OU Professor Puts Japan Disasters in Perspective

  • Aug. 24, 2011, 8:16 p.m.

Map of Japan

August marks the five-month anniversary of the earthquake that occurred off the Pacific coast of Japan’s northern Tohoku region. The earthquake measured at magnitude 9.0 on the Richter scale, spawned a massive tsunami, which flattened or heavily damaged coastal cities and towns, resulting in over 20,000 dead or missing, and severely damaged Fukushima prefecture’s Daiichi nuclear power reactor, spreading radioactive fallout that has been detected in the nation’s food supply.

OU Professor Elyssa Faison teaches several undergraduate courses in East Asian history, including Japanese History from 1850 to the Present. For several years she has also taught graduate courses through the University of Oklahoma's College of Professional and Continuing Studies, which offers advanced degrees to military personnel serving on domestic and overseas bases, including Hickham Air Force Base in Hawaii and Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Faison visited northern Japan for three weeks in January, returning to the United States just two months before the earthquake, and said that the months that have elapsed since the disaster have been marginally calming for her personal contacts there. “I’ve gotten Facebook updates from friends in Tokyo about the aftershocks they’ve been feeling, saying, ‘Oh, here’s another one!’” Faison said. “The people in Tokyo are really feeling these aftershocks on a weekly, almost daily, basis, seeing buildings sway. It creates a great sense of unease that’s going to have an impact on the culture there.”

The long-term effects of crisis, which often initiates or hastens cultural change, particularly in Japan, which has experienced several transformative upheavals, is a main focus of Faison’s Advanced Programs courses. “The courses I teach have to do with the issue of historical memory,” Faison explained. “That is, they look at events that happened in the past and become a way for us to talk about both those events and how they’ve impacted Japanese society up to today.”

An example Faison points to is Remembering the Asian Pacific War, a seminar that addresses the postwar legacy of Japan’s catastrophic defeat at the end of World War II. Students learn, Faison says, that while the United States more or less reverted to a semblance of normalcy after the war, Japan, which lay in ruins, reemerged with a fundamentally altered political system and changed political boundaries, forever darkening Japanese attitudes toward war and militarism.

Part of that postwar dynamic is also addressed in another seminar Faison offers, Japan and the Atomic Bomb. The course offers students a focused look at the impact of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from both sides of the war, examining their effects on those directly exposed to radiation and Japan’s postwar relationship to nuclear warfare.

The subject is pertinent when considering the ongoing Fukushima nuclear reactor crisis, an event, Faison believes, that together with the earthquake and the tsunami could have more long-term political and social effects on Japanese society.

There are signs that would seem to confirm her belief. In response to public indignation over nuclear safety and skepticism in the government’s ability to manage it, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan at a July news conference called for Japan to begin to reduce its dependence on nuclear energy, a radical shift that would eliminate what today accounts for nearly one-third of the country’s energy infrastructure.

Faison believes that American military personnel learn from these courses that the history is important to understand the Japanese counterparts who are often training side by side with them. “While most Japanese weren’t born during the war, both it and the earthquake have had similar effects on Japan’s culture,” she said. “This is one example of how these courses can be extremely valuable.”

Further information on military services at the College of Professional and Continuing Studies can be found at goou.ou.edu.