After The Quake

After The Quake: Communities and Educators Respond to 3.11

In early October I had the opportunity to attend a workshop on the Japanese response to the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown now infamously known as “3.11” as part of the North American Association for Environmental Education’s Annual Research Symposium in Oakland, California.

Professor Hiromi Kobori of Tokyo City University and Professor Marianne Krasny from Cornell University facilitated the workshop with presentations by Professor Toshiya Kodama (Azabu University), Professor Shinichi Furihata (Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology) and Professor Sachi Ninomiya-Lim (Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology).

Professor Kodama began by discussing some of the ongoing social effects of the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and the resulting contamination caused by the meltdown of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear reactor. He noted that one confounding complexity for the communities closest to the reactor is that many of the plant’s workers, their families, and friends are those most directly affected. This situation has created tension and frustration within families and communities who simultaneously feel somewhat responsible, but are also directly affected themselves. Children have also reported many instances of bullying in the temporary shelters and schools established soon after the disaster. This leads local people to fear future discrimination in marriage and employment.

In order to respond to these and other related concerns, Professor Kodama reported that an educational working group was established to raise awareness and dispel myths surrounding nuclear contamination. The working group has developed educational materials to address not only the scientific aspects of nuclear radiation, but also related social issues such as bullying and discrimination.

Professor Furihata also emphasized the incredible resilience demonstrated by communities in the Tohoku region. He related that volunteer-led disaster response and community planning groups have formed in many municipalities, working together with outside experts to assess and respond to urgent and basic needs as well as to plan for the future. Their activities involve everything from reassessing communities’ tsunami preparedness to building new playgrounds for children.

Both Professor Furihata and Professor Sachi Ninomiya-Lim noted that community representatives and researchers from the Tohoku region are also visiting other areas of Japan to learn about and consider alternative energy and community planning models. For example, Iida and Ina Cities in Nagano prefecture have become models for sustainable energy generation. Minamata City, infamously known for Minamata Disease (mercury poisoning) is another community that has demonstrated incredible resilience to become a showcase of community engagement (see my past article on “Jimotogaku”) and sustainable design.

In our final debrief discussion, we talked about the educational opportunities and global connections that often arise in such situations and agreed that they present an opportunity to reassess the fundamental assumptions of how we live and structure our communities, regions, and nations.

Participating in this workshop was a moving experience for me. Like many others with roots or connections in Japan who witnessed the devastation of 3.11 from afar, I had felt shock and relative helplessness at the time and ongoing concern ever since. It was inspiring and reassuring to learn about the incredible resiliency of educators, researchers, and, most importantly, community members in the Tohoku region and across Japan.

by Greg Lowan-Trudeau
Muroto Misaki, Kochi-ken [2002-2003]

(Published March 03, 2013)