UK faculty, alumni experience disaster in Japan

By Jarrod Thacker

The earthquake that struck Japan hit closer to home for some people than it did for others.

Several members of UK faculty and alumni were present during Japan’s catastrophic 9.0 magnitude earthquake on March 11 and the severe repercussions that followed the event.

Doug Slaymaker, a Japanese studies professor, arrived in Tokyo, Japan two days prior to the earthquake to conduct book research.

Slaymaker was two floors underground in a library at Waseda University when the earthquake rocked the ground.

“I could feel the room moving. It felt like the deck of a ship,” Slaymaker said.

He did not observe any structural damage other than a building where a small amount of tile had fallen.

“Japan knows how to build for earthquakes. I felt safe as far as that goes. I was freaked out because you don’t know what’s going to happen next,” he said. “You know that there are going to be aftershocks. It makes you question if this was the biggest one, or is the biggest one coming?”

Slaymaker walked two hours to return to his apartment, like many others who were forced to do. He said the streets were packed with people moving in orderly train-like lines.

He emphasized that the situation was “worrisome, unnerving, strange—but not chaotic.”

Chuck Clenney, a UK alumnus who graduated last May, was located in the small town of Shimonita, Japan at the time of the quake. He was participating in the Japan Exchange & Teaching Program.

“I was in the staff room of one of my junior high schools … then suddenly the electricity cut out and everyone’s cell phones started to make the Earthquake alert sounds,” Clenney said. He said he has become quite accustomed to hearing the alert.

Clenney explained that he had been told that town, nestled in the mountains, had a solid foundation, “so I knew when the ground started shaking that this had to be something very significant.”

There was no major damage other than the collapse of a few old structures, he said.

Clenney is currently traveling to Maebashi City, where on March 15 radiation levels had been recorded 10 times higher than normal, but have fallen since.

“The concern of radiation has been on everyone’s mind but the IAEA and the Japanese Government has continually reassured us that these levels are not at levels dangerous to humans,” he said. “However, I have spoken to many people, both Japanese and experts, who are highly skeptical of the Japanese government’s attempts to downplay the intensity of this disaster.”

Akiko Takenaka, a history professor, also felt the discrepancy between Western and Japanese media reports when doing research in Japan.

Takenaka arrived in Tokyo 26 hours after the earthquake, but before the nuclear situation began to arise.

She said how everything seemed normal until news coverage of the radioactivity problem began Monday morning.

“It felt at that time that either the U.S. and European media either sensationalized the nuclear aspects or the Japanese media downplayed it. It seems that now that the Japan media downplayed it to reduce panic,” Takenaka said.

She said she heard rumors of people hoarding things, such as rice, bread and water, but she did not see it.

“The understanding of the situation varied depending on where you were,” she said.

Keiko Tanaka, an associate professor of sociology and the director of the Asia Center, agreed with this sentiment.

Tanaka and Patrick Mooney, the sociology department chair, also arrived after the earthquake but spent the majority of their time in Kyoto, even farther from the devastation than Tokyo.

“Once you are outside the disaster zone, you see little or no effect of the earthquake, tsunami or nuclear power plant disasters,” Tanaka said. “However, the psyches of all Japanese people were deeply affected by the current situation.”

Slaymaker, Takenaka and Tanaka will be participating in the “Forum on the Great East Japan Earthquake,” next Monday at 4:10 p.m. to 6:10 p.m. at W.T. Young Library Auditorium.

It is hosted by the Japan Studies Program and the UK Asia Center, and donations to the Red Cross will be accepted.