March 26, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 41°F


Staff member waits to hear from family in Japan

I was born and raised in Akita City, Japan, 110 miles northwest of Sendai, a city that is now too familiar to Americans as the center of the earthquake disaster and the horrific scene of the tsunami swallowing everything in its path. At dawn on March 11, my husband, Abraham, and I were stunned to learn from our iPad CNN news feeds that northern Japan was struck by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake. I immediately called my mother in Akita, realizing that Akita could not have escaped the disaster. Over the phone, I heard some noise, but it eventually went dead silent. I had several other unsuccessful attempts.

Yuko Mulugetta

“The phone call does not go through.” The seriousness of the disaster started weighing heavily on my mind.

“Mother is 80 years old. She cannot run.” Now my heart was pounding, bitterly regretting that I had not talked to her for three weeks.

It took almost two full days before I finally reached my mother. When I heard her voice, my tension melted.

“Yuko-chan, I am OK, and all our family members in Akita are fine.”

“That is really good news, Mother. I am so relieved. How about Daizo-Ojisan (Uncle Daizo) and Reiko-Obasan (Aunt Reiko) in Sendai?” There was a moment of silence.

“I have heard from Daizo. He has survived, but I have not heard from Reiko…” my mother quietly said.

Reiko-Obasan, my father’s youngest sister, lived with my parents and grandmother when I was born. I grew up, sensing that my aunt loved me. She was the one who taught me how to make origami cranes. She was very patient, showing me each step of folding the origami paper that magically transformed itself from a two-dimensional piece of paper into a beautiful bird.

“Yuko-chan, when you are making a crane, you should pray hard for a sick person about whom you sincerely care. It is believed when you have made 1,000 cranes, the person will get better,” Aunt Reiko said. When she got married and moved away to Sendai, I cried very hard.

It is a long tradition of the Japanese to make origami cranes and pray for those about whom we sincerely care. Now, it is my turn to make 1,000 cranes for those who were washed away by the tsunami and affected by nuclear radiation. When I finish those 1,000 cranes, I may hear from my Aunt Reiko.

Mulugetta and students, faculty and staff members plan to make origami cranes at Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii‘s concert April 12 in Ford Hall. For further information, contact her at

Yuko Mulugetta is the director of enrollment at Ithaca College. Email her at