Crisis in Japan strikes close to home: With faculty and students abroad, Skidmore feels the earthquake half a world away

Posted by Julia Leef

At 12:46 a.m. on Friday, March 11, just before students parted ways for Spring Break, a seismograph in Dana Science Center picked up tectonic activity.

A 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck off the coast of Japan. The disaster left up to 16,000 people dead, rendered millions homeless, and an environmental threat with the severe damage of a nuclear power plant.

While the earthquake affected the world community with family and economic interest in Japan, the Skidmore community felt the shake of the quake.

This disaster has influenced the lives of many professors and students, directly and indirectly, including several professors who were in Japan at the time of the disaster.

Greg Hrbek, Senior Writer-in-Residence at the English Department, was in Tokyo on a writing fellowship when the earthquake hit. According to Hrbek, life in Tokyo was relatively normal following the disaster, with the exception of a few power outages and subway delays. However, he decided not to risk a prolonged stay, and returned to Saratoga. He described being so close to a nuclear accident as "very bizarre . . . I imagine the experience will influence my writing at some point, though it's hard to say how."

"Even though I was only in Tokyo for two weeks, I feel uncommonly sensitive to these events," Hrbek said. "I have been feeling very nervous for the people I met there and I'm hopeful that the signs of improvement are real."

Masako Inamoto, assistant professor of the Foreign Languages & Literatures department, was in Japan evaluating approved study-abroad programs in Nagoya and Osaka. She was in Nagoya at the time of the earthquake, and says that she could feel the earthquake strongly from 300 miles away. She realized later, when she found the trains home to Tokyo suspended, that she realized the severity of the earthquake. Inamoto continued her visits to the Osaka program, observing people lining up for food and joking with each other to help cope with their terrible situation. She also watched as the news featured heart-rending survivor stories, affecting her emotionally.

"It was very difficult for me to come back to the U.S. while Japan is going through this crisis," she said, "but my friends in Japan told me that there must be things I can do because I'm outside of Japan, and that encouraged me to come back."

During her stay, Inamoto says that the disparity between the Japanese and U.S. media reports helped her realized the importance of looking at events objectively and with a balanced view.

She thanked the Skidmore community who came forth with condolences and questions of how they could help. "It makes me realize how fortunate I am to be a part of this wonderful, caring community," she said.

The earthquake also directly affected several students. Several students who wished to study abroad in Japan this semester found that they must look elsewhere for abroad study. On March 16, the U.S. government issued a Department of State Travel Warning for Japan, due largely in part to the radiation levels around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. In addition, damages caused by the earthquake and tsunami affected the college's partner universities' ability to run programs safely, according to the director of Off-Campus Study and Exchanges, Coreen Filson.

"OCSE is closely monitoring the situation to determine if students might be able to study in Japan for the fall," she said, adding students will be unable to study in Japan this spring. "We encourage students who are interested in that option to come talk to us. We will accept applications to Japan programs for fall, but recommend students apply to a second program as well."

One of the students affected by these events is Haoran Ma '12, who originally planned to start his pre-orientation on March 28th at Sophia University. He was to study abroad in Tokyo for the spring semester, along with Jennifer Latsch '12, who was unavailable for comment.

Haoran is currently in China, where he is still waiting to hear if it will be safe to study in Japan. "I do not think it was a bad decision to study abroad in Japan," he said, "but it may have come at the wrong time. If it is meant to be [being unable to go], there is nothing I can do."

Haoran is receiving support from Kendra Nelson, the counselor in the off-campus study office, his advisor Darren Drabek, and others.

"I feel sorry about what happened in Japan," he said. "Being an international student at Skidmore, there is always someone that I can talk to when I need help. I know I am not alone."

In addition to those who either were in Japan at the time or had planned to be, many faculty and students have family currently residing there. Soon after the earthquake, Masami Tamagawa, the visiting assistant professor for the Foreign Languages and Literatures department, contacted his family members, who are all safe. Professor Inamoto's family in Japan is safe as well.

Although Tamagawa would like to eventually talk about these events in his Modern Japanese Culture and Society class, he says that it may be too soon to bring up the tragedy with students. "I'll admit that personally I find it difficult to watch the news," he said. "It affects me greatly and highlights for me a concern for the survivors who will naturally be left with emotional scars for a very long time."

Skidmore is not the only college to be affected by these events, of course. Universities all over the world are involved, none more so than those in Japan. According to a recent article in "The Chronicle," more than a week after the earthquake and tsunami, several university students in Japan remain missing, while five have been confirmed dead. Several universities, such as Waseda University, have announced delaying the start of the academic year, and many report the cancellations of contracts by part-time foreign instructors due to the threats of radiation leakage from the nuclear plant. Transportation is difficult and housing for students near impossible until April, revealing the extent to which these damages have affected people in Japan.

There will a vigil in front of Burgess Café on Friday at 5 p.m. Sergio Hernandez '12, is coordinating the event, but was unavailable for comment as of press time on Thursday. Students and faculty are invited to honor those affected with a candle ceremony, paper cranes, and a few words. condolences. donations for the Red Cross will accepted, perhaps the first of many efforts to raise aid for those in need.

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