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Japanese Colleagues Share Quake Experiences

1 June 2011 1,494 views No Comment
Nitis Mukhopadhyay, University of Connecticut-Storrs

    Books lie in piles at the Institute of Mathematics library, University of Tsukuba, after the earthquake in Japan on March 11.Photo courtesy of Makoto Aoshima

    On March 11, Japan experienced one of the world’s strongest earthquakes, which was followed by a Pacific Ocean tsunami of historic proportions. I have many colleagues, collaborators, and friends in Japan, so I was distraught upon hearing of the disaster and immediately began visiting the websites of a number of Japanese universities. Many sites were down, but I eventually connected with the University of Tsukuba’s site. The university was shut down and badly damaged. By the morning of March 13, I had not heard anything about the well-being of my friends and colleagues from the university, so I decided to send out the following email:

    My Dearest Colleagues,
    I realize that you live in different places in Japan, but you also may have families, other loved ones, colleagues, students, and friends in some of those devastated areas. In this time of utter misery and total despair, my earnest hope and prayer is that you and yours are all safe and everyone is doing as well as can be expected. … In 2004, I was in Sri Lanka with my wife and two sons, landed there for the International Sri Lankan Conference just two days before that Tsunami hit. Those unimaginable and horrific images are coming back. … When you get a chance, just let me please know that you are all doing alright. A reply from you will help ease some of the distress and pain that I feel for my super friends and colleagues in Japan. … All the best and God bless.

    Eiichi Isogai, a professor at Niigata University, wrote back “… I would like to appreciate your kindness. My family and I are safe and my house was not damaged. Thank you again. …”

    On March 12, Akimichi Takemura, a professor at the University of Tokyo, wrote “…Thank you very much for your mail. Tokyo area is OK. However, the northeast coastal area of the main island of Japan is devastated. …”

    Also on March 12, Yoshikazu Takada, a professor at the University of Kumamoto, wrote “… Thank you very much for your concern of the earthquake occurred in Japan last week. The place is very far away from my town. So I am all right [sic]. …”

    It was a relief knowing these colleagues and their families were safe, but I had not heard from anyone at the University of Tsukuba. My worries steadily increased as I expected the worst while hoping for the best. Eventually, I received a note from Professor Yata, who wrote “… Since the email has returned, I am now able to read emails from you. Thank you for your great concerns. My living city has broken a little by the earthquakes. However, I am OK and Prof. Aoshima is also OK. Thank you very much for worrying. We are fine. …” So, on March 15 at 11:49:25 p.m., I began to relax.

    On March 17 at 12:25:37 p.m., I heard from Professor Aoshima. He wrote, “… I saw your email just today because the university’s mail server had been down after the earthquake (magnitude 9.0) hit my place. I could escape from the disaster. My office is on the 8th floor; that is the top of the building. The tall-large bookshelf behind my desk fell down and pieces of broken glass scattered here and there, even on my chair. The desk and chair and computers and printers and phone and copy machine and the others were covered and crushed by the fallen bookshelf. At that time, I was in the seminar room. I ordered my graduate students to keep themselves under the desks. I tried to open the door; however, I was very difficult to even stand myself in such heavy shakes. The terrible shakes had continued and grown for a few minutes. The seminar room’s heavy bookshelves moved one meter right and left in front of my eyes like a monster spitting out lots of books here and there. During a short rest, I ordered students and colleagues to get out of the building from fire stairs. I was the last person to escape from the building. My past students, Yata and Yuko, are safe and no damage since they are on the 5th floor, even in the same building. My family and my house are safe, since my house is on the first floor. It takes a while to revive. However, I learn from this very special experience. I get my life luckily. We are all safe. Thank you very much for your great consideration. … All the best. …”

    Since Professor Aoshima was so expressive, I decided to ask him a few specific questions and requested he jot down his thoughts. Professor Aoshima briefly answered a number of my questions on March 20. Based on that brief “conversation” and a follow up on April 4, I include an edited email conversation below:

    Mukhopadhyay: Where were you and what were you doing when the earthquake hit Japan?

    Aoshima: I was in a seminar room of an eight-story building on campus. I was discussing with my graduate students their research projects.

    Mukhopadhyay: Where was your family at the time? Could you “connect” with them right away after the earthquake?

    Aoshima: They were in my house. I could not connect with them right away because mail server and telephone communication were down. However, I could get together after I was back to my house.

    Mukhopadhyay: I know that you were on campus at the time. Were many buildings damaged? How severely? Anybody get hurt? What was the general situation on Day 1 and now?

    Aoshima: There are many cracks in most buildings on campus, and the University Hall and the gymnasium were damaged. So, the graduation ceremony (usually held in the middle of March) was cancelled. Fortunately, I have not heard that anybody got hurt on campus.

    Mukhopadhyay: From your university’s website, I find that many nonemergency operations are shut down or are moving slowly. Is that continuing?

    Aoshima: Web server is still partly shut down. Stopping the supply of water is continuing. Since aftershocks are continuing, things are moving along slowly and very carefully.

    Mukhopadhyay: When do you expect your university’s normal operations to begin again? How are the students? When are they coming back to campus?

    Aoshima: We are preparing to start our university’s normal operations in April, which is the beginning of the Japanese school year. Now, the students are having their spring vacation.

    Mukhopadhyay: How far is your university from the center of the earthquake or those nuclear stations?

    Aoshima: About 340 km from the center of the earthquake and about 170 km from nuclear stations.

    Mukhopadhyay: Did the tsunami affect you and your local people? If so, how?

    Aoshima: It seems that people living within 5 km from the ocean in Tohoku area were seriously affected by tsunami.

    Mukhopadhyay: Which other universities in Japan are badly affected? Any news of major hardship or injuries or loss of life among university students and faculty and their friends?

    Aoshima: It seems that universities in Tohoku-North Kanto areas were mainly affected. Although our university is located in North Kanto area, it seems not to be badly affected. I have not heard there is any news of major hardship or injuries or loss of life among university students and faculty and their friends. However, I have to mention that people hit by tsunami are still badly affected. Also, people living within 20 km from nuclear stations received official advice to evacuate, while some foreign media reported the distance at 80 km.

    Mukhopadhyay: Right after the earthquake, what did you do? How about your family?

    Aoshima: Right after the earthquake, we were all in inconvenient situations. However, soon afterward, we started to gradually recover, since we are not as badly affected compared with the people who got hit by the tsunami and nuclear disaster.

    Mukhopadhyay: Are you teaching now? Probably not. So, how are you spending your time?

    Aoshima: Fortunately, Japanese universities have been welcoming spring vacation, as usual in this season.

    Mukhopadhyay: Do you have electricity, a supply of food, and other essential necessities?

    Aoshima: Now, we are already starting to live as normally as possible. There seems to be no problem about essential items in this area.

    Mukhopadhyay: How about the transportation to and from campus to your home?

    Aoshima: There seems to be no problem about that in this area.

    Mukhopadhyay: What is your impression of the magnitude of the nuclear disaster that followed the tsunami? Do you feel that you and your family and friends are alright? Personally, do you expect a big fallout, or is it just media hype? How far are you from that site?

    Aoshima: I think that foreign media has portrayed Japanese situations very exaggeratedly and dramatically. Especially their reports about nuclear disaster sometimes seem to be excessively sensational. We Japanese are often perplexed with rumors spread from abroad.

    Mukhopadhyay: Anything else?

    Aoshima: Fortunately, there seems to be no problem in my immediate area. However, people hit by the tsunami and nuclear mishap are living in difficult situations. We feel concerned about them and consider seriously about the kind of helping hands they need from the rest of us right now.

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