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Ketchum ’08 Recalls Tsunami

Matthew Ketchum ’08 had been teaching English in two high schools on the Northeast coast of Japan for two years when the earthquake and tsunami hit the country last March. The tsunami stranded him and others in the fishing village of Miyako, Iwate, where they were fortunate to have found high ground at a monastery.

Ketchum returned home for the first time in two and a half years recently and his local paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about his surviving the tsunami and his life in Japan since.

“I’ve never experienced the kind of eerie calm I felt after it happened, kind of this sense that you have no control, that whatever is going to happen is going to happen. On the other hand, it was kind of a dream state, and I just couldn’t believe I was in it,” he said.

Ketchum earned a B.A. in Asian languages and cultures and minored in philosophy.

In the photo above Matthew Ketchum (second from right) rests with friends during cleanup in the fishing port of Miyako, Japan, after the earthquake and tsunami March 11.

The full article follows.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In the Wake of a Disaster, Strong Bonds are Forged

Mackenzie Carpenter • January 8, 2012

The YouTube video is hard to watch: A grimy wave rolls over a seawall in northern Japan, slamming through apartment buildings and across wide boulevards, washing away cars — presumably with people in them — while faint yelling is heard.

Matthew Ketchum had no choice but to watch, though, standing on a hill that March day 10 months ago in Miyako, just above the roiling tsunami, worrying whether he had climbed high enough to escape it.

The 25-year-old Mt. Lebanon High School graduate was home for the first time in 21/2 years over the holidays, visiting his parents, Carlton and Andrea Ketchum.

It was good to be back, but he didn’t stay long. He returned to Tokyo last week to work on a memorial exhibition as the first anniversary of the disaster approaches, even as he grapples with his own memories of the tragedy.

More than 20,000 people died in Japan’s jagged, isolated northeast coastal communities after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake, whose epicenter was about 90 miles from Miyako, and resultant tsunami struck. They crippled the country’s infrastructure, triggered meltdowns at three reactors in a nuclear facility and widespread radiation contamination, while destroying the small fishing village in the Taro district of Miyako, where Mr. Ketchum taught English.

Just as 9/11 has become shorthand for the trauma suffered after the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, “3/11,” as it is known in Japan, has become the symbol of that country’s latest catastrophe in a place whose history and people seem to be defined by disaster, suffering and rebuilding.

Slight, bearded, possessed with a kind of jumpy energy, Mr. Ketchum wonders about that day and whether it was fate — or just random luck, good or bad — that saved his life.

Was it bad luck that he happened to be living in an oceanside apartment building — 100 yards from the seawall — in an isolated part of Japan when the worst earthquake in nearly a century hit?

Was it good luck that, after he ran outside and heard sirens warning that a tidal wave was approaching, his landlord led him up a hillside to a Buddhist monastery where they were able to escape the wave that flooded the city moments later?

Was it luck — or fate — that he received a call the night before from the school where he taught, saying he could take the next day off?

“I am not particularly religious, but it sort of makes you think,” he said, remembering that hours after the earthquake hit, he stood in the dark on the hill that had become his refuge, huddled in a heavy coat, watching fires burn for hours across Miyako Bay. “I’ve never experienced the kind of eerie calm I felt after it happened, kind of this sense that you have no control, that whatever is going to happen is going to happen. On the other hand, it was kind of a dream state, and I just couldn’t believe I was in it.”

‘Not dead yet!’

Like so many young people just out of college in a weak U.S. economy, he was intrigued by the idea of working overseas. So, in September 2009, after graduating from Hobart and William Smith Colleges the year before, he headed to Japan, where he’d been hired to teach English to high schoolers. He was posted to Miyako, a working-class fishing port of about 60,000 people on Japan’s Pacific coast, about 51/2 hours by bullet train from Tokyo.

It was a tough transition. His Japanese — which he began studying in 10th grade at Mt. Lebanon High School and continued through college — was adequate, but the city was isolated, with few other foreigners. “It was total Japanese immersion,” he said.

It also was cold and gloomy in winter when he arrived, and despite his outgoing nature, it was hard to meet people. “At first I wasn’t exactly happy to be there,” he said. But by spring, when the days got longer and people started barbecuing on the beach, he began to make friends, rode his bike, started playing in a band. His parents came to visit that Christmas, too.

“I love that town now. There are people there who consider me family, and I do, likewise. Because it was so hard in the beginning, once you cement yourself in that community, that’s it.”

He’d been there a year and four months when the earthquake struck at 3:20 p.m. on Friday afternoon, March 11. He was in his apartment, watching a movie and eating an omelet he’d just cooked, when the building began to shake. There had been a large earthquake three days earlier, and he and his landlord, Hisashi Kando, had talked about the possibility of a tsunami.

This time, the shaking didn’t stop. He ran downstairs and outside, saw debris falling. “I thought, ‘Oh, I have to take pictures of this with my phone.’ ” Then he heard sirens.

It was a tsunami warning, not unknown at all in this region of earthquakes. But instead of a voice announcing the more commonplace “tsunami keihou,” it said “O-tsunami keihou.”

