In the aftermath of a magnitude-7.6 earthquake that rocked central Japan on New Year's Day, uncertainty prevails among foreigners in the region who have had homes damaged or jobs paused, but widespread support is helping to ease anxiety.

Ian Lawrence, an American in his fifth year of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program and a prefectural advisor for Ishikawa, has credited the "phenomenal job" done by emergency services on the peninsula for alleviating most of the immediate safety concerns people have had.

"The community is really banding together and just reaching out to people and taking care of people. I've been really encouraged to hear their stories of community members who did their best to communicate with (JETs), even with their limited English or the (JETs') limited Japanese," the 29-year-old said.

Damaged buildings line the streets in Wajima's Kawaimachi district on Jan. 12, 2024, after the New Year's Day earthquake. (Photo courtesy of Travis Tyson)(Kyodo)

Acting as a liaison between the 129 JETs in Ishikawa and the prefectural government, Lawrence said the biggest concerns now among those in disaster-hit areas are losing their salaries and housing. Currently, around a third of the 29 JETs based in the Noto Peninsula have yet to return home.

"Some JETs' homes have been declared unlivable, and they, along with many other JETs simply not ready to return to the region, are staying with friends or family or in hotels that are offering free housing to victims of the disaster," he said.

Travis Tyson, a 33-year-old English teacher based in Wajima, said he has not yet heard when classes will resume as many of his students have been evacuated elsewhere.

Around 250 of the roughly 400 students from all three Wajima city-run junior high schools have opted to temporarily relocate together to the city of Hakusan in Ishikawa Prefecture's south.

"Right now I'm helping one of my schools with its day-to-day recovery and tasks. It's mostly making origami for the students or playing with the kids that are staying in the shelter," he said.

While Tyson was fortunate enough to have been traveling in Hiroshima when the quake hit and his apartment was not damaged, water has yet to be restored and roads in the area are still in bad condition.

He recounts it was a feat to make it back home around a week after the quake as trains into the Noto Peninsula had stopped, saying, "The drive from Kanazawa, which is usually about 1 hour, 45 minutes, took around 7 hours."

With Ishikawa Prefecture home to around 16,500 foreigners, the Ishikawa Foundation for International Exchange and other organizations set up multilingual hotlines shortly after the quake to provide vital information.

But Kenshi Takahashi, managing director of the foundation, says just as many people have called asking how they can help as those seeking advice on where to evacuate and get supplies.

Lawrence said that many JETs in other regions have expressed eagerness to help as well, disseminating as much information as they can as "that's all we can really do at the moment, besides giving financial aid."

Meanwhile, some foreign groups and individuals outside Ishikawa Prefecture are utilizing their own resources to provide support not only to their fellow countrymen but also to Japanese locals in gratitude for their hospitality and past generosity.

Earlier this month, the Non-Resident Nepali Association in Japan provided freshly cooked curry and installed portable toilets for evacuees in Wajima and Suzu, two of the hardest-hit cities.

The team once again served curry to evacuees this week, distributing around 700 meals to people in Nanao over two days, with Nepalese living in the area also volunteering their time.

A team of volunteers from the Non-Resident Nepali Association in Japan serve curry to evacuees in Suzu, central Japan, on Jan. 13, 2024. (Kyodo)

"We have a sense of volunteerism in Nepal, especially since many people come forward to help Nepal whenever there is an earthquake in our country," said Jigyan Kumar Thapa, an advisor to the association who has lived in Japan for more than 20 years.

Thich Tam Tri, a Vietnamese Buddhist nun based in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, also visited evacuation centers in Wajima and Nanao earlier this month to deliver relief supplies and cash donations totaling over 3 million yen ($20,000) to both Vietnamese technical interns and local governments.

"It is just a small token, but I really wanted to contribute something useful as soon as possible," said Tam Tri, who has been actively assisting Vietnamese people living in Japan since the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

According to government data, as of the end of 2022, approximately 4,500 Vietnamese lived in Ishikawa Prefecture, the largest foreign nationality. Many are technical interns located in the Noto Peninsula.

"(Technical interns) have no experience of earthquakes in safe Vietnam, so they may feel anxious and fearful. To alleviate their concerns, I went to offer comfort," said Tam Tri, adding that she also wanted to show her gratitude to Japanese locals for their support.

Thi Thuy Nguyen, a 23-year-old Vietnamese technical intern who came to Nanao last October, said she was heartened to receive encouraging words from Tam Tri and that "everyone became motivated to do their best."

Nguyen, who spent a week in an evacuation center with a few of her workmates following the quake, said they quickly returned to their dorms as they felt more relaxed there.

"Everyone else at the center was Japanese, and we were not used to the sleeping rules and taste of the food. Plus, there was no internet," said Nguyen, adding that they still went to the center to sleep at night for fear of aftershocks.

Amid the uncertainty of when work will resume on the peninsula, many Vietnamese interns have temporarily returned home or gone to work at factories in other parts of Japan. But Nguyen and a number of her fellow interns have decided to stay.

"We have enough to live for now. We are better off than other people deeper in the Noto Peninsula. Supermarkets are still open and water is running," she said.

Thi Thuy Nguyen (center) and two other Vietnamese technical interns stay at their dorm in Nanao, Ishikawa Prefecture, on Jan. 23, 2024. (Kyodo)

Seeing the extent of the damage, Tam Tri said she plans to visit again in early March to bring pho noodles and fried spring rolls for evacuees in the region, to add variety to a monotonous diet of rice balls and ramen in the evacuation centers.

"For us foreigners living in Japan, when we see this (situation) we share the same feelings even if we're not completely in the same boat," said Tam Tri.

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