Current Issue

Sept. 19, 2012

Vol. 113, No. 1


The way back

In post-tsunami Japan, Princeton students find hope, despair, and many questions

By W. Raymond Ollwerther ’71
Published in the September 19, 2012, issue

The ruined remains of a guesthouse and bayfront walkway in Kamaishi, Japan, 16 months after the March 2011 earthquake and ­tsunami that devastated the country’s northeastern coast.
The ruined remains of a guesthouse and bayfront walkway in Kamaishi, Japan, 16 months after the March 2011 earthquake and ­tsunami that devastated the country’s northeastern coast.

On a hot July afternoon, Princeton students wearing protective rubber boots, gloves, and paper masks make their way carefully through a broad clearing bounded by hills and tall pine trees about 275 miles north of Tokyo. 

Before the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan’s northeastern coast March 11, 2011, there were dozens of homes in this clearing near Otsuchi Bay, one of four bays of the city of Kamaishi. Now all that remain are concrete foundations overgrown by tall weeds and pockets of wildflowers. Across the road, the gutted ruins of a three-story bayfront guesthouse tilt into a pool of water. Much debris has been removed, but the students are taking part in volunteer efforts to look for personal effects that still might be ­recovered.

“This place is a battlefield,” says a white-goateed man wearing an orange jumpsuit who introduces himself as Monjii. “Seventeen people died where we are right now, and two are still missing. Be aware.” A volunteer himself, he oversees groups who come to lend a hand, and he wants them to know that this is sacred ground.

Princeton students search for personal effects among the foundations of homes swept away by the tsunami near Otsuchi Bay in Kamaishi.
Princeton students search for personal effects among the foundations of homes swept away by the tsunami near Otsuchi Bay in Kamaishi.

Jessica McLemore ’15 spots a folding chair jammed between a low stone wall and a tree, and pulls it out — it looks like it belongs in a kitchen. “I was reminded that the area I was standing in used to be someone’s home,” she says. 

Sophie Moskop ’13 spots a water-damaged comic book, and thinks: “Oh God, that was a kid’s.” She is struck by how much was lost in the disaster. “We got a very real sense of what Kamaishi is. A sense of loss — not just houses and material objects, but a sense of place.”

The students are among 14 participants in a Princeton global seminar titled “Hope as the New Normal: Tokyo after the Disaster.” For the first half of the six-week course, the students attend sessions at the University of Tokyo, with daily language instruction preceding discussion of lectures and readings on the issues facing post-tsunami Japan.

But the seminar comes to life during a five-day visit to Tohoku, the region that includes the northeastern coast of Japan that was devastated by the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. It is here that the students come face to face with the hope, resilience, and despair of those who survived the disasters — and those who dream of a onetime opportunity to revitalize a part of Japan that was in decline long before the disasters hit. 

Leading the seminar is David Leheny, a Princeton professor of East Asian studies. Leheny led the global seminar in Hanoi in previous years, but he has a special feeling for Japan: He has spent eight years in the country, written two books and edited a third on Japanese politics, and says he knows Tokyo “better than any large American city.” Leheny was reading a book in a Tokyo coffeehouse when the March 11 earthquake struck, and in the aftermath he worked as a volunteer in Tohoku cleanup efforts. Students praise him as brilliant and funny (a longtime colleague, Professor Mark Beissinger, says Leheny could have had a career in standup comedy), as well as for taking them to a karaoke bar and joining in a duet with McLemore. He is a leading scholar in contemporary Japanese culture and politics, and delights in sprinkling his lectures with pop-culture references — he is teaching a freshman seminar this fall called “Bad A$$ Asians: Crime, Vice, and Morality in East Asia.”

During the course, students hear from national politicians, local officials, relief workers, and scholars on the ­questions confronting Japan today: caring for an aging society; loss of trust in government; questions of what the government can afford to do when faced with a staggering national debt. Inter­twined with these is the ­question of nuclear power’s role in Japan’s future. And perhaps the biggest question of all: Can the country come together once more to meet the challenges of March 11?

Professor David Leheny describes the “Kamaishi ­miracle,” in which students at the school in the ­background were saved.
Professor David Leheny describes the “Kamaishi ­miracle,” in which students at the school in the ­background were saved.

The seminar — funded by an endowment from Mr. and Mrs. Henry Wendt ’55 and a gift from Michael Lerch ’93 — has attracted students from a variety of backgrounds. Ken Jean-Baptiste ’15 is a molecular biology major who first learned Japanese while watching anime — Japanese film and TV animation. Vincent Castaneda ’14 is a computer science major who hopes for a social-gaming job in Japan after graduating. Juliette Levine ’15 became fascinated by Japanese culture when she took a fifth-grade Japanese language class in England. Sophie Moskop, the class’s only rising senior, is a politics major who had thought she would never see a natural disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina — where her aunt’s home was uprooted from its foundation — until she arrived in northern Japan. 

The Great East Japan Earthquake, as the March 11 events are referred to officially, left more than 19,000 dead and missing and more than 6,000 injured. More than 100,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed; some towns simply disappeared. If the numbers seem too big to comprehend, three stops in Tohoku — the cities of Kamaishi and Ishinomaki, and the smaller town of Onagawa — bring the tragedy home to the students. 

They get a sense of the special role that the region plays in present-day Japan — Leheny explains that Tohoku is often understood as the heart of “old Japan”. Agriculture and fishing are economic mainstays. But the students also see evidence of the region’s sharp decline before the tsunami. In Kamaishi, local officials describe how the city’s population plummeted from 90,000 to less than 40,000 in five decades as the steel plant, long the major employer, shed all but a few hundred of the 8,000 jobs once provided there. Mirroring many other towns in Tohoku, Kamaishi has been losing its young people to the cities, while the population that remains gets older.

The region’s economic woes provide a grim backdrop to the raw reality that the students experience. Onagawa was a town of about 10,000 people, stretching inland about three miles along a narrow valley bounded by steep hills. It was known for its fish-processing plants and a small nuclear plant that, while closer to the epicenter of the offshore earthquake than the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, was largely undamaged by it. Now Onagawa is known for what is missing: Much of the town was wiped off the map by the tsunami. The earthquake and tsunami took 595 lives here; another 340 people are missing. More than 3,200 homes and other structures were damaged or destroyed. What was once the thriving town center near the inlet is a vast field of gray gravel and small pieces of ­concrete. 

The bus carrying the Princeton students stops to take in an eerie sight: a small three-story building that was pushed off its foundation and onto its side, its steelwork mangled by the force of the tsunami. Though countless ruined structures have been cleared away, this one remains as a kind of stark memorial. The students gaze quietly at the building, then walk over to a small grouping of flowers in memory of 12 bank workers who died at the site.

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