Aftershocks: Study-Abroad Students Reflect on Earthquake
By Elaine Teng ’12, Senior Editor
The world watched in horror as the disaster unfolded. Homes crumbled, trees folded and cars and airplanes were flung about like toys in a world where land and sea were no longer distinguishable. As if it could be no worse, news soon came out of a potential nuclear disaster, evoking memories of Hiroshima and Chernobyl in a nation already blighted by the effects of nuclear exposure.

For Amherst students studying abroad in Japan, these sights were not merely news, but the reality before them in the aftermath of the 9.0 earthquake that shook the island nation on March 11. While none of them were in the northeast, where the disaster struck hardest, they experienced the terror and chaos and faced the stark choice to stay or to come home.

Ya Ling Jiang ’12 was studying on the 12th floor of her Tokyo university when the earthquake hit. In a country accustomed to such events, no one reacted at first, but Jiang, realizing that she would be trapped were the building to immediately collapse, ran out to the closest outdoor lounge, where horrifying sights greeted her eyes.

“It was very, very frightening because the earthquake impact lasted for about two minutes where I was, and it was strong enough that I was able to see the entire building shaking,” she said. “I could see all of the traffic lights changing back and forth and people running outside screaming in the street. I really thought at that moment that I might die.”

In the immediate aftermath, no one quite knew what to do or expect, and Jiang returned to class to take an exam before being forced outside once again by a series of strong aftershocks. Classes were cancelled, but the students still did not know what to do. Many, including Jiang, lived far from the university and were therefore trapped in a city where buses and trains were no longer running.

“We had nowhere to go,” she remembered. “At that moment, there were about 400 students in the building, and they just stayed there, some people crying. The college allowed us to stay for the night. I had one-and-a-half-hour commute to school every day, so there was no way for me to get back. It was cold, and I couldn’t sleep, and most of the people had no beds or blankets.”

What was most terrifying was the uncertainty. With aftershocks sending tremors through the city every few minutes, people panicked and prepared for the worst.

“Every hour or so I would feel the house shake,” Jiang said. “Japan has a program where when there’s an earthquake, there’s a warning sent to phones, so every few hours the phones would ring, and we would prepare ourselves for the new aftershock.”

“There’s a 7/11 right down the street from the college, and two or three hours after the earthquake, there was a food panic,” she continued. “People were buying food crazily. Temple University actually gave students a credit card of $600 and they went to stores and bought up all the food they could find. The supermarkets were cleared of basic necessities and emergency foods.”

Though Tokyo did not bear the brunt of the disaster, its people continue to deal with the consequences of an earthquake that has dimmed the city’s bright lights and complicated activities as routine as getting to work.

“Japan has 20 percent decreased electrical capacity, so there are scheduled blackouts every day,” explained Jiang. “You won’t see any escalators, neon lights or anything unnecessary. They’re all shut off. The train schedule [has] changed [too], so it’s impacted how people work.”

However, the full extent of the disaster — the tsunami and the nuclear crisis — did not become apparent to those in the capital until a few days later. “Nobody knew that much about the nuclear reaction at first, so people were much calmer and going back to normal under they found about the nuclear plant,” remembered Jiang.

It was this nuclear danger that finally impelled some study abroad programs to bring the students home, explained Director of International Experience Janna Behrens.

“The decision to end a study abroad program is done with great deliberation,” she said. “Departures were very specific to each student and his/her program. Amherst did not make any decisions to bring students home; instead, we believe it is the decision of the student and his/her family to decide what is best.”

Jiang had initially hoped to stay, but her host mother insisted she leave for fear of her safety. Jenna Colazzi ’12, who was studying in the southern city of Nagoya, far enough from the epicenter not to feel the earthquake, also did not expect to leave until her program was cancelled. However, because Nagoya was not directly affected by the disaster, her host family did not understand the decision.

“There was a sort of stigma attached to those who did choose to leave,” she said. “Even just on Facebook, status updates were violently disparaging anyone who was leaving. My host parents seemed sort of indignant about my program being cancelled. They found it difficult to understand, since Nagoya was so far from everything.”

While Jiang and Colazzi are now back in the U.S., one studying from home and the other finishing the semester at Amherst, Nolan Faust ’12 and Michael Stein ’12 continue life in the crisis-stricken nation. While Stein, studying in Kyoto, described the nuclear crisis as “tough,” he noted that there are no great changes in daily life and is grateful for the opportunity to finish out his semester abroad.

What struck Colazzi most was the difference in attitude between the Japanese and American media. “In general it seemed less publicized,” she said. “When 9/11 happened here, it was immediately turned into a national campaign. Even [with] Hurricane Katrina, which wasn’t politically connected at all, it seemed impossible to go more than 10 minutes without hearing about it.”

For Jiang, the earthquake brought out a positive side of a society that could at times be stifling in its demands for perfection.

“It’s a very perfect society. That’s where the social pressure builds up,” she said. “But when the earthquake struck, you realize how calm and peaceful the people were. The Japanese have a reputation for always helping each other, and I just couldn’t believe something like this could happen to such a peaceful society.”

Issue 22, Submitted 2011-04-13 04:23:37