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Conference Report: “Humanity and Humanitarianism in Crisis”

After many months of following and writing about the triple disasters in Fukushima, Japan- the earthquake, the tsunami, and the meltdown of the nuclear power plants—I was pleased to discover a conference that seemed as though it might touch on precisely these issues.

I signed up to attend the annual meeting held in Tokyo in Mid-March, of the Asia Association for Global Studies (AAGS), a forum for international educators focusing on global events across many disciplines, to be held in Tokyo. The theme for the annual conference was “Humanity and Humanitarianism in Crisis.” Hosted by International Christian University in Tokyo, Japan between March 17 and 18, 2012, the conference setting was very comfortable, even opulent- International Christian University, a huge university campus on the outskirts of Tokyo, replete with topiary gardens and what will soon, with a little rain, be a plush carpet of moss, felt like a 1970‘s American island in a Japanese sea. And about as far away from the disasters we were recounting, as it could be.

Some of us conference presenters even attempted to take a side trip up north to Fukushima, to better understand the scenario we had been writing about, only to be kindly but firmly told to observe the exclusion zone around Ground Zero. And that if we were so foolhardy as to try the trip, we would need special papers and steel toed boots to enter the zone. Our safety could not be guaranteed and we gave up. The conference presentations were interesting, thoughtful, often inspired, some genuinely moving. My goal here is to portray a very brief sampling of the talks. All conference papers are posted on the AAGS website and many will later be published as conference proceedings.

The keynote speaker was Charles McJilton. Charles McJilton, the CEO and founder of Second Harvest Japan (2HJ), originally came to Japan in 1984 with the US military and returned in 1991 to conduct research at Sophia University. During this time he lived in San’ya, a low-income area of Tokyo that is home to many day-laborers. Determined to understand the difficulties faced by the homeless, he lived with them in a cardboard house along the Sumida River from January 1997 to April 1998. McJilton’s comments:

I was a professional by day. As long as I wore my tie and my suit, and smelled clean from the shower, nobody would know or think to inquire where or how I lived. In fact, nobody at work knew I lived in a cardboard box with a group of day laborers. The subject just didn’t come up. The men I knew had great dignity and many were very knowledgeable. One guy—well anything you wanted to know about haiku, he could tell you. They did not behave or act like they were down and out…And from those who supposedly have nothing; they freely shared their food, resources, and time with me.

In 2000, McJilton became co-chair of a coalition working together to share food resources for their own programs. Two years later, he incorporated Second Harvest Japan, the first food bank in Japan. 2HJ collects food that would otherwise go to waste and distributes it to people in need.

I existed between two worlds: theirs [the homeless men on the Sumida-gawa] and corporate Japan. I have to be honest in saying that I feel more comfortable with these men. They have taught me much about the value of human relations and what it means to be human in the face of an inhuman situation. My one desire is for other people to come to know and understand them as I have: my brothers struggling simply to live in the face of adversity.

In addition to working for Second Harvest, Mr. McJilton teaches NGO management at Sophia University. McJilton’s sympathetic keynote speech was about being down and out in one of the world’s cities, which unobtrusively flaunts great wealth, Tokyo. He was living with those who exist at the bottom of the ladder, whose very existence is denied by their more well-heeled neighbors, battered not by occasional catastrophes but by a perpetual economic crisis, and will never be the recipients of governmental largesse. McJilton devised a pragmatic solution of gathering and providing to those who were hungry, “unneeded” food aid. His speech, which set the tone for the conference- concern for those in distress, was very much to the point.

Iskra Gencheva-Mikami, Lakeland College, Japan

This presentation will focus on the impact of natural disasters on individuals and communities from ancient times until nowadays…By exploring the role played by people in disastrous situations, it will analyze how they have been affected and how they have resisted the traumatic experience according to their human nature.

This was one of the most beautiful and evocative presentations during the conference, as it used fragments from the letters of Pliny the Younger and images of illuminated Pompeiian wall friezes and calcified bodies lying just as they were when engulfed by volcanic ash, to evoke what was called in Latin lacrimae rerum – there are tears for certain things. Evocative in their own way, as were the bodies hanging from the trees in Fukushima.

