Some Japanese are pessimistic about the country’s future and its declining presence in the world, but political science students from Harvard University who recently visited the Tohoku region saw strong signs of society regrouping after last March’s calamities.
The group from Harvard Kennedy School comprised 29 graduate students from 12 countries with different professional backgrounds, including government bureaucrats, diplomats, journalists and leaders of nongovermental organizations.
Organized by Japanese students attending the school, the group arrived in Tokyo on March 11 for a weeklong study trip in the capital and Tohoku that also entailed meetings with politicians, including Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.
“It’s been a great experience. The most profound experience for me was when we went to the tsunami-hit areas,” said Andronik Chakhoyan, who is originally from Ukraine. “We’ve seen the news coverage, TV coverage and YouTube videos, but that’s not the same as actually coming here and seeing the devastation with our own eyes.
“The attitude of the folks I met was remarkable. Such a huge disaster happened and they still have a sense of hope and are looking forward to rebuilding and making it a safe place again.”
Harvard Kennedy School study trips to Japan had been organized by Japanese students every year since 2005 through 2008, but due to their shrinking numbers at the prestigious school and other factors, including the yen’s appreciation, no trip to Japan had been organized since 2009.
But this year, Japanese students managed to organize a group despite competing trips arranged by other Harvard Kennedy School students to destinations that included Israel, South Korea and the Palestinian territories, said Reo Watanabe, one of the organizers of the Japan trip. “Some people were concerned about radiation issues, and we explained about levels of radiation,” he said.
As most students were first-time visitors to Japan, the trip aimed to help them deepen their understanding of the country. In addition to meeting with Noda, the group met other key figures, including Noda’s special advisor, Akihisa Nagashima, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki and Bank of Japan Deputy Gov. Kiyohiko Nishimura.
In the meetings, the students fired off a barrage of questions, seeking assessments of disaster recovery efforts, Japanese-U.S. relations, Japan’s presence in the world and a host of other issues.
The trip also took them to the tsunami-hit city of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, where they met with the deputy mayor and visited a temporary debris storage site, an oyster farm and a sake brewery to observe the reconstruction process.
Bryana Tucci, an American student, said she was impressed with an initiative by a sake factory owner to create jobs for local women. The owner also took broken bicycles and fixed them so people could use them to get around, since so many people lost their cars and other means of transportation last March, she said.
“I was really impressed by the local community’s response to March 11. Specifically, how individuals, businesses and family members of the community were able to use their personal resources, personal knowledge to try to respond to the tragedy, to overcome challenges and to meet specific needs of their community,” Tucci said.
Patrick Magnotta, a Washington-based civil servant currently working on a joint research project to come up with innovative ideas to rebuild disaster-hit areas, said he was shocked by the scale of damage.
“There is a big difference between seeing something in a book and actually being there. (The damage) was on a scale I had not imagined until I was actually there,” he said.
In crafting a rebuilding plan through the research project, organized by Harvard University and Miyagi Prefecture, he said he is convinced input from local communities is vital. “What do the people in temporary housing think about (the) future of their community? What do they want it to look like? We didn’t have a chance to speak with people on the road. That’s something that I’ll have to go back and do more research on,” said Magnotta.
Chakhoyan, who lived in Chernobyl until 1998, said compared with the then Soviet government, Japan deserves a lot of respect and recognition, considering how much has already been accomplished.
“In my view, this government has done as good job as it could possibly have done. The (reactors have) been stabilized and there has not been a major explosion. There has not been a major leak, though the level of disaster was just beyond anything,” he said. “(The then Soviet) government was not communicating at all at the time of the Chernobyl disaster. People blindly endangered their lives.”
But the decision-making of the central government still could have been faster, he added.
“Instead of leaving everything to the Diet to debate, there has to be an emergency authority or some process that’s faster and more flexible,” he said, citing the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency as a good model.
The seven-day trip also seems to have given the Japanese students who organized it a chance to reflect on their country through heated discussions with their friends.
“Through talking to them, I came to think that Japanese people are too pessimistic about themselves. We should be more proud,” Watanabe said.
“By introducing this country to someone from abroad, I became able to see Japan objectively.”