Lost and found: Japan one year later

Story highlights

From uncertainty to courage, distrust to control, and despair to hope.
Survivors of the massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan have searched for what was lost, sometimes finding more.
"The broken glass has been swept away, the building cracks have been filled and repaired, the pavements have been evened out and to all appearances here in Tokyo, on the surface, everything continues as normal," Nicky Washida wrote on CNN iReport. "The 'wa' -- harmony -- has been restored. But scratch away just underneath and this is a city that has figuratively and literally been rocked to its core."
In the quest to rebuild their lives, Washida and four others found inner strength, compassion, community, new love and even a new life.
Faith, love and motivation
Christina Ras nearly left Japan for her native Philippines after the earthquake.
"During this one year period of time, the consequences and effects of the earthquake affected my plans, perspective and attitude of dealing with life, especially as a foreigner in Japan," she wrote in her iReport. "I had to make a plan B. I was very frustrated that living in Japan will be worthless. It was traumatizing and depressing."
Ras came to Japan nearly two years ago to study Japanese at the Shinjuku International Exchange School in hopes of becoming a teacher. But after the earthquake, the 24-year-old found it hard to focus on studying. Five of her classmates dropped out and returned to their countries.
 Christina Ras with boyfriend Hiroshi Inaba
"I didn't see any hope back then," she said via Skype. "I [didn't] know what to do, I [didn't] know who to run to but I don't want to go home."
With the economy struggling, Ras found work giving one-on-one lessons in English. She stopped participating in activities she enjoyed, like dance classes and singing, so she could focus on recovering from the earthquake. But she felt even more like an outsider.
Eventually she realized why she was having such a hard time with Japanese.
"I needed to learn the language deeply and in my heart," she said. "If you learn it, you learn the culture."
A trinity of forces brought her life back on track: faith, love and reconnecting with her Japanese classmates.
"I wanted to be involved more. I wanted to know the Japanese people," she said about joining extracurricular activities and social events through school.
It was around the same time, in May, that she returned to church. Her faith had yo-yoed, but her belief was strong again.
"People who have faith in God have positive vibes and are more optimistic," she explained. "If you go with the negative people, you lose yourself, your strength."
Ras opened up her heart to God and somewhere along the line, she opened up her heart to love, too.
A few weeks before the earthquake, she had met Hiroshi Inaba, who seemed, she says, like a "nice and good-looking guy." Despite persistent Facebook messages and other attempts to court her, Ras said no when he asked her out. Always focusing on her future, Ras had never given herself the chance to fall in love, she said.
With the earthquake and every aftershock after that, Inaba called or texted Ras to let her know he was safe. She found herself doing the same for him. Living in towns two hours apart, they shared their worries of aftershocks, food shortages and the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
"There were many nights that we would go on talking through Skype until dawn," she wrote in her iReport. "Those were the means where we could have intimate talks, know each other deeply and the only given time that we can be ourselves freely."
Three months later, she finally said yes to a date with Inaba.
Love wasn't far behind.
"At first, it was such a euphoria to have an escape from the turmoil we were having but as we were both recovering, we found that strong companionship of getting over and moving on," she said. "Having some love in your heart gives you inspiration, reason, strength, optimistic perspective and it gave me a new direction when I almost didn't know what to do next."
Ras continued studying Japanese, graduated with her degree on Friday, and even found a good job that might turn into a full-time opportunity.
Her sense of direction restored, she is grateful that she didn't give up and leave Japan.
"I realized back then I had a lot of time that was taken from me and a lot of opportunities," she said passionately. "I survived and I still am here, so I might as well work hard and do my best -- take back what was lost from me. ... It would just be for nothing if I go home."
Living in uncertainty
Checking food labels, researching radiation concerns and worrying about future earthquakes consume Nicky Washida's life.
"On the surface, it is business as usual," said the British expat, who has lived in Japan for 10 years. "We wake up, we go to work, we shop for dinner. We drink, we laugh, we care for our children. But running underneath the veneer of normality is the constant reminder that life has changed."
Something as simple as buying food for dinner takes more than a trip to the grocery store. Washida searches for alternate ways to source the family's food since radiation fears from Fukushima arose after the earthquake.
Nicky Washida
"The way we live now -- such as scanning product labels for sources of ingredients and searching farther afield for 'safe' items -- this is now the new normal," she wrote in her iReport.
She opts for locally grown produce or imported foods to cut down on the chances of contamination. One family meal this week, for example, consisted of salmon from Chile, squash from Mexico, broccoli from the United States, cauliflower from southern Japan and rice from northern Japan.
"You just don't know whom to trust," she said over Skype. "There is no transparency here with the distribution of food."
More fears lurk beneath the surface. Her oldest, 8-year-old Mia, says she no longer worries about another earthquake, but she refuses to sleep in her own room these days. She prefers to sleep in her little brothers' room, probably because she doesn't want to be alone, Washida said.
At least Mia isn't afraid of water from Tokyo Bay swelling into a tsunami anymore. She used to wake up crying in the middle of the night thinking the bay, visible from the family's balcony, would surge and engulf t