We have read so many stories of disaster encounters that this account should have a very familiar ring to it, describing a combination of the earthquake and the tsunami and just as she pointed out, resisting the traumatic experience —yet it was written not on March 11, 2011, but in August 79 AD.

Mount Vesuvius exploded in August 79 A.D…A “firestorm” of poisonous vapors and molten debris suffocated the inhabitants of the neighboring Roman resort cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae. The cities remained buried for almost 1700 years until excavation began in 1748.

But their story…is available to us through the voice of Pliny the Younger, whose letters to his friend Tacitus were discovered in the 16th century. They describe his experience during the eruption…

Ashes were already falling…I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood…’We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.

You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.

…A gleam of light returned, but we took this to be a warning of the approaching flames rather than daylight. However, the flames remained some distance off; then darkness came on once more and ashes began to fall again, this time in heavy showers. We rose from time to time and shook them off, otherwise we should have been buried and crushed beneath their weight. I could boast that not a groan or cry of fear escaped me in these perils, but I admit that I derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me and I with it.

Another story of volcanic eruption, tsunami, attempts to deal with the crisis while respecting the autonomy of the indigenous people, some 2000 years later.

Annisa Srikandini, Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia

Annisa Srikandini argues that although NGOs and donor governments carry out humanitarian actions in the aftermath of disaster they may also unwittingly reinforce root causes and conditions. She argues for the concept of disaster governance, preserving the resilience of affected people in the face of disaster. Accounts of the eruption and tsunami bear a strong resemblance to those in Japan.

And the roles assumed by USAID and NGOs appear on the face of it to follow recommendations – to fund and assist people affected by the disaster so that they may resume their normal lives. And then to withdraw.

On October 25, 2010 a 7.7-magnitude earthquake off the coast of West Sumatra triggered a tsunami that destroyed villages and displaced thousands of people in the Mentawai Islands A day later, the Mount Merapi volcano in Central Java erupted, killing more than 32 people, and displacing more than 40,000 people from their homes. USAID, Red Cross and NGO staff worked with local officials to provide coordinated assistance. Eruptions continued into the spring of 2011.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) provided D$2 million in humanitarian assistance, working closely with the Indonesian Government, the National Agency for Disaster Management (BNPB), and local NGOs to deliver the assistance.

The funds were to be used for the immediate purchase, distribution and replenishment of relief items. The assistance also was intended to be used to help displaced persons return to their homes and resume their normal livelihoods, respecting the resilience of the indigenous people.” Impeccable intentions.

And yet two years later, there are angry accounts in the press by student activists and the Indonesian government about what is termed the inappropriate actions of foreign NGOs, especially Greenpeace. They have argued that the aid of foreign NGOs should be rejected as the NGOs have repeatedly attempted to undermine Indonesian sovereignty and discredit Indonesia in the press. “Legal observers from the University of Indonesia (UI), Darmono Budi, emphasized that foreign NGOs definitely give priority to foreign interests, not Indonesia. The Indonesian government should firmly crack down on foreign NGOs that adversely affect Indonesia, he said.”

By contrast, press coverage over the Japanese people’s anger and fear over the handling of the Fukushima disasters tend to be more focused against the government’s failure to act and over TEPCO’s evasive actions. It would be interesting to see a similar commentary on the actions of the Indonesian government.

Michelle Hui Shan Ho, University of Tokyo, Japan

Michelle Hui Shan Ho has vividly documented the Japanese people’s anger and fears over fallout from the disasters, especially nuclear fallout. She has focused on public perception of the possible radiation poisoning of foodstuffs and on those it most affects– Japanese housewives.

Seen in the context of Japanese infotainment television programs, which focus largely on consumer issues, health and lifestyle, this paper will examine representations of the recent ‘beef scare’ in July as a case study.

Although this TV show was aired in July 2011, housewives are still fearful of any foodstuffs especially beef, that emanate from Fukushima. In Tokyo, March 2012, I visited shopping centers to see if the speaker’s comments on gender and “the fear narrative” still hold true. And they appear to do so.

The placards next to pieces of beef, with lengthy inscriptions on where the beef came from, (in this case, Australia), and how it had been raised and treated, tended not to reassure the shopper but heighten her anxiety. It certainly heightened mine.

