News and Events Japanese Studies Resources About the Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies
UCLA community unites to remember those lost from the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan a year ago
An exhibit at the Fowler Museum features photographs of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan one year ago. (Photo by Erin Ng)

UCLA community unites to remember those lost from the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan a year ago

"Moving Forward: Life After the Great East Japan Earthquake," an exhibit featuring large-scale photographs, short articles and videos, runs until April 15 at the Fowler Museum.

By Jake Greenberg and Katherine Hafner for the Daily Bruin

One year has passed since the earthquake and tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis that destroyed much of northeastern Japan. The disasters left thousands dead and many more missing.

Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of the catastrophe, and students, faculty, staff and members of the community reflected on a year that saw intense tragedy, as well as the will to rebuild.

Remembering the disasters

The confusion and terror of that day was fresh in the minds of UCLA students who attended a symposium at the Fowler Museum on Saturday to commemorate the first anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami.

The symposium, which opened an exhibit titled “Moving Forward: Life After the Great East Japan Earthquake,” brought together speakers from UCLA and the greater Los Angeles community to speak about the effects of the Japan earthquake and tsunami both locally and abroad.

Daiki Hidaka, a third-year international development studies exchange student from Japan who attended the event, was in Tokyo when the earthquake hit.

“I felt a bit of shaking, and then it just (increased) until things were collapsing all around me,” he said.

He said he remembers biking home to find his house in shambles and seeing his dogs shivering with fear and not being able to contact his family in the aftermath of the quake.

A month later, Hidaka was among a group of people from his university in Tokyo to travel to Tohoku, one of the areas most devastated by the combination of natural disasters, to supply aid and rebuild a school that was destroyed in the tsunami.

Through the debris, the volunteers would also search for personal pictures, which they recovered, wiped off and hung in the community – like an exhibit where people could claim the photos which were of vital importance to them, Hidaka said.

Photos are also the focus of the Fowler Museum exhibit.

“Walking through the exhibit, one can see the disaster play out,” said Hitoshi Abe, director of the Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies. “The photos do not show the disaster itself but rather through the people, and the incredible honor and patience they showed in bonding together in the time of difficulty.”

Student groups rally

An ocean away, in Los Angeles, the disaster also brought together groups at UCLA that usually worked separately, said Masaki Moritani, vice president of the Japanese Student Association and fourth-year computer science student. Both the Japanese Student Association, which aims to bring together students to share Japanese culture, and the Nikkei Student Union, a coalition of Japanese American students on campus, raised funds on Bruin Walk immediately following the earthquake to raise money for relief efforts.

“(The two organizations) always kind of worked separately before the earthquake happened,” Moritani said. “But the disaster really brought us together and we’ve been in cooperation ever since.”

Throughout finals week of last year’s winter quarter, the groups collectively raised around $8,000, and have been donating proceeds from other events during the year to the relief effort as well.

They teamed up again early last week to commemorate the anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami, with the goal of informing others of how Japan has been working to rebuild. A video presentation, a discussion about the aftermath of the quake and the singing of a Japanese song were part of the event, Hidaka said.

Attendees also wrote messages of encouragement to volunteers in Japan.

Learning from the nuclear crisis

The reconstruction effort in Japan became difficult mainly after the period of initial shock was over, said Malka Older, a specialist in disaster risk reduction and emergency preparedness, at the Fowler Museum on Saturday.

“Japan is the world leader in disaster risk reduction, and it could have been a lot worse,” she said.

After the earthquake and tsunami, several nuclear reactors in Japan automatically shut down.

Soon after, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan was found to be putting out dangerous amounts of radiation after a cooling system failed following the tremors. The plant was also exposed to water from the ensuing tsunami, experts said.

Because of heightened fears of exposure to radiation, authorities evacuated thousands of residents from the surrounding area, said Albert Carnesale, chancellor emeritus and professor of nuclear engineering.

Japan has 54 nuclear power reactors. Most of the backup batteries in Japanese power reactors, including the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, are suited for eight hours, which Carnesale said did not give authorities enough time to access the overheating reactor after the combination of the earthquake and tsunami.

Even in the United States, some batteries have reactors that can only last for four hours, Carnesale added.

The natural disasters Japan suffered exposed the country to some of the failures in its disaster risk reduction policies.

After the first few months passed and initial emergency measures were taken, the relief effort became harder for the Japanese government, which didn’t have a long-term plan to recover from the situation, Older said.

The unexpected disaster in Japan has taught the United States to be ready for a similar situation. Following the quake and the nuclear fallout, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced it would re-evaluate nuclear facilities in the country based on their ability to withstand possible seismic and flood hazards, according to its website.

One lesson from the tragedy in Japan was that U.S. power plants need to be prepared for more complicated and rare emergencies, Carnesale said.

Though the staff in U.S. nuclear plants is often prepared to handle a single emergency, employees are often unaware of what to do in case of multiple events such as in Japan, Carnesale said.

“They are prepared to handle an earthquake,” he said. “But what happens when there’s an earthquake, and then a dam breaks after the initial incident?”

Carnesale said the earthquake and the following disasters in Japan, though rare, could have been handled better if the proper planning had been in place.

“The biggest lesson scholars and nuclear experts learned from Fukushima is that the improbable is not the same as the impossible,” he said. “Rare is not the same as never, and it is not acceptable to ignore the unlikely risks.”

Looking to the future

Abe stressed the importance of gaining knowledge from the disaster.

“It is important for people to be conscious of the disaster not only for the sake of Japan, but also so we can learn from how people behaved in Japan, as it could happen in L.A. or other places at any time,” Abe said.

Nuclear power is an essential source of both Japanese and U.S. energy, and will continue to undergo development and improvement, Carnesale said.

Hidaka’s volunteer group from last April, which he has stayed in touch with while in the United States, revisits the affected region in Japan about once a month to check up on the people there and offer assistance.

“If you just go once, it creates an atmosphere that they were forgotten,” Hidaka said. “And that should not be the case.”