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Japanese-Americans try to call home, worry and wait

By Allan Chernoff, CNN Senior Correspondent
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Watching, waiting, worrying
  • Japanese-Americans worry from a distance about friends and relatives
  • Phone lines are down in areas hardest hit by Friday's earthquake
  • "Just pray and wait, that's all we can do"

(CNN) -- Watching. Waiting. Worrying.

For Japanese-Americans, it is painful seeing the devastation in their homeland, even worse not being able to hear the voices of their loved ones. Because phone lines are down in the worst-hit areas, many Japanese immigrants have been unable to reach family and friends back home.

"I'm so sad. I hope," said Atsuko Nakanishi. She has tried calling her 86-year-old mother, Hide Kumaga, who lives in a senior center in Japan, but there is no phone service.

"I didn't talk to anybody," said Nakanishi, a sales clerk at Utsuwa-No-Yakata ("House of Pottery"), in Edgewater, New Jersey, who admits she is "very worried about it." A moment later she shares a note of optimism: "I try to call tonight. I hope she will be safe."

It is a challenge remaining optimistic when normal lines of communication are cut to relatives living far away in a land that has just suffered a devastating blow. So the Japanese stores and restaurants in an Edgewater strip mall, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, are filled with anxious shoppers and merchants. A cloud of concern hangs overhead.

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"I don't know so, if they're safe or not. I have no idea. Just pray and wait, that's all we can do," said Nakanishi's co-worker Fumi Meyer who has yet to make contact with a dear cousin.

Micki Smith runs an exchange program for Japanese schools in Miyagi Prefecture, closest to the epicenter. New students were scheduled to leave Saturday bound for Delaware from the flooded Sendai Airport, where some aircraft were severely damaged. Fortunately Smith received an e-mail that the students are fine.

"I was really concerned if they were there or not."

In the Michi Beauty Salon on the second floor of the strip mall, three women sit watching YouTube videos of the earthquake and resulting tsunamis.

"I'm really concerned about people back there," said manicurist Yuki Dodson. "We're pretty shocked."

Dodson was unable to reach her parents who live in Gunma Prefecture in the middle of Japan, far from the earthquake's epicenter. But, an e-mail from her brother assured her they were fine.

E-mail has been the sole line of communication for many, providing relief when there is a response from Japan but anxiety when there is none.

"They still haven't e-mailed back yet," Dodson says of a group of friends. "I'm really worried. Still waiting."

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