March 13, 2012

One Year Later, Students, Professors Discuss Effects of Natural Disasters in Japan

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One year after an earthquake and tsunami devastated much of Japan, graduate students and professors from both Cornell and the University of Tokyo gathered to discuss the aftermath of the disaster in a conference on Sunday and Monday.

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 hit Japan, triggering a tsunami that in turn damaged several nuclear reactors in the country. The disaster killed as many as 20,000 people, The New York Times reported.

One year later, it also has left Japan with questions about the safety of using nuclear energy, residual health hazards and reconstruction.

“The question we posed is, ‘How can we bring closure to [a] crisis like Japan’s nuclear and natural disaster?”’ said Prof. Hirokazu Miyazaki, director of the East Asia Program. “It is a tricky question in the sense that the crisis in question is continuing, if not deepening.”

Miyazaki said the conference, which commemorated the first anniversary of the earthquake, was meant to address the sentiment that “we need closure in order to move on.”

“It is an important moment, the first anniversary of the crisis. It is not really ending,” Miyazaki said.

The nuclear crisis, for instance, has continued to affect the Japanese fishing industry. Satsuki Takahasi, a postdoctoral associate at Princeton University, said that nuclear meltdowns have left potentially toxic levels of radiation in fish that are consumed by the Japanese people.

Additionally, the nuclear disaster caused food to be contaminated from radiation, said one Cornell alumna, who spoke to participants through Skype from Japan.

Despite the difficulties Japan continues to face as it recovers from the disaster, Miyazaki said that “U.S. newspapers are not really paying attention.”

He noted, however,  that many of these issues are still relevant.

“There were topics that we felt were particularly important; for example, Japan passed a law about how victims of nuclear disaster should be compensated,” said Prof. Annelise Riles, law, who organized the event.

The disaster has also given Japan an opportunity to consider alternatives for its infrastructure, Riles said. For instance, he said the distaster provided Japan the chance to “reconstruct the entire region as a sustainable place.”

“It was very moving to think about how to provide hope to so many people who still feel so downtrodden and hopeless, even a year later,” Riles said.

Miyazaki also noted that the conference included appearances by a number of notable Japanese scholars.

“I have had long-term relationship[s] with a group of fellows; they agreed to spend this weekend with us,” Miyazaki said. “They are influential political figures.”

Riles said that, in the wake of the disaster, she talked with many of those who were affected.

“I was in Japan at the time of the earthquake,” Riles said. “We left but we were in touch with lots of people. People were emailing us with interesting reports from the ground.”

In response, Riles said she worked to launch an online mode of communication, called Project Meridian 180, which allowed users to “have a discussion in three languages.”

“We launched the forum months ago through that site [Meridian 180],” Riles said. “This conversation unfolded before the conference.”

Drawing about 60 people, the conference was a success, Riles said.

“It was one of the most meaningful and successful programs I have been involved in,” Riles said.

Kayoko Hirata ’12, who also attended the conference, said she enjoyed hearing professors speak about the disaster.

“I came because I went to northern Japan last semester to do volunteer work,” she said. “The lineup is all professors, so I wanted an academic perspective [on the earthquake].”

Original Author: Erica Augenstein