SALT LAKE CITY — After serving a mission in Japan 40 years ago and visiting the region three times as the wife of an LDS Church apostle, Kristen Oaks feels the devastation from the recent earthquake and tsunami personally.
"I was in tears because there was face on what was happening," Sister Oaks said. "They have such respect for Americans, and they are such friends to us that I feel that I personally have an obligation to do anything I can to help them."
That desire to help comes from a long association with the people of Japan. Kristen Oaks served a Latter-day Saint mission in Sendai decades ago. Now as the wife of Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve, they have traveled there together three times in the last three years.
"In the news," she said, "they are remarking so much about how they are controlled and all the constraint and organization and that's true. But there could not be a people that are more gentle or more tender."
She served her mission in Sendai, the hardest hit area of the country, more than 40 years ago, and describes the residents as the kindest of people.
"I was never turned away whether they were Buddhist or Shinto or Mormon," Sister Oaks said. "They were always, always there. The impact that it had on my life, that is the part. I had never realized what I would take away from them. You think you're going to do service and I changed."
She remembers a remarkable experience. "I visited a school, a blind school. I was the last Caucasian that had been there since Helen Keller. So, this is a place that is much more country. It's a place where people really relish foreigners, and we were so welcome in their homes."
And now, as the wife of Elder Oaks, she has had the opportunity to return with him to a country she dearly loves.
"People in the streets still smile at you. There's just enormous outreach," she said. "That's the part that is so hard for me, that they'd have to suffer through this. It's really hard."
Soon after the earthquake and tsunami, Sister Oaks began communicating with church leaders there, asking about friends. And email arrived this week with a photo and the words, "We found her!"
President Gary Stephenson, the area authority for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had located Date Shimi, a woman who had introduced Sister Oaks at a singles conference three years ago. They became friends.
"It meant so much to me on so many levels because I knew nobody was alone over there, that they were being watched over, and I know it means so much to them that they are being cared for," Sister Oaks said.
Others are helping, like a woman in Sendai who struggled through nearly impassable roads.
"This woman is in her late 80s. She put on her little earthquake helmet and filled her bicycle with water because she knew she had water, but she knew very few people had water," she said.
Sister Oaks knows how cold they must be at this time of year with no power and how little food they have.
"When they talk about those people being cold in the Sendai area, they are freezing in the shelters. And their refrigerators are very small. They shop daily. And it's a really serious thing when the markets are closed, and they can't have access to food."
For Kristen Oaks, the connection to the Japanese people is like her connection to family. "I just feel at home there. They gave me that gift."
On a trip there three years ago with her husband, she received a sweet gift.
"The janitor, he said, 'You're not Japanese but we love you,' and he handed me little geta — miniature wooden platform shoes. And he said, 'You remember us because we'll always remember you.' "
And what Sister Oaks intends to do is not only remember them but help them. "Their tragedy is really our tragedy and I would like people to see it as such."
Sister Oaks hopes to return in the near future. She says the people of Japan will need help for years. She hopes Americans will keep donating to churches, the Red Cross and other reputable organizations.