Oak Park resident Yoko Avramov wasn’t overly concerned when on Friday morning, March 11, she read the breaking news on her computer screen that there had been an earthquake in Japan.

Her native country, after all, is part of a seismic area sometimes called the “Pacific Ring of Fire.” Japan is as prepared for earthquakes as Chicago is for snowstorms.

“I thought Japan would just shrug it off,” Avramov recalled. “Then, as the story started to unfold, I started to feel as if I was losing my foundation.”

Yoko-sensei, as her students at the Montessori Language Academy (MLA) in Forest Park call her, remembered being “glued to the TV, radio and computer” hungry for more information about the events in her homeland thousands of miles away. “Now and then tears swell up in the middle of conversations with other Japanese,” she said. “We have a similar feeling as we felt on 9/11/2001.”

Kaori Mincer, an assistant Japanese teacher at MLA, had a similar emotional reaction when she heard the news. “My heart raced. I immediately thought of my family and panicked,” Mincer said. By the time she became aware of what was happening, it was too late (midnight in Japan) to call her parents. Mincer learned the next day that they were okay but said that she was frustrated that she could not be with them at this critical time.

Mincer said that the earthquake caused some damage to buildings and furniture in the Chiba prefecture, outside Tokyo, where her parents live, but no loss of life. The uncertainty, the lack of information and the unavailability of products and services has made life difficult for Japanese citizens affected by the disaster.

“I hear from my parents that there’s a strange combination of chaos and calmness going on among the people there,” Mincer said. The Japanese government has urged people to stay calm, but empty supermarket shelves, long lines at gas stations and the scare over radiation exposure subsequent to a damaged power plant, are very real concerns. The credibility of information from the Japanese government is also being eyed suspiciously by some. After the quake and tsunami many people left the Tokyo area and headed south.

Mincer also said that her mother and others are remaining calm and not panicking. “My mother is the total opposite, saying calmly, ‘We have to do what we have to do, and we have to persevere because people up north are in a much worse situation,'” Mincer said.

Ken Batai, who lives in Forest Park, and whose family does not live anywhere near the bulk of the devastation in the northeast, said, in effect, that Mincer’s mother embodies three strong characteristics of traditional Japanese culture: working hard, endurance and working together as a group.

“Japanese people have gone through a lot difficult times before and after World War II,” he said. “I think that older Japanese people remember how they worked hard to overcome the difficulties and I believe they are working together and are going to work hard as long as it takes to rebuild the country.”

Chiaki Kawamura, who also teaches at MLA, is receiving a news stream from relatives in the Tokyo area.

Kawamura relayed some of the news: “The City of Urayasu, where my in-laws live, has suffered what is called ‘liquefaction.’ Roads and sidewalks were torn and water pipes were broken. Running water has not been restored as of today [March 18]. Aftershocks are making the repair difficult. I have heard that many people are experiencing dizziness from stress and persistent aftershocks.”

Everyone interviewed said they want to do more to help victims of the disaster. Yoko-sensei, MLA’s director, decided that one thing she could do is help her three- to six-year-old students get involved. After assuring them that they were in no danger from what was happening in Japan, she instructed them to work on folding one thousand paper cranes.

“I explained to them that this is not an art project,” she said, “but we need to put our prayer and hope in each paper crane. Before folding a crane, I helped each child write messages such as ‘Keep on fighting!’, ‘Don’t give up,’ ‘We are thinking of you’ in Japanese.” She said that one of her young students drew a picture of a crane flying over Japan and sending “laser power” to chase the tsunami away.

Yoko-sensei said that both Japanese and American parents are folding cranes at home with their children and that when a thousand cranes have been collected, she will bring them to the Consul General of Japan in Chicago who will send them on to Japan.

Hiroshi Yasuda, a musician who lives in Oak Park, wants to organize a benefit concert and is looking for help. So far, a pair of concert bands, jazz bands, and brass quintets, each; as well as an Italian wedding band, a classic rock group, a Mexican party band, and a Blues Brothers cover act have volunteered to participate. Anyone who is interested can reach Yasuda at mimipapa@mac.com.

Everyone interviewed seems to agree that the Red Cross is the best agency to which people who want to help should give. What is needed most right now is money, not goods like clothing. Yoko-sensei said that MLA is going to match every donation to the Japanese or American Red Cross up to $5000.