream job teaching English to schoolchildren in Iwaki, on the northwest coast of Japan, has become something else.

“I hate it,” he said Friday. “Even when we’re not having an earthquake, my body is shaking.”

Gilles, 23, who has been in Japan since August, said small temblors are fairly common in Iwaki, so he didn’t respond at first when the big one hit Thursday, shortly after he’d gotten off work earlier than usual.

“But after 10 seconds, I realized this was not fine. Then it got stronger,” he said. “That’s when I decided to go outside.”

He helped his elderly neighbors out of their home, and he watched a little boy whose mother had left him at home alone while she ran to work for a short time.“I feel I was really lucky,” he said. “A lot of people died.”

Other Spokane residents with ties to Japan say their friends or relatives are OK, but rattled by the 8.9 earthquake and resulting tsunami that ravaged the island’s northern coast.

Mari Handa, who works in the international office at Spokane Falls Community College after recently graduating from Eastern Washington University, said she spoke Friday with her mother in Sendai, the hardest-hit area.

“She is fine, but freaked out,” Handa said. “My home is OK, but everything is broken.”

Like Gilles, Handa’s mother is scared and worried about the aftershocks.

Gilles, who graduated last year, has been working for the Japan Exchange and Teaching program. Although Japanese cellular networks were down on Friday, he was able to tell his parents he is safe on his U.S. cell phone via Skype.

“I’m more or less OK,” said Gilles, but there is no power or water. Gilles’ home is on a mountainside, but about 45 minutes after the quake a 3-meter-high tsunami struck the Onahama harbor district, tossing around boats and cars.

“I have friends down there,” he said. He has no idea whether they are safe.

Gilles said he waited to buy food at a store, but the lines were just too long, and he heard the shelves now were empty. He’s been drinking bottled tea and eating canned tuna and chips.

He said his apartment is OK, but he’s been helping his neighbors clean up theirs. In a nearby building, water poured out of broken mains all night until the lines were cut or shut off.

Gilles, the son of Douglas and Angelina Gilles, of Tacoma, said he was due to return to Washington in three weeks.

Meanwhile in Spokane, friends and supporters of the Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute have been calling to express concern for its students and their families in Japan, a spokeswoman at the institute said.

The institute is the U.S. branch campus of Mukogawa Women’s University in Spokane’s sister city of Nishinomiya, located in south-central Japan, which was much less affected by the earthquake, said Marie Whalen, the institute’s director of student life.

Most of the Mukogawa Institute’s 240 women students come from the Kansai region, which also is protected by geography from the tsunami resulting from the quake, Whalen said.

She was not aware of any of Mukogawa students whose families were directly affected by the catastrophe.

At Highland Park United Methodist on South Garfield Street, the Rev. Kevin Dow said he has opened the church to anyone wishing to pray for the safety of their relatives in Japan.

Russ Sinclair at the Spokane Kendo Club, a former resident of Japan, said his wife is visiting relatives in Tokyo, where trains had stopped running.

Sinclair said he had e-mailed or spoken with friends who said many people living in the outlying areas of Tokyo were stranded in the city center.

He had been unable to contact friends in Sendai.

Click here to comment on this story »