College alumni in Japan share stories in disaster’s aftermath

Though it’s literally on the other side of the world, Japan is not as removed from the College as you might think. Between expatriates, former international students who have returned home and alumni working and living abroad, there are about 40 people from the Williams community currently living in Japan. Of these, the majority live in Tokyo, where the direct damage from the earthquake and tsunami was limited. Nevertheless, Tokyo and other regions have still had to deal with food and energy shortages, as well as concerns over the radiation emanating from the damaged nuclear reactors in the north. A month later, the country is still dealing with the massive burden of relief efforts for the affected regions and stabilizing the precarious nuclear reactors, as well as continual aftershocks. In some parts of the country things are beginning to settle down. The Record checked in with some alumni to hear how they are faring during this tumultuous period.

“It’s getting back to normal,” said Rie Arai ’99, a resident of Tokyo who attended the College for two years as an international student. “We couldn’t see some of the items [at the supermarket] until about a week ago. We couldn’t buy milk, yogurt or eggs.” Arai, who works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also explained that businesses, government offices and even private individuals are still going to great lengths to conserve energy, refraining from using either the lights or the elevators.

“Our production capacity has been damaged by the earthquake. Some people say that it will take about five years to achieve the same level of electricity as before,” Arai said. “The emperor is also turning off the lights at the palace.”

Kate Dunlop ’99, who has made her home in Tokyo, agrees at least that there is a semblance of a return to order. “Whether or not there is any rational basis for it calming down, I think so many people have been in a state of uncertainty for so long they are choosing to believe that it is calming down,” she said.

Dunlop has been in California with her two-year-old daughter for several weeks following the earthquake, but she plans to return within the next couple of weeks. The main concern for Dunlop and her husband was over the potential risk that radiation might pose to their daughter, whether through the water or when the winds turned towards Tokyo from the north. Low-level radiation affects children and infants much more strongly than adults.

“That was the reason we left as quickly as we did. I think it would have been a very different story if it had just been my husband and myself,” Dunlop said. It was not only non-Japanese residents who were concerned, either. “Many of our Japanese friends with small children are also relocating their children outside of Tokyo.”

Both Arai and Dunlop noted that, in regards to the radiation, there is dissatisfaction with the government’s communication to the public. “About a week ago it was reported that Japanese were no longer reporting radiation levels. If you look at the day they decided to stop doing that, it’s the day the winds changed and started blowing over Tokyo,” Dunlop said. “Information disclosure is a huge theme in Japanese politics.”

As a member of the government, Arai spoke from a slightly different perspective but agreed that the government should do more. “We are constantly being asked to provide accurate information to the media. As a government we need to really try to provide information,” she said. “They need to know how to interpret that data and what kind of scenarios could be associated with that data.”

Arai also noted that the Japanese government has made an effort to provide information to foreign countries, too. “We know that foreign media are reporting our situation much more seriously than it actually is. For foreign media we also need to provide accurate information, in order to avoid sensationalizing,” she said.

Although the residents of Tokyo and other regions south of the earthquake’s epicenter have had to deal with concerns over radiation and disruptions in the food supply, the northern regions, as is well known, took the brunt of the disaster in the form of a staggering loss of lives. The combination of all these factors, Arai and Dunlop agreed, will affect Japan for many years to come – though perhaps in different ways for different regions or groups.

“Older people are much more calm than younger ones. They’ve been through a lot of difficult things,” Arai said. Her own parents live about 100 kilometers from the Fukushima power plant and lost power and water for about ten days last month. “They weren’t really shocked. My mother was born before the war. They were kind of used to those unusual situations.”

Dunlop expressed concern particularly for Tokyo. Nearly a fourth of the country’s population lives in the capital’s metropolitan area. “It’s going to be a long term psychological or perhaps real stress on Tokyo, with intermittent worries about water and the food cycle,” she said. She also noted that it seems that in the wake of the disaster Japan has had an up-swell of national pride.

Certainly it seems that these two alumni have faith in the country. “Tokyo is our home,” Dunlop said, explaining why she and her daughter will soon return to her husband in the capital.

“Japan will persevere through this difficult time,” Arai said. “We are determined to bring it back to normal. I think we will return and I think we will become stronger.”