By Katelyn McBride
Yume Hidaka, a native of Kagoshima in southwest Japan, crouched under desks with her head safely covered during practice drills every year from elementary school through college to prepare for a potential earthquake.
“We all knew that it could happen sometime sooner or later to any part of Japan. But of course no one expected it to be that big,” Hidaka said, referring to the massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit her home country on March 11, 2011.
Hidaka, who has been in Iowa City since August 2010 as the UI’s Japanese Outreach Initiative coordinator, said her family is safe back home; although her brother and his family, who live near Tokyo in Yokohama, have temporarily relocated to Hidaka’s parents’ home in the west.
Although it’s been sad for her to watch events unfold on television, Hidaka is proud of the support the Japanese people are giving each other even through their hardest times.
“People are really calm are trying to be positive because that’s the Japanese way,” Hidaka said. “Bad things may happen but you never give up. It’s nice to see that those people still have some hope; I think that’s really beautiful.”
There are currently eight UI students studying abroad in Japan. Three will soon be departing for the country – one who came back to the U.S. briefly during a break from school and is eager to return, and two who will be starting year-long academic programs in April.
Niki Launspach, who transferred to the UI four years ago to pursue degrees in Japanese and linguistics, dreamed of traveling to Japan for years. She was thrilled to finally make that dream come true and has seen her Japanese language skills improve dramatically since her arrival at Nanzan University, Nagoya, in early January.
On March 11, Launspach was in her host family’s seventh-floor apartment when the building began rocking back and forth violently.
After about three minutes, once the rocking finally stopped, Launspach switched on the news and was shocked to learn that what she had experienced was a level 4 earthquake on the Japanese shindo scale — and the Miyagi prefecture had just felt a level 7 quake.
Launspach continued watching the news as tsunami warnings and earthquake alerts popped up every few minutes for the prefectures in Tohoku.
But after that initial earthquake, Launspach’s daily life in Nagoya has not been affected by the Tohoku crisis; although, she said, the media sometimes reported otherwise.
“There’s tons of misinformation abound in the Western media; it’s absolutely ridiculous,” Launspach said. “At the same time, the Japanese government is conservative with the information it shares with the public.”
Julia Unigovski (right) with Shota, a Japanese undergraduate student who lives as an RA in her dorm at the Nagoya University of Foreign Studies.
Julia Unigovski, a UI junior at the Nagoya University of Foreign Studies in Nagoya, Japan, hardly felt the aftershock of Tohoku’s large quake because she was on a bus at the time and had become used to the small, frequent earthquakes.
“For the majority of this event, it’s like we have been watching the events occurring in another country,” Unigovski said.
Unigovski soon felt frustration with media coverage as well, especially the way Japan was portrayed as a much smaller country than it is.
Fearing that Nagoya could be affected by radiation from reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant over 200 miles away, some colleges required their students to come back to the U.S. without completing their study abroad programs.
“Even when the situation at the nuclear plant took a turn for the serious, Nagoya was so removed from it that the first wave of mandatory evacuation emails came as a shock,” Unigovski said. “Many students were booked flights against their will or, upon attempting to fight the decision, were threatened with expulsion or other punishments.”
Amanda Marble (left) with her friend Marina at a goodbye/welcome party for students at the Nagoya University of Foreign Studies.
Amanda Marble, a UI senior who is also at the Nagoya University of Foreign Studies, said that of her eight closest friends from the U.S., only three are left in Nagoya.
“Every day the week after the earthquake, I would come out of my room in the morning to another friend announcing they would have to leave,” Marble said.
The UI has not required its students to return to the U.S.
Maria Hope, the UI study abroad adviser for Japan, said practically all the students have expressed praise for the UI not forcing their return; although, she explained, Study Abroad staff members are not fighting against anyone in a debate about students staying or coming home.
“What we are doing is keeping abreast of developments; it is an evolving situation. Should conditions be such that the best advice is to leave the country, this is the advice we will give,” Hope said.
Jane Hommerding, a UI sophomore, is planning to leave April 1 to begin a year-long study abroad program in Tokyo, Japan. She will be writing about her adventures in the official UI Study Abroad blog.
In her first blog entry, Hommerding said sitting, waiting and watching have been almost unbearable. She is eager to reconnect with her Japanese friends, whom she met while they were studying abroad in the U.S.
“I don’t want to give up an opportunity I’ve worked so long and hard for,” she said.