Study tour brings Fukushima students UW-Madison

March 7, 2014

by Kerry Hill

In the days leading up to the third anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, Madison will host a group of students from Fukushima University, who will speak at a public event about their lives back home.

The 23 Japanese students — accompanied by two chaperones and a guide — are in the United States on a study tour, called the "The Kakehashi Project — The Bridge for Tomorrow," which will bring them to Madison on March 8-11, between stops on the East and West coasts.

On Sunday, March 9, the students will be featured at a public program and reception, 1:30-4:30 p.m., at the Unitarian Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive. Their presentations on life today in Fukushima will address such topics as the education of children, local communities after the earthquake, the current condition and future of Fukushima, and reflections on disaster recovery.

On March 11, 2011, a tsunami triggered by a massive earthquake struck the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, resulting in a meltdown of three of the plant's six nuclear reactors.

The visit by the Fukushima students follows on a 10-day visit to Japan — although not in the Fukushima region — last May by 23 University of Wisconsin-Madison students, also part of the Kakehashi Project. Charo D'Etcheverry, UW-Madison associate professor of Japanese literature, accompanied the UW students and has been coordinating plans for the Madison visit by the Japanese students.

"It's exciting to have our students see themselves and their peers as actors in history, not just witnesses of it," D'Etcheverry says. "Even just talking with the group from Fukushima during the visit, Badgers will be building ties with fellow leaders in a generation that is going to need a lot of global teamwork. That's important for all of us."

Working through the Japan-U.S. Educational Commission, the Japanese government launched the Kakehashi Project is "to encourage greater understanding between the youth of Japan and the United States and to foster long-term and ongoing interest in one another by providing firsthand experiences with the culture of the other." The Japan-U.S. Educational Commission has been collaborating with the Japan Foundation, the Japan International Cooperation Center and the Laurasian Institution.

Local support for the students' visit is being provided by the Madison-Obihiro Sister Cities, UW-Madison's Center for East Asian Studies and Department of East Asian Languages and Literature, and the Bird Fund.

During their stay in Madison, the Fukushima students will have opportunities to meet with their peers at UW-Madison, including some of the American students who traveled to Japan last year.

Their itinerary includes welcome and farewell dinners provided by University Housing and hosted by the Nihongo Hausu (Japanese House) of the International Learning Community. Also, Madison restaurateur Shinji Muramoto, who helped to raise funds for relief efforts after the 2011 disaster, is hosting a family-style buffet lunch for the Fukushima group at his Sushi Muramoto.

The Japanese students also are scheduled to visit two Japanese language classes on campus and to tour Wisconsin's State Capitol.

On a side note, the group's guide, Patty Breun, is a 1995 UW-Madison graduate, with a B.A. in Japanese and music (violin). She has worked locally as a substitute teacher in the Madison Metropolitan School District and as a Japanese and violin teacher at Madison Country Day School.

Breun has lived in Japan twice as a participant in the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, mostly recently in 2009-11, along with her family. "We were there during the earthquake and tsunami, so I have direct experience with the disaster," she says.

In addition to the program and reception on Sunday, a public showing of the Japanese documentary Living through March 11 (2012) will be held Monday, March 10, at 6:30 p.m., in Room L150, of the Elvehjem Building at the Chazen Museum of Art, 800 University Ave.

Kenji Aoike's documentary recounts the aftermath of the March 11, 2011, disaster, at the Kadowaki Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. Based on interviews with 37 individuals associated with the elementary school, the film recounts the reactions and decisions made immediately following the massive earthquake.

The film will be followed by a panel discussion on the medical aspects of the disaster and also on children as a historical motif in Japan's modern experience with disasters. The students from Fukushima University will be joining this discussion.