The Cavalier Daily
Serving the University Community Since 1890

Coping with disaster

University feels immeasurable effects of earthquake, tsunami in Japan

At about 2 p.m. March 11, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit 80 miles off the coast of Japan. Within half an hour, a 33-foot tsunami came ashore and swallowed the entire port of Sendai, a city famous for its fishing industry. The Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures in Tohoku were hit hardest by the tsunami.

Two weeks after this disaster, Japan is still grappling with the repercussions. From tens of thousands of people missing to radiation contamination of the water, the Japanese are facing major challenges to their society.

Michiko Wilson, professor of Japanese language and literature, described the situation like viewing a war zone. "I think the Japanese are shell-shocked; Japan as a nation is shell-shocked," she said. "To the older generation, this disaster must feel like the most horrible disaster in Japan since the dropping of the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

 

University professors and students weigh in\nA teach-in was held in the Chapel Thursday to discuss the crisis in Japan. The interdisciplinary panel of experts spoke about the social, political and economic implications of the disaster, as well as building sustainable housing in Japan and the psychological and cultural challenges the survivors must face. The panelists included Curry School professors Diane Hoffman and Peter Sheras, as well as Politics Prof. Leonard Schoppa, among others.

"It is impossible to understand the experience they are having in Japan without understanding their culture," Sheras said.

People throughout the world are watching aspects of Japanese society unfold as the media goes into people's houses, fishing villages and metropolitan cities.

"This is a great opportunity for those that are not familiar with Japan to see what you usually don't see," Schoppa said.

Schoppa also held a question-and-answer session Tuesday. The casual forum was useful for students to ask questions about the implications of the disaster.

Schoppa, who has studied Japan for more than 20 years, said Japanese culture emphasizes ties to the community rather than individualism. "The Japanese people have cultivated through their education system and their use of media that they are all a common race in this world together to deal with a variety of challenges," he said.

This sense of community in Japan is one explanation for the lack of looting during the crisis. During the teach-in, Hoffman linked this to the psychological term "role perfectionism," which stresses the importance of reciprocal social relationships. Education in Japan, Hoffman said, does not focus on cognitive achievements, but rather on "the need to learn to live in a group."

Yonathan Ast, a third-year College student majoring in Japanese language and literature, spent part of high school in Japan. He lived on the island Shikoku, near Honshu. "It's an uncanny sense of community," Ast said. "I think it's something one only experiences if you spend enough time there."

After the disaster, this level of communal responsibility was evident when victims took refuge inside a school gym and continued to recycle. Every Japanese household sorts its trash, Wilson said. "Japanese people understand the consequences of not recycling even in dire conditions," she said.

Wilson also attributed this cultural difference in part to the country's geography, as Japan is surrounded by the ocean and offers no other place for people to flee by foot. The geographical isolation creates a strong bond. "Recycling is just an example of that social cohesiveness," she said.

 

Living through a disaster\nThird-year Engineering student Ashutosh Priyadarshy experienced the disaster and the Japanese communities' reactions to it first-hand. His father was working as a consultant in Japan for a few months, so Priyadarshy went to visit him during Spring Break.

March 11, he went sight-seeing on his own while his father was at work. After walking around a market, he decided to take the subway back to his hotel. A couple of seconds later, the train came to a "screeching halt," Priyadarshy said. The operator of the train spoke in Japanese on the speaker system and "everybody sort of looked around."

Priyadarshy does not speak Japanese. "The oscillations were pretty big and the operator started talking really, really loud and really fast and none of it made sense to me," he said. "The platform was shaking and the train was going through a smooth back-and-forth rolling."

Once the shaking stopped, the train proceeded to the next station and the doors opened, Priyadarshy added. "I started asking people, 'Should I stay down here or should I go up?' but I couldn't find anyone who could speak English so I just went up," he said.

Surrounded by skyscrapers and people who had evacuated their buildings and were packing the streets, Priyadarshy noted "no one was really panicked, they were just talking ... It was incredible that no one was screaming." Another tremor hit, and the pavement was "waving like a rubber mat" as the skyscrapers wobbled, he said.

Although the cell phone lines were down, Priyadarshy found his way back to his hotel. The elevators were broken, so he climbed the stairs - only to find scattered dishes throughout the room.

In retrospect, Priyardarshy is in awe of the power of nature. "First you think, should I run? But the power of the earthquake is so magnificent that you're helpless so you can't do anything. It's almost liberating to be helpless for a few minutes," he said.

Priyadarshy did not find the first earthquake as traumatizing as the aftershocks. "All night, as I was sleeping after the earthquake, the hotel just kind of was gently rocking and swaying all night. That's what scares you most, you're just on edge - 'What if it happens again?'"

The next day, Priyadarshy and his father took the only local train running to the airport to catch their flight home. The train ride took five hours instead of the usual 40 minutes.

