OFUNATO, Japan - "Diyos ko po." When the ground shook and buildings trembled that cold afternoon in March 2011, the Tagalog prayer which means "God please help me" were the first words that came instantaneously from Gina Konishi.
The 32-year-old Filipino resident of Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, was with her 2-month-old daughter at a regular health checkup when the magnitude-9.0 earthquake hit northeastern Japan. Along with her 59-year-old Japanese husband Yukio, the three immediately fled by car to higher ground.
She did not see the tsunami waves. She only recalls hearing the rumbling from the collision of moving buildings.
All Konishi had with her at the time was a bag of 20 diapers for her baby. She did not even have the chance to retrieve her passport or driver's license.
Konishi first came to Japan at age 19 as a dancer, performing at dimly lit clubs across Japan from night until dawn -- Tokyo, Yokohama, Chiba, Yamagata, Fukushima. Drunken patrons would sometimes howl a stream of abuse at her, such as criticizing her for being "good for nothing" or that she was "no good because (she was) Filipino."
With little time even to sleep, she could no longer bear the harsh working conditions. Around this time, Yukio, a carpenter who she met at the place she worked in Fukushima, came into the picture.
In her eyes, Yukio was a gentle person who was always telling jokes. The two married in 2006 and settled in a small port town in Ofunato where Yukio's family home is.
Konishi recalled that once when she asked where the church was in the town, she was taken to a chapel-like wedding ceremony hall. Since then, she has given up on going to church.
A few days after the March 11, 2011, earthquake, she gazed down at the town from the hill to where she had evacuated. What she saw was complete havoc -- ships and vehicles turned upside down by the massive tsunami, and nothing remained of the Konishis' home.
In her arms, her baby daughter was laughing. That she and her family escaped unscathed was the one and only relief, Konishi recalled thinking.
In the aftermath of the quake, other foreigners in the area offered their help to Konishi. Among them, Hartatik Sugawara, a 34-year-old Indonesian also married to a Japanese, being aware that it must be difficult for the Konishis to remain at the evacuation shelter with their baby, invited the family to stay at her home instead.
Soon there was also word of church efforts to support foreigners in the disaster-hit areas, such as Mass in Tagalog offered by the Ofunato Catholic church.
Before long, many believers who are foreigners and had been unable to go to church out of consideration for their Japanese families began gathering at such services after the disaster in search of some peace of mind.
Yukie Nogami, a sister of the Rome-headquartered Institute of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is among those involved in the church-related support activities.
The 65-year-old sister, who spent a decade since age 29 in the Philippines running a kindergarten there for the institute and has been supporting foreigners in Nagoya after returning to Japan in 1986, said she moved to Ofunato in October 2011 as she felt the urge to contribute to disaster relief there.
Her mission included helping to clear away the rubble, visiting temporary housing for those who have lost their homes, and, most importantly, creating a facility where people can gather regardless of religion.
At "Jinomori Ikoi no Ie," one of the programs under way is to assist foreign women, many of whom have lost their jobs as a result of the quake, in obtaining qualifications to become nursing care helpers. In addition to those from Southeast Asia like Konishi, wives of Chinese and South Korean origin also gather at the facility.
For example, Nogami helps the women practice Japanese "hiragana" and "katakana" syllables. Using textbooks with the readings provided alongside Chinese characters, they also attended classes by professional lecturers to learn everything from the basics of nursing care to Japan's nursing care insurance system.
"Of course I've been aware there have been an increasing number of foreign wives here," said Jocelyn Sumigama, 39, who has lived in Ofunato for the most number of years among the Filipino wives in the area. "(But) our bonding has strengthened further since the quake disaster as we helped each other out and studied together."
At a senior home for the visually impaired in Ofunato, where 10 of the foreigners were undergoing practical training, Konishi smiled as she tried to encourage one of the residents to eat his meal.
"I like their smiling faces," Hiroshi Murakami, the senior home's deputy head, said. "Unlike Japanese (trainees), they will actually say they enjoyed the training."
Murakami added he felt that the Filipinos had an even greater respect for the elderly than Japanese staff. He was so impressed that he wished they could start work immediately.
With an increasing number of elderly people in the disaster-hit areas needing nursing care, "there's a shortage of staff in this field," Murakami said.
"Instead of arranging to have foreign nurses come work in Japan, as the government is promoting, it would have been better to open up opportunities for these women who have blended in well with the local community to play an active role," he said.
Meanwhile for Konishi, who thought she had lost all her belongings in the tsunami, she was fortunately reunited with a small memento -- someone had found in the debris a photo of her, clad in a pink kimono taken on the occasion of her wedding, and delivered it to the city offices.
Her wallet has also been found and returned to her with its contents intact. "Japan is not a bad country after all," she said.
At night after their baby daughter had gone to sleep, Konishi and her husband discuss their future.
"I'll build us a big house," Yukio said. Meanwhile, Konishi's wish is simple. Just a small but warm home will do.