Connecting cultures

Students remember anniversary of Japanese earthquake by participating in Japan Week


Thousands more went missing, and the amount of destruction the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami caused millions of dollars in damage to the country’s infrastructure.

Three years later, the MSU community spent several days remembering and reflecting on the incident in an annual event known as Japan Week.

On Tuesday evening, about 20 people closed the week of events by folding 270 Sonobe modules, which came together to create a piece of origami known as an Epcot ball.

The Epcot ball allowed people to work towards a bigger goal piece by piece, alluding to the rebuilding of Japan since 2011, said Betsy Lavolette, a second language studies doctoral student.

People interested in learning more about the Japanese culture joined Lavolette, who led Tuesday’s origami workshop, to learn how to form the sonobe pieces comprising the Epcot ball.

Lavolette said she studied Japanese during her undergraduate years at MSU, which gives her a personal connection to Japan Week.

Throughout the week, attendees and event organizers reflected on the disasters and attempted to raise awareness for a country that suffered so much, but still was able to come back.

Past vs. present

For the past two years at MSU, Japan Week has focused on commemorating the March 11, 2011, tsunami and earthquake disasters.

Before the disasters took place, Japan Week was an event solely focusing on Japanese culture, featuring different speakers and film series, said Catherine Ryu , associate professor of Japanese .

Since then, Japan Week has become more of a remembrance event.

The Asian Studies Center has always dedicated a time period for specific Asian communities, even before the disasters took place, said Julie Hagstrom , the center’s assistant director.

“It’s a tradition here at MSU and a tradition for the Asian Studies Center to do either a Japan Month or Week,” Hagstrom said. “In this particular case, commemorating the events of 3/11, as people have come to call it by shorthand, is really important because it’s a historical event.”

The Asian Studies Center i s an all-Asia center and only one of two in the nation.

The center receives its funding from the Department of Education and was a co-sponsor of this year’s event.

Reflecting on disaster

In the past few years, scientists came in to discuss the ramifications of the disasters.

But this year, Ryu said she chose to go about it a little differently.

She invited students studying Japanese to present poetry expressing their feelings about the disasters and reflecting on the incident as a whole.

“I wanted to think about the way we deal with disasters as it happens and then how we capture that experience through different mediums,” Ryu said. “I chose poetry because quiet language (addresses) deeper layer of our thoughts, things that we cannot really express in prose.”

Students studying Japanese wrote their own haiku or tanka, which are forms of Japanese poetry with specific structures.

Ruipeng Lu, an international relations sophomore from China, said he wrote a tanka poem to express his best wishes to Japan.

“First of all it’s a foreign language to write, so it’s a little bit hard for me to get direct feeling from the poem,” Lu said. “But after I read some haiku or tanka from other people, I feel more and more impressed and I can feel the sadness and somehow the positive feeling inside it.”

Along with poetry, other students wrote their reactions to essays written by children who experienced the tsunami and earthquake.

Japanese senior Emily Hammond, who wrote a reaction piece, said it is important to remember and raise awareness of the immense the struggle Japan went through, even three years later.

“A lot of people know very little about Japan,” Hammond said. “They know anime ... but they don’t know what a great people they are or even what they’ve gone through.”

Putting it in perspective

To give those interested a feel of what it was like for Japanese residents right after the disasters, Japanese history associate professor Ethan Segal organized a documentary screening, followed by a discussion.

The 2012 documentary “Pray for Japan” showed the wreckage following the disasters in 2011.

It also follows survivors of the event, capturing their feelings and emotional and physical state.

Segal, who is also an expert on Japanese culture, said the film focuses on how the people of Japan dealt with the disasters and how the events eventually remodeled Japanese society.

He said Japan Week helps draw attention to an important partner of the U.S.

“We’re involved with very strong economic connections to Japan,” Segal said.

He said many students on MSU’s campus are connected to Japan through their reliance on various products that were manufactured or designed in Japan, even if they don’t realize it at first glance.

“It’s a culture and society and his tory that shares many things with ours, and yet it is also very different; so it’s a great chance to learn about yourself as well as learn about another culture,” Segal said.

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