Japanese rescuers search for survivors and victims in the debris of the tsunami devastation caused by the earthquake in Sendai, Japan. In response to the calamity there, members of the Harvard for Japan movement, together with the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies and the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations, are hosting “Harvard for Japan Week” through a slate of activities.

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Nation & World

Harvard rushes to aid Japan

6 min read

Web portals, discussions, benefits are being held in response to quake-created tragedy

For several days, Hiroko Kumaki didn’t know if her family was safe. The Harvard senior had seen the horrific images of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan last Friday (March 11), centered on her hometown, Sendai.

With phone lines down, she reached out to whomever she could. Eventually, she received word through a childhood friend who was able to reach her family by text message. Most of her relatives were safe, though uncertainty remained about some family members and friends, particularly those living near the crippled nuclear power plant.

In response to the calamity there, Kumaki and members of the Harvard for Japan movement, together with the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies and the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations, are hosting “Harvard for Japan Week” through a slate of activities starting with a candlelight vigil on Monday (March 21) and ending with a benefit concert by the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association on Saturday (March 26).

The events in between include a panel discussion, a film night, and a benefit concert by the Bach Society Orchestra Friday in Sanders Theatre, featuring world-renowned violin soloist and Harvard senior Ryu Goto.

As initial images of destruction flowed out of Japan last week, it took only hours for members of the Harvard community to spring into action. The University’s response has expanded rapidly in the days since, as community members work to raise money and awareness, aid the flow of helpful information, and begin to discuss helpful paths forward.

Harvard President Drew Faust expressed support for those caught in the destruction.

“All of us have watched with profound concern and sadness as Japan has confronted the devastating events of recent days,” said Faust. “I know I speak for the whole of the Harvard community in expressing deep sympathy to those who have suffered the loss of family and friends, who have seen their homes destroyed, and who continue to face uncertainty and danger.”

Just hours after hearing of the quake, the Harvard Center for Geographic Analysis put up a web portal whose aim is to assist the flow of vital geographic information for anyone interested, from rescuers on the ground to supporters from afar to those who, over time, seek lessons from the tragedy.

The data portal is sponsored by the Reischauer Institute, which has reconfigured its own web page to help people find information on the disaster. It features live web feeds from Japanese television stations, a link for donating to relief efforts, and a schedule of events for Harvard for Japan Week.

Jorge Domínguez, vice provost for international affairs, said the University activated its international emergency response team early Friday to begin accounting for Harvard-affiliated personnel in Japan, including those at Harvard Business School’s Tokyo office, eventually ascertaining that all affiliates known to be traveling there were safe.

Reischauer Institute Director Andrew Gordon, the Lee and Juliet Folger Fund Professor of History, said it was clear early on that it would be counterproductive for people to head to Japan to help. So once it was ascertained that Harvard affiliates were safe, the conversation quickly turned to practical ways to help.

In the short term, activities such as those led by the Harvard for Japan movement will show solidarity with the quake’s survivors. The medium term is less clear, Gordon said, since fellowships and summer programs involving travel to Japan may not be practical because of safety issues or because economic turmoil may limit the ability of Japanese companies to host students. On the other hand, he said, there may be opportunities for Harvard community members to volunteer with nonprofits to provide needed services. That determination, however, will have to wait.

In the long term, the discussion turned to scholarship, he said. Japan’s prime minister called this disaster the worst to hit the nation since World War II, an assessment with which Gordon and other scholars of Japan agree. That being the case, and with the Internet age meaning that much of the record of the disaster is only stored electronically, the discussion has turned to how material in such a transitory medium should be preserved, perhaps by archiving periodic snapshots of the web pages of representative organizations.

Closer in, the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) convened medical and humanitarian relief experts on Wednesday at the Forum at Harvard School of Public Health, which was webcast live. The discussion was led by Jennifer Leaning, François Xavier Bagnoud Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights and director of the Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, and featured Harvard Humanitarian Initiative Director Michael VanRooyen, an associate professor of medicine and of public health; Gordon Thompson, executive director of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies; Takemi Professor of International Health Policy Michael Reich; and Takashi Nagata, a physician and former HSPH fellow who joined the discussion via web linkup from Tokyo.

Nagata, who had spent days in the disaster zone and was planning to head back there, said the destruction was so complete and so difficult to bear that he broke down and cried several times. The panelists acknowledged that travel to Japan, except for people with specifically required skills, was unwise. They also said the Japanese government needed to do a better job of sharing information so that people in the affected areas maintained their trust in the government and continued to heed its directions.

Ariana Baurley, the publicity chair of the Bach Society Orchestra, said that although a concert was long planned for next Friday (March 25), after the earthquake, orchestra members decided to make it a benefit for the Red Cross’ Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Fund, as part of the Harvard for Japan events.

“We were all really touched by the tragedy,” Baurley said.

For a list of upcoming events and where to donate.