Skip to main content

Students and faculty explore Japan's 'culture and catastrophe'

Students and professors gather in Coffee Grounds to discuss the aftermath of Japan's earthquake and tsunami.
Students and professors gather in Coffee Grounds to discuss the aftermath of Japan's earthquake and tsunami.

In the intimate setting of Coffee Grounds, Connecticut College's student-run coffee shop, five professors and nearly 40 students gathered Wednesday to discuss the aftermath of Japan's earthquake and tsunami, as well as the ongoing nuclear crisis.

Government professor Jane Dawson, an expert in international environmental politics who has done extensive research on nuclear power and nuclear waste disposal, discussed the current Japanese nuclear crisis against the historic backdrop of the Chernobyl disaster. "Researching what happened in Chernobyl, I spoke to people who were there. I met with physicists. I went to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. They all told me the same thing: It couldn't happen here; it couldn't happen in the west; it couldn't happen with a water-cooled reactor," Dawson said. "I believed them," She continued. "The bottom line is it could happen here." Students, some of whom had family and friends in Japan, expressed grave concern for the Japanese people and said sensational news coverage was making it difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Professor Watanabe, an expert in Japanese literature and culture, said he was concerned by the media portrayal of the Japanese people as one homogeneous group. "The media is portraying the Japanese as organized and stoic and monotonous," Wantanabe said. "On one hand, it makes me proud of the way my country has responded to this crisis, but on the other, I'm a bit disturbed. These are still individual people who are reacting in different ways."

Japanese professor Hisae Kobayashi has been keeping up with the situation on the ground through family members in Tokyo and a former student, Andras Molnar '09, who was living in Miyagi Prefecture and teaching English at an elementary school when a tsunami devastated the town. "People there are living in shelters," she said. "It's very hard. The farmers there have lost everything and can't sell their food because of the radiation."

Watanabe said local efforts are beginning to pick up in some of the most devastated areas, a benefit of the tight-knit Japanese communities. He also said the rolling blackouts in other parts of Japan, including Tokyo, are causing people to rethink their lifestyles and dependence on technology. "The Japanese are re-thinking what it means to be a technological nation and hopefully we can all begin to think about more sustainable lifestyles," he said.

The discussion was arranged by several floor governors - student residence hall leaders - and professors Derek Turner and Catherine McNicol Stock as part of the Residential Education Fellows program, which is designed to facility faculty and student interaction outside of the traditional classroom setting. "One of the benefits of this program is that we can respond quickly to students' interests and concerns," Stock said. "In this case, we brought together students with all different interests and from all different majors, including international relations, environmental studies, physics and East Asian languages and cultures, to discuss a timely and pertinent issue in a casual setting."

March 31, 2011