Kiana Dobson '12 was happily chatting with friends during an afternoon class break when she felt the earth move.
It was March 11, the third day of classes at Tokyo International University's Japan Studies Program.
Dobson and two other study-abroad students from Occidental, Dayna Chikamoto '12 and Ariana Frazier '12, thought nothing of the rumbling at first. Earthquakes are common in Japan, as they are in Southern California. But instead of fading, the shaking gained strength. Tables and chairs began to move and the windows of the glass-enclosed five-story building rattled violently. As the floor shifted underneath their feet, a professor yelled at them to run. The Oxy students scooped up their belonging and hustled with their classmates to an outside courtyard.
"It was the longest, most intense earthquake I'd ever been in," said Dobson, a Southern California native. "In Japan, you expect earthquakes, but it kept getting stronger and stronger."
Chikamoto agreed. "It felt like a long time. We weren't really sure what to do," she said. "You know you're supposed to get under a desk, but you're in shock."
The three Oxy students quickly alerted their parents and host families via email and Skype that they were safe. While Frazier rode her bike 10 minutes back to her host family's home, it took Chikamoto and Dobson many long hours to reach theirs because the trains had stopped running and traffic was at a standstill.
When Frazier did reach her host parent's house, she found it hard to sleep because of the many aftershocks that shook the building. "The aftershocks were 6.0 and above," she said. "My room was on the second floor and I kept getting shaken awake."
Over the next several days, Chikamoto, Dobson, and Frazier learned through news accounts the extent of damage from the 9.0 temblor that rocked northern Japan, and the following tsunami and nuclear radiation leaks that killed thousands of people and devastated much of the region. Instead of taking classes, making friends, and exploring Tokyo's Shibuya and Shinjuku entertainment districts, they experienced aftershocks and power outages, and saw firsthand how Japan was handling the worst natural disaster in decades.
"People were going to the supermarkets and buying lots of food," Chikamoto said. "They were hoarding."
But the damage in Tokyo was minor, and while they watched television news almost constantly to learn more about the earthquake and tsunami, the students also tried to relax that weekend. Dobson played Wii with her host parents' young daughter, and Frazier visited a park full of sakura (cherry) trees. She and Chikamoto even took a road trip six hours south to Nagoya, to a mutual friend's home, and did a little sightseeing.
"We saw the Okazaki Castle from the Tokugawa era in the 15th century," Frazier said. "I was really excited because I learned about the Tokugawa era at Oxy."
However, in light of the triple disaster, Tokyo International University had to cancel this spring's program, announcing the cancellation on Monday, March 14. Within a week, the students were back home, their long-awaited and much-anticipated semester abroad cut short.
The news came as a bitter disappointment. For Dobson and Frazier, the Japan trip was their first trip abroad, and all three were just starting to get their bearings-Dobson, for example, had just purchased a cellphone and had signed up at a local health club.
"I was heartbroken," Frazier said. "I wasn't ready to go yet."
Chikamoto argued with her parents before realizing that she had no choice but to return. "I was so sad at the airport. I didn't even get to meet the other TIU students because they were on break until April," she said. "I felt really bad about everything, and I also felt selfish for feeling that."
Faculty and administration worked quickly to salvage the semester for Chikamoto, Dobson, and Frazier. Now back on campus, they're taking several classes, including a Japanese language class and an independent study course.
All three students aim to return to Japan someday. There is so much they still want to do. They also want to see their host families again, since they had to leave in haste and did not get to say a proper goodbye.
"I fell in love with my host family," Dobson said. "They treated me like a daughter. My host sister gave me lots of origami-ninja stars, frogs, hearts, rabbits. I still have them."
When they do return, they said it won't be the same. They would probably return as tourists, not students living in Japan. "I was really sad, and I still get hit at random moments," Frazier said. "I think, ‘If I was in Japan right now, I'd be doing this. We'd be in class, or we'd already have gone to Tokyo.'"
While she's disappointed she couldn't stay, Chikamoto said she's grateful she got to go at all. "Some of my friends were also going to Japan, but their programs didn't start until April and their programs ended up canceled," she said. "I got to experience Japan, even if it was for a short time."