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Five years later, remembering Tohoku


A distraught woman carries an elderly woman on her back, away from the piles of debris that are the flattened remnants of what was once a city in the Tohoku region of Japan. This scene comes from a photo taken the day after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck Japan on March 11, 2011, triggering a destructive tsunami.
Photo credit: 
Kahoku Shimpo

My daughter, Emily, was teaching English at a middle school in Asahi City, Chiba Prefecture, on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program when the 2011 Tohoku earthquake struck on March 11, 2011. Tohoku is a region in the northeast portion of the island of Honshu, the largest island in Japan. Though Asahi City, a coastal city, is not in the Tohoku region, it was still heavily damaged by the resulting tsunami. Several of Emily’s students lost their homes. She was emotionally shaken, of course, but was fortunate not to sustain any injuries.

With the fifth anniversary of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami approaching, I have been reflecting upon the tremendous anxiety that I felt that day about Emily’s safety, my wife’s family in Tohoku, and the people of Japan in general. My reflections deepened last week while observing the interaction of SPICE’s Reischauer Scholars Program (RSP) students (American high school students studying about Japan) with SPICE’s Stanford e-Japan students (Japanese high school students studying about the United States) in an informal online “social hour.” The RSP and Stanford e-Japan are distance-learning courses that are offered by SPICE.

Stanford e-Japan instructor Waka Brown and RSP instructor Naomi Funahashi organized the social hour to help to build bridges between youth in Japan and the United States. During the latter part of the social hour, RSP student, David Jaffe (Mesa, Arizona), posed the question, “How is 3.11 remembered today?” Among the many Stanford e-Japan students who spoke was Minoru Takeuchi (Sakura City, Chiba Prefecture), who stated, “When the earthquake happened, I was an elementary school student (12 years old). I still remember very well… at that time, I was in school. Some students were very afraid and crying… Maybe after the earthquake, many Japanese noticed the importance of working together, the preciousness that they could meet their friends…” The Japanese students’ sharing of their experiences related to 3.11 extended the social hour far beyond the hour, and the gratitude expressed by the American students to their counterparts in Japan flowed for many minutes in a text-chat box.

Observing the students was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career at SPICE. The Japanese students’ remembrances of 3.11 brought back poignant and difficult memories for me but also provided me with hopeful thoughts on the future of the U.S.–Japan relationship as I witnessed students from across the Pacific forming budding friendships and discussing topics of mutual relevance.

Resources for the classroom

My hope is that teachers will carve out some time in their curriculum to engage their students in a study of 3.11 as well as its legacies. The study of natural hazards ought to be a core part of school curriculum. SPICE has undertaken many curricular projects related to 3.11. I would recommend that teachers show the film, After the Darkness, which was produced by Risa Morimoto and Funahashi. After the Darkness is a documentary film that touches upon the events of the disaster itself but also focuses on the experiences of two survivors in particular. It is accompanied with free curricular lessons that are accessible to students of various ages. I also recommend a lecture by Professor Emeritus Daniel Okimoto, Stanford University, on “Japan’s Geological Factors,” which is accompanied by a free lesson plan. Another recommended curricular unit is SPICE’s Examining Long-term Radiation Effects, which was produced prior to 3.11 but can help students understand the radiation-related concerns following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. In addition, the film, Live Your Dream: The Taylor Anderson Story, is about one of two American JET Program teachers who lost their lives during 3.11. SPICE developed a teacher’s guide for the film that can be freely downloaded from the Live Your Dream: The Taylor Anderson Story website. Lastly, I recommend the use of the films from the 113 Project in classrooms. Earlier this week, I moderated a panel discussion that included Wesley Julian (director of the 113 Project), Andy Anderson (father of Taylor Anderson and board member of the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund) as well as other Americans and Japanese who continue to contribute to relief efforts in the Tohoku region.