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Learning from lessons: An Academic Look at Japan's Recovery



KYOTO — On March 11, 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake (the largest recorded earthquake in Japan's history) struck the sea bed off the east coast of Miyagi. The earthquake soon triggered a monsterous tsunami which engulfed eastern Japan, and initiated the nuclear power plant crisis in Fukushima. 

With more than a year since '3/11', it has become increasingly difficult to fully grasp the impact of the Great East Japan Earthquake and the aftermath that ensued. Mainly since news of '3/11' has quietened down for many across the world. Nonetheless, it's worth mentioning that the crisis isn't fully over for many Japanese/foreign residents who are living in the affected areas of Northern Japan. 

To explore such concerns from an academic perspective, I had attended the 19th international symposia which was organised by Kyoto University (in collaboration with Harvard University) few weeks ago. Where several officials and key researchers from Kyoto, Harvard, and other supporting institutions such as Touhoku University took to the stage to outline their research. From engineering to medicine, a wide spectrum of fields and perspectives were explored in an effort to form a cohesive body of knowledge. According to Kyoto University, the aims of the symposium were to "examine the process in which the Japanese have endevoured to restore their lives in the wake of the devastating triple-disaster".

Please bear in mind, that I will not go through the entire 6 hour symposium in this article. Instead, I will expand upon 4 notable keynote presentations from Kyoto, Harvard, and the US Embassy in Tokyo. I will mostly comment on their findings via their presentation, programme entry, and their speech. If you'd like to see the full programme for the symposium, please head over to Kyoto University's website where you can find more information on the event. 

The symposium shortly opened with a speech from President (of Kyoto University) Hiroshi Masumoto, whereby Masumoto highlighted that "it is not only Japan that faces grave tribulations". Other disaster-prone countries (that lack the necessary infrastructure for prevention) such as Haiti, Nepal, Indonesia, and the Philippines are either about to face danger, or are already suffering from a previous calamity. This is why Japan's crisis has been heavily researched on, according to President Masumoto, "The eyes of the world is now focusing on Japan, in the hope of finding a hint to how these issues can be addressed". 

Soon after, Sakai Shinichi of Kyoto University Environment Preservation Research Centre delivered his presentation on disaster waste management for session 1. Dr. Shinichi's involvement is one of many examples of aid efforts by Kyoto University in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Where, the Graduate School of Engineering travelled to the diaster stricken area to tackle the disaster directly. This mainly involved the removal of debris and waste.

Next up was Dr. Richard D. Otto's (Chief Medical Officer of the US Embassy in Tokyo) keynote speech on the United States' response to the 'Touhoku Triple Disaster'. Dr. Otto's presentation centered around how the United States Embassy, with the consent of the Japanese Government, "quickly organised and coordinated the deployment of numerous US agencies and forward deployed military assets to assist in humanitarian efforts". The main focus of Dr. Otto's presentation was the public-private parternship operation, affectionately dubbed 'Tomodachi' ("friend" in Japanese). During his talk, Dr. Otto quickly commended the Japanese calmness and efficiency by adding that "[the recovery operations in Touhoku] simply would not have been possible over in the states"

To truly appreciate the efficiency of the US-Japanese cleanup, one must look at the restoration of Sendai Airport. With the help of US marines and officials, Sendai airport had been fully rebuilt in under 200 days, on September 25th 2011. Last year, Sendai Airport Building President, Katsuhiko Ito said, "The speed with which Sendai Airport has been restored is the result of the government's and the people's tireless efforts and positive attitude". Dr. Otto finally added that Operation Tomodachi involved 24,000 U.S servicemembers, 189 aircraft, 24 naval ships, and cost $90 million. 

Session 2 concentrated on sanitation and environmental policy. Nancy Long Sieber of of the School of Public Health, Harvard University took to the stage to deliver a short talk on the 'Public health perspective on disaster preparedness and recovery'. "Public health concerns tend to persist", claims Prof. Sieber, "After the intial impact of the disaster, and continue for years as communities struggle to recover". The psychological impact of surviving a disaster, and the distruption of ordinary life can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), increased diseased outcomes, as well as the suicide risk. These are the common consequences and "deserve ongoing attention in the years to come" concludes Prof. Sieber. 

However, I was particularly interested in session 3. Specifically with Harvard professor of Physics, Dr. Richard Wilson. His talk was titled, 'Learning from History: Evaluation Criteria' and of course, it was also mentioned by Dr. Wilson that "anyone who fails to learn from history is condemed to repeat it". His talk then focused on risk analysis and lessons from various nuclear accidents and tragedies (including Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Windscale accident, TMI, Chernobyl, and the Tokai criticality accident). Dr. Wilson then went on to explain how it is convienient to distinguish acute effects on health, which occur soon after the exposure (and chronic effects which depend upon exposure accumulated over years). As, Acute Radiation Syndrome kills within a week of exposure. But a person who escapes an acute radiation dose will only get a 'small increase' in chronic effects, unless exposure is continued.

"But if the concern is with Chronic Radiation Sickness (cancer, genetic effects, and etc) an evacuation can be delayed enough to allow a wise decision without much problem", explains Dr. Wilson, "in such a decision, the effects on health of an unwise evacuation should be considered". 

But despite this being expressed by many scientists after TMI, there is no indication that this was done after Fukushima. Dr. Wilson gently adds, "I apologize to the Japanese people for my failure to get my arguements recognized before considerable havoc was created in Japanese society". The Harvard professor goes on to mentions that, "we cannot now change the unwise decisions immediately after Fukushima, but we owe it to the Japanese peple to learn from their suffering". But of course there is a third risk benefit calculation. That is the extent to which clean up of the environment should take place. For the effects of radiation, Dr. Wilson reminds, "the effect of human health exceeds other environmental problems". For example, around Chernobyl wildlife flourishes now that the main predator (man) has left.

Dr. Wilson has used radioactive materials and even has been exposed to radiation since 1945. He has been an advocate in wise and careful use of radiation and chemical insults for 40 years, whilst studying and commenting upon all major reactor accidents.

The symposium was finally closed with a short address by Prof. Emer. Yuzo Ohnishi, Kyoto University's executive vice-president for external affairs and alumni relations. In correspondence with Kyoto University, the video of the symposium and the presentation slides will be available in early september via their course ware site.


Ash Chetri
Ash is a Cognitive Neuroscience student as well as a trainee tutor in Psychology. His main interests are consumer electronics, science, culture, and language. Read more ยป