On March 11, junior Naomi Akagi was out to lunch with her aunt in Osaka when a stranger came up to them and told them there was an earthquake. Knowing Japan, she thought it was a small quake, but when she turned on the TV, she realized just how severe the 9.0 earthquake and the tsunami it triggered really was.
“At first, it seemed really unreal, seeing the footage, it almost looked like some movie. All these cars were being swept away and in some places, even houses,” Akagi said. “It was just a lot of shock, thinking, ‘This is happening. I’m in this country, this is happening in a prefecture just further north.’”
Freshman and Japanese Club member Sarah Longfellow visited Japan last year with her classmates in high school. When the earthquake and tsunami happened, she had a friend on a biology trip to study the coastline in Japan.
“That was really scary for me—I thought he was dead,” Longfellow said.
Longfellow said, although he would have been where the tsunami was during that trip, he was actually in Tokyo and felt the earthquake.
Akagi kept track of what was happening on the Internet and was worried about her friends in different prefectures.
“It was really confusing for a while and really stressful trying to figure out who was where and if they were okay,” she said.
While participating in a study abroad program at Waseda University in Tokyo, Akagi had finished a month-long internship program in Shizuoka and stayed in Osaka before the disasters struck. Since the epicenter was near Tohoku—far away from Osaka—Akagi said she did not feel the earthquake but that she knew other people who did.
“I had other friends who were there who told me, ‘Yeah, it was a really long, rocking sensation. Not very strong but definitely a little disorientating,’” she said.
After the earthquake and the tsunami, senior and President of Asian Student Association (ASA) Willie Ow remarked how the Japanese people responded.
“I was actually also surprised how everyone stays together in Japan. There’s no looting. There’s no robbing. There’s no chaos. Everything’s very orderly and people are very trusting of the government, too,” Ow said.
Nuclear power crisis
Akagi said she kept hearing reports from American sources that the Japanese government handled the disasters well, especially in regard to a crisis involving possible meltdowns of nuclear reactors affected by the earthquake.
Professor of Economics Steve Cohn, whose first research focus was on nuclear power, said, “One of the practical, concrete implications of this accident is that the United States should repeal the Price-Anderson Act, which limits liability for nuclear damages.”
Cohn said he has a complicated position regarding nuclear power.
“I think that it is a last resort option. That the risks are very serious, not just of reactor accidents like in Japan or Chernobyl, but the diversion of materials for weapons use and the vulnerability of the facilities to terror attacks,” he said.
He said that in the event that other options for energy, such as solar and wind, fail, “I’m for nuclear power research, developing alternative reactor designs. I’m against commercial nuclear power and certainly against running reactors without full liability.”
The decision to evacuate
Junior Joyce Lee, who studied abroad during fall term, said the university where she studied is now missing half of its international student population. Many of the friends she made there were mandated to evacuate due to the dangers of radiation.
Lee commented on her stance on nuclear power plants, saying, “It’s okay that we have them, it’s just the protocol needs to be tighter. Just the way it happened was too inevitable.”
Akagi intended to leave for Tokyo the day after the earthquake hit, but being aware of the potential dangers, she stayed in Osaka. Akagi did not know if she would continue to study in Waseda University as it is pushing back the school year, which would conflict with research opportunities she had planned during the summer. Akagi was familiar with the situation of universities sending students home.
“For me, it became a question of do I stay here—do I think it’s safe enough to stay here? Or do I come home?” she said.
She said she was frustrated in making her decision because her plans to do a year-long study abroad program in Japan did not turn out as she expected. However, she did receive support from Knox in whatever her decision was.
Akagi said, “Knox told me, ‘If you want to stay, we support you. If you want to come back, that’s fine, too.’ Knox was really understanding of it all.”
Ultimately, she decided to come home.
Unity at Knox for Japan
During the first few days back at Knox, Asian Student Alliance (ASA) tabled in Seymour Gallery for donations to Japan. ASA gave Asian-style desserts, including takoyaki (traditional Japanese pancake filled with sweet bean paste), black sesame cupcakes and cake balls for whoever donated.
Ow said, “I was pretty impressed by how much students were donating, too. I thought we’d only make a few hundred, altogether. And we made so much and many students gave more than a few dollars.”
ASA collected $771 in two days and will give the money to the Red Cross.
Japanese Club also tabled with their display of colorful origami paper and a Japanese flag encouraging passersby to make paper cranes. The organization Students Rebuild has pledged to donate up to $2 for each crane they receive. Some students could not believe that an organization would be willing to pay so much for paper. Japanese Club had the goal of collecting 1,000 paper cranes as it is part of a Japanese belief that whoever makes 1,000 cranes gets a wish.
Freshman Haley Schutt, who was folding her second crane, said, “It’s just an easy fundraiser people don’t really have to work hard at. It’s something people are going to be willing to do because it’s kinda fun and you get to learn something on the way.”
Japanese Club collected 1,350 cranes for Students Rebuild, which meant $2,700 would go towards rebuilding schools, and $125 for the Red Cross.
Akagi spoke about how the news stations in Japan soon shifted from images of the disaster to galvanizing the public with calls for donations.
Akagi said, “After everything kind of sunk in and you were kind of over the horror … [with] all the efforts going into rebuilding and trying to save the people and trying to get items over there that they needed, there was a real sense of unity.”