A professor and three students studying abroad in Kyoto, Japan, are safe after an 8.9 magnitude earthquake Friday triggered a tsunami that hit Japan's northeastern coast.
While the students studying abroad were more than 450 miles from the epicenter, 18 current undergraduates list Japan as their home residence, according to a March 11 University press release. Most of their relatives live near Tokyo, which was moderately affected by the earthquake, but several undergrads also have non-immediate family members who live in the devastated Tohoku region, said Rie Yamamoto '11, co-president of the Japanese Cultural Association.
Yamamoto said the cultural association contacted its members this weekend, and most students have been able to reach family members who said they were safe and unaffected by the earthquake.
"Tokyo is for the most part up and running already, so our family members are fine, but what other Japanese citizens are going through right now is beyond our imagination," Yamamoto wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.
Accounts from abroad
Nine students are planning to study abroad in Japan this semester, though only three students are there now due to the start time of their term, according to the press release.
Alec Brownridge '12, an East Asian studies concentrator studying through the Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies at Doshisha University, said the natural disasters did not affect students at the university because Kyoto is an inland region, though media coverage of the disaster has been extensive. Helen Diagama '12 and Tyler Kasindorf-Mantaring '12 are also studying through the consortium.
Kasindorf-Mantaring wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that he first heard about the earthquake when his parents called him Friday. Though Brownridge said his area was not affected, he said his homestay family was concerned about their friend in Tokyo who had to evacuate her seventh floor apartment as aftershocks reached the city.
James McClain, a professor of history who is on leave this academic year to teach at the Kyoto Consortium, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that CNN coverage of the earthquake and tsunami appears "needlessly alarming" thus far. But Japanese media coverage of the tsunami appears "dispassionately objective," he wrote.
Jack Boeglin '12, who plans to leave March 21 to study abroad at Keio University in Tokyo, said the program has not contacted him to suggest any changes to the plan. While Tokyo was not the most severely affected, Boeglin said he knows a host family who felt the shocks from the quake.
Brownridge said he hopes to get involved in relief efforts in the upcoming weeks, but noted that right now, relief is much more focused on immediate rescue missions and evacuations.
The Japanese Cultural Association will organize a charity event set tentatively for March 21, Yamamoto said. They will also collect money in J. Walter Wilson and attract other cultural groups to perform.
Kerry Smith, chair of the East Asian Studies Department and associate professor of history, said he believes a comparison will be drawn between national relief efforts today and the response to the 1995 Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, Japan. "The response appears to be much better organized," Smith said, adding that aid appears to be moving at a "relatively quick pace."
Plans may also be in place to accept external aid if necessary, though in 1995, outside aid was largely turned away, according to Smith.
It is difficult to know how extensive the devastation will be when all is said and done, McClain wrote, since the country is still in the midst of early relief efforts in the hardest-hit regions where communication has been essentially severed.
But he added that the damage may be severe. "The Japanese prime minister, a person not given to exaggeration, said that this is the worst disaster to strike Japan since World War II," he wrote. "Indeed, to me, some of the scenes of the damaged cities bear an eerie resemblance to the Japanese cities destroyed by American fire-bombing in WWII."
Historical perspective and preparation
The earthquake occurred in a region known over the last 150 years for volatile seismic activity, said Smith, who lived in Tokyo for four years and has also lived in the northeastern Miyagi Prefecture near the earthquake's epicenter. Smith is currently working on a book about the Kanto Earthquake of 1923 that hit Tokyo.
This active earthquake pattern has contributed to the strict building codes in Japan that McClain credited with dimishing the damage inflicted by the earthquake. "Japanese building codes, in regards to anti-earthquake construction, are among the toughest in the world, if not the toughest," he wrote.
Kasindorf-Mantaring wrote that the 1995 Hanshin earthquake spurred efforts to increase the integrity of Japanese homes. "I believe Japan averted more deaths, especially in the metropolitan Tokyo area, with its airtight infrastructure and strict building codes," he wrote.
"There's no place that's earthquake-proof," Smith said, though he added that Japan has a "good sense of what to expect under predictable conditions."
"We're used to experiencing little earthquakes here or there," said Yamamoto, who is from an area near Tokyo.
Because of the damage inflicted by the earthquake and tsunami, several nuclear reactors located near Tokyo are in danger of leaking radiation. McClain wrote that the Japanese rely on these power sources for one-third of their electrical energy, and these reactors are mostly concentrated in areas at risk for earthquakes.
"The Japanese themselves have long debated the wisdom of following such an energy policy," he wrote, adding that "many — remembering that the Japanese are the only persons who have experienced an atomic bombing — have been deeply apprehensive about the accidental release of radioactivity."