Managing Our Piece of the Japanese Earthquake Crisis

James Yang for The Chronicle

April 24, 2011

"I've gotta get to work," I yelled to my wife as I headed to my closet for a change of clothes. "There's an earthquake in Japan." So began the last day of classes before spring break.

From my office at Earlham College, in Richmond, Ind., I direct an exchange program between several Midwestern liberal-arts colleges and Waseda University, in central Tokyo. On the day of the earthquake, we had 25 students in locations across Japan. As I drove to work, I called our resident director and program associate in Tokyo.

Japanese universities have a long break in February and March between their fall and spring semesters. During that time, we place our students at various field sites throughout the country where they stay a month. After that, students typically travel on their own around Japan and then return to Tokyo before the spring semester begins in early April. At the time of the earthquake, the students were ending their field studies and traveling. I knew that I was going to need answers to many questions.

Now that several weeks have passed since that stressful initial period of 18-hour days, I've been looking back at my notes and wondering what I would do differently next time (God forbid). Perhaps my impressions can make the manuals and documents on crisis management seem a bit more real for program directors who encounter a similar catastrophe.

Emergency protocol. We had told our traveling students to contact the resident director in case of emergency. One group of three students, in a location just south of Tokyo where cellphone communication was disrupted, waited for more than an hour to use one of the few remaining pay phones at a train station. Within a few hours of the earthquake, all but one student had called or texted. For that one forgetful student, my only recourse was to contact her parents in the United States. Before I could finish identifying myself, her mother said, "She's safe with her friends in Shinjuku. That's what you want to know, isn't it? She just texted me. I'm so happy." So was I.

The scattered locations of our students, however, meant that some of them didn't immediately know about the earthquake. Students traveling in southern Japan, for instance, found out from television, or from text messages and phone calls they received from concerned parents and our resident director. The situation reminded me of an experience I had on September 11, 2001, when I was hosting a group of Japanese students and faculty members at Ohio Wesleyan University. As soon as I heard about the terrorist attack, I insisted that our Japanese guests immediately call home. They thought I was overreacting, given our distance from New York City, but the responses of their family members made them realize that a crisis isn't entirely defined by geography.

Communication with parents. Our college had experienced the New Zealand earthquake a couple of weeks before. We had 18 students, a faculty couple, their two young children, and an assistant in Christchurch, the epicenter of the quake. My colleagues in the study-abroad office who handled that crisis reminded me of little things that can make a big difference. For instance, make sure that the public-safety officers who answer the college phones on the weekends and evenings are aware of the crisis and know how to respond to calls and how to reach you. Students and parents need to hear from you, even when you don't necessarily have anything new to say.

Colleagues at other colleges and universities also helped by forwarding messages sent by directors of other programs in Japan. Their responses to the earthquake and tsunami, and later the nuclear-reactor crisis, confirmed my own actions and made me aware of things I had not yet considered. In my e-mails to parents, I tried to keep a calm tone and provide firsthand information that I had received from our staff in Tokyo. I still worry that my responses appeared too bureaucratic, but at a time of heightened emotions, my own included, I decided on a composed persona.

Communication with other colleges. The students in our Japan program come from a variety of institutions, not just from our own. So on the morning of the earthquake, we sent many duplicate—and probably a few confusing—e-mails to all of the students' institutions. By afternoon, once we were sure everyone was safe, our communication improved.

We keep an updated list of contacts for each of the colleges with a student in our program. Because study-abroad personnel often travel, sometimes without immediate access to the Web, we sent out messages to more than one person on each campus. We also used e-mail lists that reach a wider circle of people. I was concerned about cluttering everyone's in boxes but decided to communicate broadly. Along the way, I received dozens of notes of gratitude from colleagues who appreciated being kept in the loop, even though I'm certain that other recipients did not feel the same.

Preparedness: in retrospect. One thing that we didn't have ready was a list of e-mail addresses for the parents of students in the program. We had the addresses in our office, but they were in paper-copy form in each student's file. It took only a few minutes to pull together the list, but in the future we'll have it in digital form from the get-go.

I also wish I had had a better cellphone. I haven't yet purchased a phone with e-mail functions, knowing that my compulsive nature wouldn't allow me to resist the temptation to constantly check in. But without a smartphone during this crisis, I was stuck next to my computer.

As for the students, I wish we had made a stronger (more successful) recommendation for them to take their passports when leaving Tokyo, rather than traveling on their alien-registration cards. When some of them who were in southern Japan decided to return to the United States, they had to go back to Tokyo to retrieve their passports. Travel documents in hand would have allowed them to leave Japan from Hiroshima, Osaka, or another nearby airport.

Media contacts. I was surprised by the number of television and print reporters who called me for comments. Our conversations always began with their soothing voices asking about the safety of our students. "Yes, they are all safe," I would answer. "And, yes, our staff is safe as well." "Busy? Yes, it has been quite an ordeal."

In the midst of those gentle first questions, I began to enjoy the attention. But inevitably the conversation would shift, and the reporters would ask to be put in touch with our students, their parents, and our staff in Japan. "If you could just give them my name and contact information," they repeated. Fortunately, a colleague had mentioned his frustration with such behavior during a similar crisis a few years ago. His comments reminded me to stop taking the media calls altogether and route them to our college's public-affairs office. Far better that the college have one representative speaking publicly in a time of crisis.

Information on the crisis. For the first few days, although the earthquake dominated the news, it was difficult to get accurate information. CNN reporters, many of whom admitted knowing nothing about nuclear reactors and radiation, couldn't resist hyperbole and continuously hyped the tragedy by asking leading questions of the experts. Their mantra seemed to be: "What is the worst-case scenario?" Fortunately, NHK World and Ustream made the Japanese television news available on the Internet in English and Japanese throughout the crisis.

After about a week, U.S. media coverage shifted from what was happening in Japan to what it meant for the United States (Are we safe? Are our reactors, cities, and economy safe?) and finally to what the celebrities were tweeting about Japan. In the end, the shift in coverage was an indication that the situation was, in fact, improving.

Continuing or canceling the program. My college allowed us to use all available information to make a decision regarding the future of this year's program. Some U.S. colleges, basing their decisions entirely on the State Department's travel warning (perhaps in response to their campus insurance policies), terminated their programs in Japan almost immediately after the earthquake and sent their students home.

The measured view of events from my colleagues on the ground in Tokyo, however, allowed us to craft a more nuanced response. In the end, we decided to pay for students' flights home or for their travel outside Tokyo, so that we all could wait for the passage of time to clarify the situation.

Waseda postponed the start of spring semester to early May, and most of our students indicated they would like to participate, if circumstances allowed. We waited a few weeks and then decided to restart our spring 2011 program. A week later, in mid-April, the U.S. State Department lifted its travel warning to Japan and posted a travel alert, stating, in part, that "the health and safety risks to areas beyond the 50-mile evacuation zone, and particularly to Tokyo" are "low and do not pose significant risks to U.S. citizens." Seventeen of the 25 students plan to return to Tokyo.

Next steps. Students and their parents seem grateful for our decision to keep the spring-semester option open, but it has created many complications. And for the couple of students who have decided not to return to Japan, instead enrolling in their home college's spring quarter, there are personal belongings, cellphone contracts, and bank accounts left behind in Japan. Had we canceled the program, students could have taken care of those things prior to departure. But the enthusiasm of the students who still hope to return makes me think that our additional efforts are worth it. Once the students are back in Tokyo, I hope that the coming months are as eventful, exciting, and educational as study abroad can be. And that they experience it all on solid ground.

Gary DeCoker is professor and chairman of Japanese studies at Earlham College and director of a study program in Japan.