When DJ Gallow arrived in Tokyo to attend Toyo University for his junior year of college, he was told earthquakes happened all the time and were nothing to worry about.
So when the ground started shaking at 2 p.m. on March 11, the University of Tennessee student and Alcoa High School graduate thought it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.
“Originally when it was happening, I was so calm. Even before I came here, everyone said there are so many earthquakes in Japan. It happens all the time and is not a big deal. That was running through my mind. Only after did I realize it was more serious,” he said via a Skype Internet video interview on Tuesday.
Toyo University was on Spring break, and DJ was preparing to board a bullet train headed south when the first warnings of the earthquake sounded. He had taken a subway to the bullet train station and was preparing to board when the earthquake started.
“My girlfriend and I were going to visit another friend in Nagoya, about three hours southwest of Tokyo,” DJ said. “We got off a subway, and the earthquake started. There was some kind of alert I didn’t understand. Then the ground started shaking, and it got noisy, and we left the subway station.”
The subway trains and bullet trains stopped and as people streamed out of the station, DJ and his girlfriend, Jieun Bae, tried to get their bearings in relation to the university campus they had left minutes earlier.
DJ said the ground shook for 3 or 4 minutes. “After that, there were aftershocks every 30 seconds or every minute. After a span of 10 minutes, it seems everything stopped and went back to normal, and then there was another big aftershock,” he said. “We were still at the subway station when the announcement came saying trains weren’t running until further notice.”
The college junior said that he and his girlfriend then realized they were only a few miles from campus. “It took a little bit, and at first we weren’t sure about where we were going. When we first got outside, a lot of people looked disturbed and were on phones trying to talk to families, but a lot of people seemed relatively normal,” he said. “On the way back we didn’t see anything except one alcohol store where all the bottles had been broken.”
DJ said that initially, they weren’t sure where to go. “We knew in general where we were but not an exact position. I had brought my GPS. We used it from there and walked home,” he said. “It took about an hour or so. We wanted to take a taxi, but they were full because the trains had stopped. There was a rush of people going home. Everyone was walking or using taxis. It was a bleak looking day -- cloudy and kind of dark.”
Back in Alcoa, DJ’s parents, Darin and LaTanya Gallow, learned about the quake at about 7 a.m. Eastern time on Friday. “I was off that day,” said LaTanya. “My husband had just talked to DJ an hour before the earthquake.”
LaTanya said when Darin spoke with DJ, he and his girlfriend were on their way to the bullet train station. “That was the last contact we had with him until the next morning. I was awakened with a phone call from my sister asking if we had talked to DJ. Then different co-workers at my husband’s work were trying to contact him,” she said. “I was totally in a panic, and my heart dropped.”
LaTanya said they couldn’t get through to their son because circuits were busy.
“I was trying to call DJ. We couldn’t get him, and we were just worried beyond measure. Then about an hour later, I’m sitting here, thinking, ‘Please God give me sign he’s OK.’ Then he sent me a message on Facebook that said, ‘Mom and dad, don’t worry. I can’t get a call out, but I’m OK.’”
DJ said the phones weren’t working initially. “It was difficult to get in contact with people, but we still had Internet, so that was the only means of communicating,” he said. “The earthquake was at 2 or 3 p.m., and we didn’t get home until 5 or 6. I didn’t talk to my parents until midnight or 1 a.m.”
Darin said he was proud of how his son reacted.
“He ran us through the scenario of what happen. He has a GPS that he used to get back to his dorm,” Darin said. “He said he saw people moving side to side while things were shaking, and it was hard to walk. He said to this day they’re still having aftershocks. He could see buildings swaying. He said the Tokyo Tower, one of the larger buildings, bent like it was leaning to the side.”
DJ said the situation was considerably more dire on the Northeast coast than where he was in Tokyo. “In Tokyo everyone seemed relatively normal. The only immediate differences I observed were the grocery stores and convenience stores are basically out of everything because so many are in a rush to buy supplies,” he said. “Besides that and the trains not running, everyone seems normal in Tokyo.”
There is worry, however, DJ said. “Occasionally you can tell it is in the back of everyone’s mind, and people are little bit worried. There wasn’t very much destruction in Tokyo, especially compared to the Northeast. The Northeast is directly where the tsunami is affecting everything.”
The college junior said that occasionally there is still an aftershock. The school is taking everything as it comes and keeping students updated about each situation, he said. “As far as humanitarian efforts, I’m not sure what will be organized, but I’ve heard other students talking of some things,” he said.
So how did an Alcoa High School graduate end up in Tokyo on the afternoon of Japan’s worst earthquake in recorded history?
DJ and his mom said his interest in Japan and its culture started at a video game store in Blount County.
“I was about 12 or 13, and my mom took me to a video game store and I happened to see an anime magazine. I took a peek at it and thought, ‘This is cool.’ It had a page with Japanese phrases on it and from then on, my interest kept compounding.”
LaTanya said her son also started collecting Pokémon cards when he was 10. “Those cards came out, and he just was totally impressed with the culture, and then he wanted to start martial arts,” she said. “We entered him into TTJC during middle school and high school years, and he started buying self-help books to teach himself Japanese.”
LaTanya said the family also had a neighbor, a Japanese woman whose husband worked at Denso. It was this woman and her family whom DJ and his girlfriend were going to see when the earthquake struck.
“She would teach DJ Japanese words, and he would teach her American words,” his mother said. “He also continued in martial arts and ordered different books about their language and culture.”
DJ said that at about this time in his life, he started trying to learn more about the Japanese language. “I decided to try and start learning on my own. You can’t do everything by yourself though,” he said. “My learning didn’t really start to improve until college when I could take courses and talk to other people in the language.”
LaTanya said that when her son started at the University of Tennessee his freshman year, right away he asked his parents for permission to study abroad in Japan his junior year.
“We thought, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ Then he finished up with martial arts and became a black belt. Every semester at UT he has taken a Japanese class,” she said. “In September of last year, he was starting his junior year, and my husband went with him to Japan.”
DJ is a political science major with a minor in Japanese. He arrived at Toyo University in September.
The Alcoa graduate said he is also taking a Japanese-American culture course that compares the different aspects of American and Japanese cultures. “We really look at how both countries view incidents differently, which was interesting,” he said. “Additionally, I’m trying to learn Korean. I only have five months left, so I do have to manage my time.”
The earthquake and the reaction to it is definitely a learning opportunity, said DJ. “Four or five of the exchange students have parents who want them to come home,” he said. “I’m trying to stay for the full time.”
The UT student said he appreciates the culture and attitude of the Japanese people and is learning valuable lessons in studying how people react.
“You have to be willing to work with other people to get things accomplished. You can’t do everything by yourself. You have to be willing to enlist a variety of people, and it is especially hard for me since I’m not a fluent Japanese speaker,” he said. “I really have to try and work with other people here. But the people here are so nice and pretty accommodating.”
DJ said he is learning something about the Japanese culture as he watches how they respond to this disaster.
DJ also encouraged Blount Today readers to get news on the situation in Japan from a variety of sources. “Tell everyone not to worry so much and be sure and read about the situation from various news sources and not just one,” he said. “The Japanese news outlets are definitely worried but foreign outlets compound that worry.”
DJ said there are concerns among the exchange students that the program will be ended early, and they’ll be sent home.
“Right now the plans are to stay and finish his academic school year,” his father said, “which means he should come home in late July or early August and go back to school at UT.”