Dartmouth students capped a term of language study in Japan with a week of volunteer service tackling the lingering effects of the March 11, 2011, earthquake.
Accompanied by Associate Professor of Japanese Jim Dorsey, who led the Dartmouth Language Study Abroad program in Tokyo during summer term 2013, the eight students traveled to the Miyagi Prefecture in northeastern Japan. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami had left valuable farmland around the city of Sendai so full of debris that much of it still cannot be cultivated. Working alongside Japanese university students, the Dartmouth group labored to clear the soil and sort the debris they removed for recycling. The hope is to return the land to production, restoring it for the farming families whose livelihoods had depended on it before the disaster.
As is usual for participants in Dartmouth’s Japan Language Study Abroad (LSA+) programs, Kimberly Hassel ’16, Jaki Kimball ’16, Ting Cheung “Tangent” Cheng ’16, and their Dartmouth classmates had spent their time in Tokyo immersed in Japanese language and culture. While studying at Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS), the students lived with Japanese host families, and complemented their academic work with trips to important scenic, cultural, and historic sites.
Two years after the events of March 11, 2011, when an earthquake, a tsunami, and the related damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant roiled Japan, traces of the damage weren’t necessarily obvious to the students; as far as they could tell, life had returned to normal in Tokyo. Says Kimball (who plans a computer science/digital arts major and Japan studies minor, and is from San Francisco), “You wouldn’t know how things were different unless you knew just what you were looking for.”
However, the late August trip north to Sendai revealed a different world. Quartered at a Buddhist temple, the students joined a steady stream of Japanese volunteers who had come to work on this project. The Tohoku Volunteer Center at Nishi Honganji Temple, Sendai, says Dorsey, “hit a milestone while we were there: 20,000. That is to say, that the center had dispatched that many people to the various projects they are coordinating or cooperating with.” He continues, “As the director of the center said, it is a number to rejoice and lament. Rejoice because it indicates the extent to which people care and want to help. Lament because it suggests the extent of the devastation to the area and the need for ongoing reconstruction.”
Why volunteer in this way? In part, Hassel, a government and Japanese double major from Queens N.Y., says, it was about responding to the generosity the students experienced throughout their time in Japan, the hospitality and welcome from their host families and their fellow students at KUIS. It also offered the chance to deepen their sense of connection to Japan, says Cheng, an economics and Japanese double major from New York. “We got more of a perspective on the country; it made the program seem a whole lot more significant.” While many of their fellow volunteers were also university students, the Dartmouth students had no doubt that they had left the “bubble” of academia.
The work was physically demanding, the students say. “The earthquake broke things up, and then the tsunami mixed them around,” Kimball notes. That makes it a challenging task to reclaim the soil, a real need in a small country without farmland to spare and not wanting to discard material that can be reclaimed and recycled. And the work was emotionally draining at times as well. Cheng recalls coming across broken electronics in the debris, familiar objects offering “traces of a life like mine,” now vanished.
Now back at Dartmouth, all three think of themselves and their fellow volunteers as eyewitnesses who bring word back to Hanover that a story long out of the news is not over yet. They’re open to how their newly complex view of Japan might emerge in their coursework here, whether in government, economics, or further study of Japan.
The 2013 project was the second post-LSA+ service experience Dorsey has coordinated in Japan; he hopes to repeat it following the language program he will lead in 2014. “The volunteer expedition is a way for Dartmouth students (and faculty) to both demonstrate solidarity with a population that has suffered tremendously from the tsunami and to contribute to the recovery of that area,” he says.
For Hassel, the experience “solidified my resolve to be one of those people who effect change.”
For Cheng, the work shifted his sense of what he can do as a volunteer. Although he had experience with charity fundraising, he says, “hands-on service work was a new thing for me.” He intends to do more.
Kimball finds herself aware of “how long it really takes for a place to recover from a natural disaster.” And, she says, “All of us appreciate what people there are still dealing with.”
And, says Dorsey, the service project is an “all but perfect final project for students who’ve spent a summer studying Japanese language and culture. Living and working side-by-side with local farmers, displaced residents, and fellow volunteers affords the students the opportunity to fully employ their Japanese language abilities and understanding of a very foreign ‘cultural logic.’ It is experiential learning at its best.”