This story is part of GlobalAtlanta’s exclusive Japan special issue. Click here to read more.
Local schools and organizations are weighing whether to continue as planned with cultural programs and study trips in Japan in light of the earthquake and tsunami that wracked the country’s northeastern coast Friday.
The magnitude-8.9 quake shook buildings across the country sent 30-foot waves slamming into the coast. Miyagi prefecture, nearest to the offshore epicenter of the quake, was hit hardest. Multiple towns were completely wiped out. Officials estimate that the death toll could reach into the tens of thousands, though 2,800 were confirmed dead as of Monday.
Georgia universities are looking to carry on with summer study-abroad trips to regions less affected by the disaster.
Oglethorpe University is planning a 10-day trip in May centered in Kyoto with side visits to Hiroshima and Tokyo. Participants on that trip are to have the chance to stay with host families for a weekend.
“Right now, I’m monitoring it, I’m watching the events very carefully. I’m trying to hold off on making a final decision,” said Bob Steen, associate professor of Japanese at Oglethorpe, told GlobalAtlanta.
At least in Tokyo, Dr. Steen is confident that things will have stabilized by the time the trip rolls around.
The capital lies about 200 miles south of the epicenter. It was shaken by the quake but saw little damage from the tsunami. The city is experiencing three-hour planned blackouts as explosions at two nuclear reactors in Fukushima prefecture have cut power supplies and triggered fears that radioactive material could be released.
Most public trains in the city are operating, according to news reports, but damaged highways have made getting around the country more difficult than usual.
In a March 13 advisory, the U.S. State Department cautioned Americans against traveling to Japan until April 1, noting the potential for strong aftershocks and additional tsunamis that could affect coastal areas. The advisory also noted that the areas around Fukushima’s damaged reactors have been evacuated.
Dr. Steen planned to talk to a travel agent March 14 about the state of affairs in Tokyo and said he would address parents’ concerns at a March 16 meeting.
Emory University has intensive language programs starting in June, mostly in western Japan, where students would spend six to eight weeks. A program in a Tokyo suburb is the most likely to be affected, but so far no cancellations are foreseen, said Julia Bullock, Emory’s coordinator of Japan study abroad programs.
“To my knowledge, we are not going to be experiencing any disruptions to those programs,” said Dr. Bullock, who said she’s most keenly watching how the country’s infrastructure recovers.
She added that three Emory students currently studying in Japan have been contacted and are unharmed.
In the opposite direction, seven students and two city officials from Fukuoka, Atlanta’s sister city in western Japan, plan to go ahead with a March 20 trip to the U.S., which will include a stop at North Atlanta High School.
“At this moment, there is no change of our plan,” said Mariko Shichijo, a coordinator for the international affairs department. The group will visit Atlanta and Oakland, Calif., to shore up sister-city relationships and discuss future cooperation.
In June, three Atlanta students are slated to head to Fukuoka, and in July, four more elementary students will spend two weeks learning about the city while attending the Asian-Pacific Children’s Convention.
While schools aim to carry on, the Consulate General of Japan in Atlanta is weighing whether to cancel its participation in certain cultural programs.
The consulate partnered with the High Museum of Art for a three-week Japanese Film Festival that ends this Friday. The second screening was March 11, the day of the quake.
Consular officials didn’t attend the event but let the show go on out of consideration for the High Museum. The next day, the consulate received a notice from the Japanese government to cancel such cultural activities unless it would adversely affect a partner organization, said Yukimi Kurata, a consul in Atlanta.
The consulate is still trying to determine whether it will participate in upcoming events like Macon‘s International Cherry Blossom Festival March 18-27. The middle Georgia city’s more than 300,000 Yoshino cherry trees originated in Japan. The festival is often sponsored by Japanese companies and attended by dignitaries from the country.