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At Dartmouth, Japanese Students Detail Progress Made Post-Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

  • Takashi Jinno, a professor at Waseda University and a member of the Asakawa Peace Association, second from left, and three studens from highs schools in Japan's Fukushima Prefecture were shown items in relating to former Dartmouth student Kan’ichi Asakawa in the Rauner Library archive by librarian Morgan Swan, left, during a visit to Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Friday, July 27, 2018. The students, Takuma Watanabe, 16, left, Honoka Hayashi, 16, middle, and Yuki Igarashi, right, were winners of an essay contest held by the Asakawa Peace Association which earned them a place on the trip to the United States. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Chenfeng Ke, assistant professor of chemistry, questions Fukushima High School student Yuki Igarashi, left, about the cleanup of radioactive material after her presentation on the 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster in Fukushima. Igarashi and two other students gave presentations to a gathering of students and academics at the Haldeman Center in Hanover, N.H., Friday, July 27, 2018. Sachi Schmidt-Hori, assistant professor of Japanese literature is at right. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Takuma Watanabe, 16, a student at Asaka Kaisei High School in Koriyama, Japan, photographs a plaque honoring Kan’ichi Asakawa, the first Japanese student to graduate from Dartmouth College, during a visit to the campus in Hanover, N.H., Friday, July 27, 2018. Asakawa graduated from the college in 1899 and went on to teach at Dartmouth and then at Yale. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Three students from Fukushima Prefecture in Japan say their goodbyes with Dartmouth sophomore Kiera Cary, third from right, assistant professor Sachi Schmidt-Hori, second from right, and sophomore Janine Sun, right, after their visit to Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Friday, July 26, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/27/2018 11:45:05 PM
Modified: 7/31/2018 1:48:25 PM

Hanover — Takuma Watanabe, 16, sat ramrod straight in the wood-backed chair along the wall of a Dartmouth College campus conference room on Friday morning, his lips moving silently as he worked his way through the speech, pages of black type marked liberally with a red pen.

“Yuki o dase.”

That’s the advice that Watanabe’s father, an air traffic controller, had given him when he found out that the teenaged Watanabe would soon leave their home in Fukushima Prefecture to deliver a speech — in English — to a group of Americans.

It means “be brave.”

That might seem like odd advice, given that Watanabe has spent the last seven years growing up in the shadow of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

In March 2011, a devastating earthquake and tsunami caused hydrogen air explosions and three nuclear meltdowns that contaminated the area with radiation and caused the evacuation of more than 150,000 of Fukushima’s 1.9 million residents.

Sitting next to Watanabe, who attends Asaka Kaisei High School, were two others, Honoka Hagashi and Yuki Igarashi, both of whom are 16-year-old attendees of Fukushima High School. The three teens were chosen from among 3,000 students who submitted essays about what Fukushima is like now, with media coverage waning and the Chernobyl-level disaster starting to recede into the past.

The students traveled with Takashi Jinno, a medieval Europe professor from Kyoto University, a journalist from a Fukushima newspaper, and a couple of school administrators who planned the trip as an opportunity for the high-achieving students and to help tell the world that Fukushima largely has overcome the fallout from the 2011 crisis.

“It’s getting better, and we want to propagate such news in America,” said Jinno, who sometimes helped to translate between the students and the Americans in the room, who included students, staff and faculty, each of whom had their own specific academic interest that related to Japan.

Before the presentation, Heather Drinan, associate director with Dartmouth’s Provost’s Office, led the delegation on a tour of the campus, including a stop in the Rauner Library to inspect the archives of Kani'ichi Asakawa, the son of a samurai who was born in Fukushima in 1873.

Asakawa, an academic and a peace advocate, both studied and lectured at Dartmouth, and died in Vermont in 1948.

His life, much of which was dedicated to bridging the gap between Japan and the United States, demonstrates the long-standing role that Dartmouth and the Upper Valley have played in creating a pocket of cultural diversity in New England.

An ongoing dialogue about the nuclear disaster in Fukushima has been a part of that tradition. In 2015, for example, Vermont artist Chiho Kaneko spoke to the Women’s Network of the Upper Valley about the impact of the disaster on Fukushima.

Watanabe said he’d spent two weeks preparing his presentation, and the students seemed nervous before they began their presentations, first problem-solving an unfamiliar lunch by tentatively feeling their way through the potential use of cutlery to consume burritos from Boloco.

One member of the small audience was Dartmouth’s Yusaku Horiuchi, a professor of government and Mitsui professor of Japanese studies.

Horiuchi said that his own research has shown that Japan’s people are like the people of many nations around the world, in that its opinion of the United States government shifted after the election of President Donald Trump, who has adopted a confrontational stance toward international partners.

“After Trump became president, (the view of the U.S.) went down in many countries, including Japan,” Horiuchi said.

But, unlike most of the world, the Japanese public has maintained a favorable opinion of the American people. Horiuchi said he’s exploring the idea that the reason behind this disconnect lies in the response of the United States in the aftermath of Fukushima’s nuclear disaster.

“The U.S. provided huge support right after the reactors went,” he said.

One by one, the students took their place at the front of the group and used PowerPoint presentations to relate their experiences and perceptions of Fukushima.

“Even though I remember how scared I was very clearly that day that I heard the news of the nuclear accident at the nuclear power plant, I was just 9 years old,” Watanabe said. “So, I could not understand what happened exactly, but I knew something serious had happened.”

Hagashi, a student athlete with a passion for volleyball, said she remembered being afraid to go outside because of the radiation.

“We had to have physical education indoors,” she said.

But the presentations focused mostly on Fukushima’s rebound from the accident, which included a massive decontamination campaign that has brought radioactivity down to levels that are comparable with other major cities, including New York and Singapore.

“Since the accident, we have worked hard to bring our homes back to normal,” Watanabe said, showing a picture of earth-moving equipment. “We removed over 3 million tons of water and soil.”

Igarashi described how workers used high-pressure hoses and knives to wash and de-bark Fukushima’s peach trees, allowing it to reclaim its spot as the second-largest producer of peaches in the nation.

Fukushima’s tourism levels now are exceeding pre-disaster numbers, and other agricultural products also have been cleared for distribution on the global market — since 2015, rice and high-quality sake from Fukushima are sold in many countries, including the United States.

Over the past seven years, their families and friends had overcome the challenge of the nuclear meltdown by, in part, being brave enough to reclaim their homes and culture.

But for the students, the national significance of that reclamation has faded, leaving them ready to tackle more immediate challenges— like public speaking.

As he wrapped up the final presentation, Watanabe gave a slight bow.

“Thank you so much for your kind attention,” he said.

Soon, he was sitting to the side of the table alongside Higashi and Igarashi, all three of them now relaxed and smiling, and ready for whatever came next.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at or 603-727-3211.


Kani'ichi Asakawa, the son of a Japanese samurai who was born in Fukushima in 1873, studied and lectured at Dartmouth College and became an academic and peace advocate. His name was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

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