Given that local Fukushima politicians have been attempting to get Fukushima people to eat Fukushima produce that has already been condemned for sale, as a patriotic duty, I can well imagine this “beef scare” would have been good TV theatre and that it would have underscored the public’s sense of what our presenter called “a community at risk.”

Of course, it’s not just the beef that has people worried- it’s the environment as a whole. And as you get farther north in Japan, you will observe people carrying Geiger counters everywhere- to school, to work, to the grocery store—to find out how many clicks will register at a given point. If the reading is too high, the kids will be told they cannot go outside to play.

The last paper was another study in beautiful images and subtlety of the change in Asian people’s attitudes- here, towards old people. It did not focus on images of disaster or post disaster but upon a shift in mindset- in its own way, as sad and ominous as its earlier competitors.

Katharine Young, McGill University, Canada

This paper analyzes how images of old age in women, in East Asian art, show a transition from traditional respect and support for old age to modern celebration of youth. Is this an aspect of globalization?

Old people in Asia, particularly women, Young argues, are being displaced and shoved to the margins and this has implications for many public policy issues. Young’s presentation, which included many obscure, muted and generally sympathetic even reverent traditional Asian images of women in old age, made the point with restraint and clarity.

The early images (in some cases, exceedingly early) were juxtaposed with current, vibrant powerful pictures, primarily Chinese, of triumphant young women dressed in brilliant colors flexing their muscles as they operated massive machinery or hoed the ground. It appeared that the images of triumphant young women indicated that their supremacy was here to stay whereas the sympathetic images of older women are fading into obscurity.

If one examines these traditional Asian images in light of Japan as an aging society, where a significant percentage of the population is over 65, and further as an aging society badly battered by the recent events in Fukushima—a society where older people are no longer revered purely because of their age, it is hard to see this trend being reversed. And the prospects for their care by the government appear dim.

This very beautiful presentation was one that lasted in memory for a long time.


McJilton’s commentary on living with the down-and-outs in perpetual economic crisis in one of the wealthiest cities in the world was very effective. We were invited to exercise compassion and understanding. It was especially useful since the conference was so remote from the disastrous events which it was documenting.

The conference was indeed cross-disciplinary and sometimes a little awkward; at other times, as with the accounts of earthquakes across the centuries, comparisons brought forth interesting insights. Gencheva-Mikami’s presentation of the eruptions of Mt. Vesuvius and the devastation wrought on Pompeii and Herculaneum, recounted by Pliny the Younger, were offset by Srikandini’s account of the post tsunami and volcanic eruptions in Indonesia. And her remarks about foreign NGOs prompted thoughts of Japan, on the part of the government and TEPCO- although in Japan’s case the effect was the opposite- evasion, obscurity and withdrawal rather than intrusion.

The account of the “beef scare” by Michelle Hui Shan Ho was especially effective since it brought forth the core fears of the Japanese people—that their food, their bodies, their lives have been contaminated by radiation and that the government is refusing to tell them what is going on. The thought of women afraid to buy beef for fear it will poison their husbands and children is a genuinely saddening, whether their fears are accurate or not. The image of the Geiger counters being bought and used daily all over Japan to measure and somehow keep radiation at bay, is downright dreadful.

Katharine Young’s lament for the disappearance in Asia of Confucian reverence for older people, as it appeared in muted slides of elderly women… was juxtaposed with slides of modern young women, triumphant, colorful, arrogant, and the wave of the future. This was not a “disaster” paper or a “crisis paper” —it was a portrayal of the vanishing of a centuries-old way of life, revering the aged in Japan.

What can we conclude? Japan is not the only Asian country in distress but it has suffered the most; it may be in Japan that solutions may be found to the crises outlined above, and those solutions may be able to be applied to other countries similarly distraught. It is to be hoped that foreign NGOs will respect Japan’s resilience; this has been a powerful bone of contention relating to issues of mental health. One also hopes that the beef scare will prove to be upsetting enough to reveal information on the true state of radiation in Japan. And finally, one hopes that there is some way to bring Confucian values back into play, so that the former reverence for the dignity of old age may return also.