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Reflections from a Jamaican in Japan

BY STEWART RODNEY

Friday, March 30, 2012    

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"So, yuh really a go back ova deh?" inquired my aunt when I told her of my preparations to return to my studies at Hiroshima University in western Japan last year.

This was two weeks after of one of the most significant disasters in that country's history: a magnitude 9.0 earthquake in the northeast of the country, which spawned a massive tsunami and triggered nuclear fallout due to damage at nuclear power plants. This triple catastrophe, dubbed '3/11' by some Japanese media in reference to the date, sent physical and emotional shockwaves across the country and around the world.

The disaster left in its wake, beached tankers, entire towns wiped out, flooded airports, food and shelter shortages and power outages stretching about 500 kilometres along the eastern coast of the main island of Honshuu from Iwate Prefecture in the north to the Tokyo metropolis. Most of all, though, was the grief for entire families lost and livelihoods gone in an instant unlooked for.

No wonder my aunt thought I was crazy for wanting to go back, for all this had happened in what could be the country most prepared for an earthquake disaster.

Upon my return to Hiroshima, some 600 or 700 kilometres southwest of the epicentre of the quake, there were no immediate environmental signs of the effects. However, as days grew into weeks, the possible effects of radiation became the constant conversation piece. There were advisory meetings for students about the university's emergency plan, as well as precautions to be taken.

Many international students chose to return home — some say they took the chance to cop out of their studies. I received almost daily e-mail updates on radiation measurements and safety bulletins from the national authorities by way of the Jamaican Embassy. In turn, I had to send home continual reassurances that I hadn't grown an extra nose and wasn't likely to.

Beyond the university, there were nationwide concerns of food safety, as Fukushima Prefecture, where the damaged nuclear plants are located, is a major producer of fruits, vegetables and fish. Added to this were electricity shortages that would follow, as the Tokyo Electric Power Company — operator of the disabled plants — was forced to take other nuclear stations offline amid safety concerns and investigations.

To help with the shortfall, other regional power companies relayed energy to the affected areas. In Hiroshima, car factories and most of the large industrial plants would shift their operating days to ease energy consumption during the sweltering summer, and setsuden (electricity conservation) would become everybody's responsibility. Above all, the relief efforts for those directly affected were, to me, the most impressive aspect of this experience.

Initially, in the middle of a less-than-merciful winter and almost incredible devastation, an ordered and disciplined response to the rescue and relief efforts; then, in the face of acute grief, a united and quietly dignified resolve to the subsequent recovery. It was a lesson in how to deal with a disaster.

The relief efforts from various sources, my university and church included, continue even as the quakes of March 14, 2012 reminded us in no uncertain way that the threat is far from over. While I am told that the worst of the radiation threat may have passed, I try to remain vigilant, both for my personal safety and any chance to participate in the recovery effort.

I reflect on the fragility of our man-made systems and also on my own country's level of preparedness, even though Jamaicans are no strangers to temblors. I am, more than anything, grateful for the opportunity to share in any small way in the rebuilding, because I have gained a wealth of experience in Japan.

My witness of the events enhanced my understanding of the people and strengthened the ties that stretch halfway around the world between Jamaica and Japan.

Stewart Rodney is a student at Hiroshima University's Graduate School for International Development and Co-operation

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