by Chris Killian

Last summer Ethan Segal ’90 traveled to Japan, just a few months after a massive, earthquake-induced tsunami (on March 11, 2011) and subsequent reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant devastated the northeast region of the island nation.  Segal, a professional historian of Japan, has been visiting the country for more than twenty years, since his study abroad days as a student at Kalamazoo College. But this journey was different.

Segal and his wife Miho traveled north to Morioka, the capital of Iwate, one of the three prefectures devastated by the tsunami. After speaking with government officials, they journeyed to the coast.  Trains were not yet operational, so they hired a car to take them to the stricken area. Still several miles before reaching their destination, they saw lines of dead trees killed off by the massive wall of saltwater that had rushed up a river on the heels of the magnitude 9.0 quake.

What Segal saw next will be etched into his memory forever.

Not a single building stood in the Pacific coast city of Rikuzen Takata, only the steel skeletons of a few high-rises. Piles of rubble and random debris were scattered about, next to a graveyard of vehicles, the battered cars stacked one atop another.

“It took my breath away. I was in shock,” said Segal, an associate professor of history at Michigan State University. “Nothing had prepared me for that: not the news reports, not friends’ descriptions, not even watching video footage on the computer or television. Nothing.”

Difficult as it was, he set aside the shock and got to work, interviewing residents and public officials who were affected by the catastrophe, which claimed the lives of 20,000 people. As a researcher and a man with long-standing connections to Japan and that region, he tried to make sense of what happened on that fateful day in March 2011. And after two more trips to Japan since, he’s still trying, and continues to have more questions than answers.
Segal spent his junior year (1989) at Waseda University and conducted research for his Senior Individualized Project at Osaka University. He later earned a Ph.D. in East Asian History at Stanford University and returned to Japan as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Tokyo. His first major research project became his book Coins, Trade, and the State: Economic Growth in Early Medieval Japan and was published last year by Harvard University Press. Through his extensive travels, Segal fell in love with the country, which is why he cares so deeply for its recovery.

“I’m still in contact with people I first met there,” he said from his temporary home in Boston. “My time at K and the connections I made through my study abroad experience in Japan had a huge impact on me. I hope I helped make bridges across the Pacific.”

That bridge has taken on new meaning now, Segal said. How will Japan build a bridge to not only a full recovery, but also to a new energy future, especially in the wake of the meltdowns at several of the plant’s reactor units, the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986?

Additional questions abound, too: Should neighboring communities that were wiped-out in the tsunami consolidate into larger municipalities? And how can Japan, its population now wary of nuclear power, move to sustainable, green energy technologies, even though it had been relying on nuclear plants for 30 percent of its electricity until March 2011?

The triple punch of the quake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster grabbed the world’s attention for weeks last spring. But, in Segal’s opinion, the long-term story was overshadowed by the financial crisis in Europe, the debt-ceiling debate in the United States, and the Arab Spring uprisings. Japan, and its recovery, seemed to fade.

But as much as Segal wasn’t there for the worst of the crises – “I didn’t pull any bodies from the rubble,” he said – he hopes to help by providing accurate information and calling attention to the ongoing struggles to rebuild.

In late March, just days after the disasters, he organized a community forum at MSU to help people understand what had happened and the challenges that lay ahead. Along with Segal, MSU experts on seismology and radiation and a representative from the Japanese Consulate in Detroit were brought in to speak. The room, Segal said, was packed.

The Japanese people have a long history of dealing with earthquakes and tsunami, explained Segal. They are resilient and are well versed in rebuilding after horrific events, such as in the aftermath of World War II. But in an increasingly global community, the world needs to be aware of what’s happening in Japan. Information, he said, prompts action. He hopes to keep a light–however small–shining on Japan.

“What I’m doing is very small,” he said. “I’ve only made a few short visits there, but I hope I can draw more attention to what’s going on and inspire people to help.”

In addition to Rikuzen Takata, Segal visited communities in Fukushima and Miyagi Prefectures this spring, where he spoke with residents and evacuees about the disasters and the clean up. He expects to return to Japan sometime soon to follow up on recovery efforts and then report his findings–through speaking, writing and other means–when he gets home.

“The best thing I can do is to help promote awareness and keep attention focused on the efforts of the Japanese to get their country back on
"I hope I can inspire people to help."
its feet,” he said. “But they need the world’s help.”

Very Lucky

Robin (Alexander) Sakamoto ’85 said she and her family “were very lucky” when a 2011 earthquake set off a cascade of tragedy across northern Japan, particularly in Iwate Prefecture where she had been living for many years. Robin was on a train with her parents who were visiting from the United States when the earthquake hit. They were heading to Morioka in Iwate to attend her son's graduation from junior high school.
Robin was the subject of a 2007 LuxEsto article in which she told about the trials and triumphs of moving to Japan to teach English straight after her K graduation…and never leaving, except to spend one year in Minneapolis earning her Ph.D. in Comparative and International Development Education. Today, she is a full professor in the Faculty of Foreign Studies of Kyorin University in Tokyo and “enjoying it immensely.” (See photo of Robin and her students.)
“It took us about 15 hours to get back to my Tokyo apartment, but there we were reunited with my older daughter,” she said. Her younger daughter spent the night at her high school in Tokyo until trains were running.
“I never made it to my son's graduation, but he flew out on a special flight from Iwate to Tokyo and started high school here. So I am in Tokyo with all three of my children and my husband remains in Iwate caring for his father.”
“My daughters are following in their mother's footsteps,” said Robin, who studied abroad in Bonn, Germany, as part of her K-Plan.  “My eldest is coming back soon from her junior year abroad in Toulouse, France. She was even able to spend an evening with my K host family in Bonn last December and stayed in the same room I did so many years ago. She'll arrive home to Tokyo just in time for her sister to leave for her study abroad in Madagascar!”
Robin said she would enjoy hearing from classmates and other friends at If your Japanese is good, you can read her Kyorin webpage:

Photo 1 – Ethan Segal ’90.

Photo 2 – The remains of a middle school in Rikuzen Takata, July 2011. (photo by Ethan Segal)

Photo 3 – Damaged cars  in Ishinomaki City (Miyagi Prefecture), March 2012. (photo by Ethan Segal)

Photo 4 – Professor Robin Sakamoto ’85 and her students.

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