Narratives from the Japan Earthquake Symposium @ UCL


Image source: NASA

This evening I went to UCL’s Japan Earthquake Symposium, the first of a series of informative fund-raising events organised by UCL’s Japan Society, as it was announced. I had a double interest in this event: first of all, I wanted to know more details about the situation in Japan as I feel very connected to the country through having Japanese friends, studying the language and having toured there with my band. Secondly, as many people (especially fellow geographers) have pointed out, the media reporting on the disaster has been shockingly bad. I went to the symposium in search of alternative narratives.

The theatre was completely full. As a consequence it was hot and, like quite a few people, I had forgotten my water bottle, but nobody seemed to mind and patiently listened for two hours. After a brief introduction, the event began with a one-minute silence. The presentations that followed ranged from overviews of Anglo-Japanese history, particularly in connection with UCL, to witness reports, analyses of emergency responses and scientific explanations of the disaster.

The first presentation on the UCL-Japan link, given by Shin-ichi Ohnuma, made an interesting start. Ohnuma voiced a concern that Japan is in danger once again to close itself off, particularly research-wise, but also hope that the disaster may prompt discussion and changes in attitude towards internationalisation. In fact, the next presenter, Masanori Takahashi, pointed out that the destruction at the affected Tohoku University (click here for updates on current situation of the institution)pretty much forced local researchers and students to carry out their work abroad due to the scale of destruction inside the laboratories. He showed that invitations from abroad kept coming in through international scientific message boards.

An alternative take on emergency response by the Japanese military and other emergency services was presented by Alessio Patalano from King’s College. He pointed out the composure and professionalism of the Japanese military, which is prepared for such events, also through special equipment such as giant hovercrafts and materials to build temporary infrastructure such as bridges. At the same time, he drew attention to the unprecedented scale of the event and the large amount of debris (and, by now, radiation) that needs to be circumnavigated. His question to critics was whether we can judge and condemn the emergency response at the moment, given the magnitude of the task at hand and the task still to come.

Later speakers and audience members researching natural disasters also called for a focus away from human failure. Their argument was that warning and prevention systems were in place, and had resulted in an estimated 80% mortality reduction compared to earlier tsunamis (I forgot to note down whether what data the figure was compared to). The sober opinion that ‘we have to realise that you cannot reduce mortality to zero’ and that, despite the huge and tragic loss of life, the outcome of the event was much better than it would have been without safeguards in place (considering what could have happened) ran in stark contrast with news narratives of failure and ‘apocalypse’. The attitude in Japan was summed up by presenter Narumi Harada, (who had worked at a the Ishinomaki Red Cross Hospital in the tsunami area) as ‘there is nothing we can to further, but we’ll do all we can.’

The last part of the symposium was reserved for earth science’s narrative. One interesting aspect in this for me was the mentioning of the role of ‘socio-technology’, which was defined as ‘joint social science, science and engineering projects’ that are becoming more frequent in the field of disaster management. Peter Sammonds, director of UCL’s Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction, talked about the influences of such projects on people’s responses to risk: that there will always be people who ‘are going to have a look rather than taking themselves to safety’ and that such projects have been effective in changing people’s behaviour, thus reducing mortality. Later in his talk, he also gave some insights into the social consequences that often follow in the wake of disasters. The examples he mentioned, aside from obvious impacts such as loss of life and homelessness, were the systematic massacres and assassinations that followed in the wake of the 1923 Kanto earthquake. He reminded the audience that we always need to bear in mind wider social changes that just the immediate ones.

For me, the symposium threw up interesting questions about what kind of disaster narratives have which effects. It has been pointed out that the sensationalist talk of ‘apocalypse’ is entirely unhelpful, although it
may actually have a beneficial function in rallying support. Most presenters seemed to disagree with the latter argument. But then, what do the different alternative narratives do (and how many are there)? Could a more balanced reporting on the disaster provoke the same supportive response? Could highlighting the potential ‘everydayness’ of such occurrences make people even more sensitive to other people’s need for support? One of the speakers, Kozo Hiramatsu, director of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, appeared to argue strongly against a short intense focus through the momentarily dramatic, and for a more quiet long-term support for people in their everyday lives. A victim of the Hanshin/Kobe earthquake himself, he gave a witness account of the long-lasting mental effects of such disasters and pleaded for people to keep in touch with disaster victims over time: ‘There are as many stories as there are victims’. The question here was how one sustains such a ‘quiet connection’ and what would perhaps need to be put in place. One example Sammonds mentioned was the post-Haiti Thinking Development project, a collaboration between researchers/students at UCL and in Haiti, which strives to give people in a disaster area a place where they can congregate and regain a sense of safety.

Besides questions regarding alternative narratives, thoughts about what we can do remained. Many audience members asked about or called for improvements to engineering, warning systems or city planning. One audience member even asked whether pressure on the earth plates could be artificially released in instalments rather than letting it all go off in one big rupture. To this, the answer so far seemed to echo the theme from my last post: that we as humans are subjected to forces we cannot have a sufficient impact on to protect ourselves from them (we can only seem to amplify, not decompress). In this context, the ‘technical details’ of the earthquake and tsunami were very helpful to gain a sense of the task of protecting ourselves from catastrophes. In response to the lingering question whether this event could have been (or was) predicted, Peter Sammonds offered several insightful angles.

As far as I understood, the main problem with the Tohoku Earthquake was that, while earthquakes were predicted for this area, it was not predicted that so much would be ruptured in a single earthquake. It was assumed that they would go one by one, resulting in a series of smaller earthquakes. Likewise, no one had expected such a high tsunami to hit the land. On the other hand, Sammonds mentioned the publication of a PhD student who had predicted in 2003 that such a magnitude of destruction was indeed possible. Here, questions about how much can be do through engineering to protect ourselves surfaced. Sammonds also tried to answer queries about future earthquakes, not only regarding after-quakes in the same area, but also possible Tokyo earthquakes. However, he pointed out that the calculations, for instance, on the stress of other parts of the earth’s crust, were still on-going to determine whether other events were likely to follow. He closed by pointing to a new research and prediction tool called ‘TwinSat’ which is being developed to monitor electro-magnetic signatures from space to engage with both earthquakes and volcano outbreaks.

To not leave visitors too frustrated at their inability to deal with earth forces, the convenor pointed to different fundraising events which were taking place at UCL, which I will pass on. I will also add two other events which I am involved in as a musician/DJ. For future Japan-related events at UCL, please contact UCL’s Japanese Society (no website, but can be found on facebook).

‘Buy Art for Japan’, Slade School of Art. Concept: buy a ticket for £20, which will allow you to take home a piece of art.
The event will take place today (23 March) from 10.30am (throughout the day) in UCL’s North Cloisters.
In addition, there will be cake sales in the South Junction: 22, 23, 24 March 2011, 11am-2pm.

‘Concert for Japan’
27 March, 18:30 – 23:30 at The Others, Stoke Newington, 6-8 Manor Rd, London N16 5SA. £5
* Laetitia Sadier (Stereolab/Monade)
* Bang & Olufsen (Hot Chip/Grovesnor)
* Man From Uranus
* Roshi
* Mouth4Rusty
+ DJs The 2Bears (Hot Chip), Gaggle and Now

‘Gambaré Japan ~ We are with you’
9 April
Music event, details TBC

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