 

Study abroad programs react\nMany study abroad programs had to cancel their current programs in wake of the disaster.

The University of Notre Dame, for instance, canceled its study abroad program to Tokyo after the earthquake. Students were scheduled to leave for Tokyo in April, when the Japanese spring semester begins.

The decision was based on reports from Notre Dame's contacts in Japan, information from the State Department and information from the American Embassy in Japan, Kathleen Opel, director of the Office of International Studies at Notre Dame, said in an email. "Because of the questions about the fluctuations of food and water supply and the rolling power outages, it just wasn't the right situation for our study abroad students," Opel said. "We feel it just doesn't make sense to take that risk."

The decision will be reevaluated during the summer, Opel said.

Opel said the students currently studying in Japan are in "a location that has been unaffected," in Nagoya, more than two hours from Tokyo by bullet train. "If everything remains the same, they will be coming back in May," Opel said.

A similar situation occurred in Cairo, Egypt, a month ago, Opel said. "The world situation is such that we have to [be] constantly monitoring for disasters, terrorists, protests and bombing," she said. "When we need to bring them out, we do."

At the University, two Darden School students and one College student were scheduled to study in Japan in April as well, said Marina Markot, associate director for study abroad at the International Studies Office. When the earthquake occurred, one of the Darden School students was still in the United States, the other was in Tokyo and the College student was far from the epicenter of the disaster in Okinawa, Japan.

The two students in Japan returned to the U.S., Markot said, adding that University policy holds that students are strongly advised to adhere to the recommendations of the State Department Travel Warning - which meant returning to the U.S.

"U.Va. will not operate its own programs in Japan until the Travel Warning is lifted and until we are comfortable with the health/safety of our students," Markot said.

The University strongly discourages students from participating in programs in Japan while the Travel Warning is on, Markot said. If students still wish to study in Japan, however, "they may petition to do so, acknowledging that they are prepared to take on the risks," Markot said.

 

Efforts at the University\nFourth-year Engineering student Katrina Lobaton and fourth-year College student Alyssa Paredes are the co-vice presidents of the Japan Club, the driving force behind on-Grounds fundraising for the disaster.

Japan Club has tabled throughout the week to raise funds for the Japanese Red Cross. The effort has been "widely successful," Paredes said. Monday and Tuesday, Japan Club raised $1,200.\n"We've been getting checks from alumni, fraternities, faculty and staff. Everyone's really sympathetic," Paredes said.

Students also have contributed to the cause. The Hong Kong Student Association, Korean Student Association, Alpha Kappa Delta Phi and the Global Student Council are just some of the groups that have donated. The Japanese Language Program has volunteered posters and advertising for the Japan Club's money-raising efforts.

Japan Club volunteered door shifts to the Korean Student Association's after-party for its expo, its biggest event of the year. The group gave 15 percent of their profits to the Japan Club's fund for the Japanese Red Cross.

"Help is coming from different corners of the University," Paredes said.

Lobaton stressed the importance of sending the money directly to the Japanese Red Cross. "The alternative would be to give to an American charity that would send it to Japan," she said. "We wanted to make sure that we were directly giving to Japanese relief efforts."

Lobaton and Paredes agreed their goal was to sustain awareness for the disaster. "It's not something that's going to away after a while," Lobaton said. "We want people to continue thinking about Japan in the future."

 

Rebuilding a nation\nDuring the teach-in Thursday, Architecture Prof. Krik Martini said there was very little the Japanese could have done in terms of infrastructure to prevent the tragedy.

"There's not a way to design to be safe with so little notice," he said, referring to the time between the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the tsunami, which was less than an hour.

Both Schoppa and Wilson are optimistic about Japan's challenge to rebuild the devastated areas. "Don't be surprised if a year from now, a large part of these buildings will be rebuilt," Schoppa said.\nSchoppa did not seem concerned about this disaster's effect on the U.S. or world economy because of the location of the hardest-hit areas, which were mostly rural. "If this were to happen in Tokyo, they would be more vulnerable, and there would be effects on supply chains going into the U.S. and China," he said. About 3 percent of the world economy was affected by the earthquake, Schoppa said.

Schoppa speculates this disaster either will make or break the current government, which has had low ratings in the polls and a low reputation for management. "In the short term [the disaster] will give a sense of direction for the government, which has never been in power before," Schoppa said. "If they fail at disaster relief and rebuilding in a very noticeable way, they will never recover."

The disaster in Japan is unlike the one which struck Haiti, which suffered from a shortage of funds and an overwhelmed government, Schoppa said. Because of this, he is "optimistic" that the Japanese government will work together to achieve the common goal of rebuilding and finding solutions to the crisis.

Comments

Latest Podcast

Today, we sit down with both the president and treasurer of the Virginia women's club basketball team to discuss everything from making free throws to recent increased viewership in women's basketball.