Abbotsford man shares memories of Japan

Mike Luzia was teaching in Japan when the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck a year ago.

Michael Luzia and his girlfriend Hui Wen Shi

Michael Luzia and his girlfriend Hui Wen Shi

It was difficult for Michael Luzia of Abbotsford to watch the TV news reports last Sunday, marking one year since the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

He had been there when it happened – and for months afterwards – and it was still so fresh in his mind. But it was important for him to acknowledge the anniversary.

“It’s not easy to go through again, but it’s something I wanted to do,” he said, adding that his family helped him cope with the strong emotions that emerged.

On March 11, 2011, Luzia was teaching English at a small school on the northeast island of Izushima – not far from Sendai, the city most devastated by the disaster – when the earthquake struck.

The school and all its occupants, including 28 students, were spared from the devastation of the tsunami that followed, due to its location on a high hill. But they soon experienced the consequences of Mother Nature’s wrath.

Many of the students lost parents and other relatives. Most lost their homes, including Luzia, who was living in a small apartment in Onagawa, about 50 km northwest of Sendai.

His girlfriend, Hui Wen Shi of China, was in the apartment when the earthquake struck and barely escaped with her life, fleeing to high ground when the ocean flooded into the town.

It took Luzia about two weeks to be able to return to his home in Abbotsford, and he did so with the intention of going back to Japan, after raising awareness and funds for the relief efforts.

Luzia returned to Japan at the end of April and spent the next four months there, completing his teaching contract at three schools in Onagawa with students ages six to 15. He said it was difficult to go back to such devastation, with many families having moved to other areas because their towns had been decimated.

Luzia was touched by the strength of the people, who believe that it’s not proper to talk about their difficulties.

“What I noticed most is that Japanese people don’t ask for help.”

He was instructed not to discuss the tragedy with his students, but one young boy opened up to him after class one day, telling Luzia how he was having difficulty coping with the death of his grandmother.

“I told him it was OK to talk about it,” Luzia said.

While there, Luzia arranged for a group of school principals to meet and come up with a list of items they needed. He then ensured that money raised in Abbotsford and three other B.C. communities – Steveston, Esquimalt and Nelson – went towards those things, including survival items such as life-jackets and canvas tents, as well as a range of school supplies.

Luzia completed his teaching contract at the end of August, and has been back in Abbotsford ever since. Hui Wen Shi joined him when he was in Japan, and visited him in Canada for two months late last year.

Luzia is now completing language studies at University of the Fraser Valley – he is adding Chinese and Korean to his repertoire – and hopes to join his girlfriend in China in the fall. He would like to return to teaching, although he’s not sure where.

But Japan, and its people, will remain close to his heart.

“They are the strongest people I’ve ever met,” he said.