That meant a big one was coming.

His landlord appeared and said to him: “Hey Matt, remember what we talked about? We gotta go.”

He followed him up a hill toward the Zenrinji Temple, 40, 50 steps, joined in the journey by about a dozen other neighbors. “When I started seeing people sprinting I thought, ‘Oh, maybe this will be bad,’ ” he said.

By the time they got to the top and turned around, they saw that the water had drained out of the bay. He reached for his phone, and just before it died he sent his parents the last direct word they’d get from him for nearly a week. It was a text — “Not dead yet! Earthquake just won’t stop. … am at evacuation center … expecting a three-meter [10-foot] wave.”

And then the water came.

The wave

It was a filthy-looking thing, a 16-foot wave, higher than expected, full of debris, barreling toward them. But they were relatively lucky, standing on that hill. Some waves farther north were 60 feet high — and one in another area was recorded at 132.5 feet.

“We were really high up, but I was getting kind of nervous because the water was rising fairly close to even where we were. There was this one guy, stuck in the water, crying, looking for his mother, and we couldn’t get to him. Finally some firefighters were able to pull him up on a roof, and we ended up making a sling out of some blankets and pulled him up to us. It was such a steep drop, and he was pretty banged up.”

For the next three days and nights, Mr. Ketchum found himself huddled around a fire by the temple with his landlord and a dozen or so elderly Japanese neighbors, listening to reports on a crank-up radio. The priest’s wife loaned him a big, puffy coat, so he kept warm.

“I remember this gorgeous night sky while we were listening to all this bad news, about the nuclear reactors being damaged, and not knowing really what was happening,” he said.

Even as the group, mostly in their 70s and 80s, ate sparingly from the temple’s food stocks — rice porridge, pickled vegetables, some smoked fish, Mikan oranges and tea — they talked about how this was the second disaster of their lives, after World War II.

On the third day, he decided to try to make his way down to get more food for his companions. Picking his way through the rubble-strewn road along the bay, he ran into his friend Seiji Shimoyama, whose family owned an interior design and construction company and lived in an area that hadn’t been damaged. Mr. Shimoyama took Mr. Ketchum to his house to collect food — 20 pounds of fish — for the people back at the temple, who, upon his return, were as happy to see him as he was them.

“They more or less saved my life, after all,” he said.

The aftermath

He spent much of the next week helping with cleanup efforts and distributing food supplies, even as news of losses began to mount: A friend, Yocchi, lost his mother; Yocchi’s brother, Tadao, also lost his girlfriend. Landmarks had disappeared — just empty space where a favorite restaurant had been, and a large cruise ship was lodged where a big apartment building had stood.

The first media crews began to trickle in about five days after the earthquake. A crew from the RTV Channel in Ireland zeroed in on Mr. Ketchum and took him to Taro, where he served as interview subject, translator and tour guide.

Returning to new home, family

After a week of no contact, he also managed to call his parents on a satellite telephone at a fire station.

Back in Mt. Lebanon, the Ketchums knew, by then, that their son was alive. Beyond his texts the day of the earthquake they hadn’t heard anything else, and it had taken them three days of frantic calls, monitoring Japanese television news reports and searches on Facebook to finally find someone who confirmed he had survived.

“We didn’t panic,” said Carlton Ketchum, at least at first. “For the first 30 hours, we just were getting our thoughts together. Then I started sending notes to every friend of his I could see on Facebook, saying, ‘Hey, I’m Matt’s dad and I’m trying to locate him.’

“I actually had two thoughts,” the elder Mr. Ketchum said of the period before he and his wife found out for sure their son was OK. The first, he said, was that in a disaster like this, he knew that communication would be hard, if not impossible, for awhile. As the hours and then days went on, though, “I had a second thought — that I didn’t want to have to bury another child.”

The Ketchums’ son Chandler, Matt’s older and only sibling, died in a car accident in 2008, when he was 25.

Matt Ketchum returned to Japan from his holiday sojourn in Pittsburgh last week. He now lives in Tokyo, teaching English there while working with a photography gallery that will be mounting an exhibition of photographs from all over the world called “My Japan” (website: He’s helping the curator scout venues, and there are hopes of publishing a book.

“We’re basically working to solicit donations and find photos taken by people from all different backgrounds, an aggregate of images and emotions showing the incredible diversity and culture of this country,” he said. “The whole idea is to get Japan’s face out there again.”

His parents marvel at the life he has carved out for himself in a country half the world away.

“He already loved it there, but this event really cemented those friendships,” Ms. Ketchum said. “You hear so much about how insulated the Japanese are from foreigners, but Matt isn’t — he has these close connections to all these wonderful people. He has a home there. We are proud and amazed that he got through it, and is stronger for it.”

Before he left he said his first stop wouldn’t be to his apartment in one of Tokyo’s busiest neighborhoods.

“I’m hopping on a train up to Miyako,” he said. “I have some Christmas gifts I want to give my family there.”

Copyright © 2012 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette