※The content in this article has been translated from this interview by Nikkei Business Online
On April 14th, 2016, an earthquake struck the center of Kumamoto prefecture in Kyushu and the surrounding area. In Kumamoto, the deaths of over 40 people have been reported, Aso Ohashi has collapsed and damages to various places have arisen. Furthermore, in the early morning of the 16th, another large earthquake occurred, this time in Oita prefecture with level 6 tremors having been reported.
Nikkei Business Online asked the vice-president of Beppu, Oita prefecture’s Asia Pacific University (APU), Mr. Imamura Masaharu, about the outbreak of the earthquake and the present conditions.
Of APU’s 6000 students, half of them are international students from 80 countries. Moreover, since it is April (when the new school year begins in Japan), 549 new Japanese students and 325 new international students entered the school. Most of the previously mentioned international students had just moved into the school’s dormitory. 1114 students from 50 countries and regions live in the dormitory and many also live in the city.
How did APU, one of Japan’s leading universities with so many students from inside and outside the country confront and deal with the earthquake?
The level 6 earthquake in Beppu, Oita prefecture happened at 1:25 in the morning on April 16th. On April 14th, Kumamoto prefecture faced an earthquake of level 7, followed by continuous aftershocks. In Oita we also felt tremors sometimes, so in a sense, we were mentally prepared. Nevertheless, level 6 earthquakes are severe.
What we worried about were the students, especially what the exchange students who had come from overseas and the new students who were unfamiliar with Beppu would do. Many of the international students had never experienced an earthquake. Because of that, we put all our energy into ensuring their safety and welfare.
We started with the school dormitories. APU’s campus is on a suburban mountain, and of the 5974 students (as of April 2016), around 1200 of them live on-campus in a school dormitory called AP House. With the guidance of the campus management staff and the RAs, immediately following the earthquake, all of the students in the dorm temporarily evacuated to the campus parking lot. Happily, it was not raining, and the students had enacted disaster drills before, so they were able to conduct themselves calmly.
After the occurrence of the earthquake, through [the school’s] intranet, we conducted a confirmation of the safety of the students and staff. We then received responses from around 4000 of the 5974 students. Fortunately, through later investigation, it was found that the students only experienced minor injuries.
Starting on the early morning of April 16th, we, of course, received a flood of phone call and email inquiries from the families of students within Japan asking about the safety of their children, the situation of the university, the circumstances of the earthquake and “do you plan to have classes next week?” “I would like my child to come home” etc.
[They] were shocked by the news of serious damage in Kumamoto, and as the memory of the Tohoku earthquake is still fresh in their minds, it is no wonder that families of international students would worry about Japan from the start.
Furthermore, we received inquiries from various embassies and consulates.
Immediately following the earthquake, the students living in Beppu called out to one another, moving to the evacuation centers created in various parts of the city. Especially on the night of the 16th, and the following night of the 17th after being cautious of aftershocks, around 1000 students were at each shelter. At some evacuation centers, it seems that more than half of the evacuees were students from Asia Pacific University.
Honestly, because the earthquake happened in the middle of the night, we worried about the students in the shelters. Half of the exchange students had never experienced an earthquake. So suddenly encountering a level 6 earthquake would certainly cause them to panic. Also, even if they were used to Japan to some extent, it is a place where they cannot communicate in the native languages of their countries.
Even while both Japanese and international students in the evacuation centers were saying “it was my first major earthquake and it was very scary”, at the shelters they decided to proactively help each other thinking “what can we do?” Taking initiative, they distributed blankets and other goods.
There were some reports saying that even though Beppu has many international students, English communication was not done at the evacuation centers or that there was not enough preparation for earthquakes.
However, Beppu is a special place with thousands of students living here and moreover, half of them are international students. At the evacuation centers, the ordinary citizens and the students helped each other while overcoming the difficulty. This may sound like an exaggeration but this may be a first in the history of Japan’s disasters up until now.
As of April 19th, Beppu mostly recovered normally from the current situation on Monday the 18th, with the city schools and kindergartens resuming classes and supermarkets, convenience stores and onsens opening for business.
We are still worried about the aftershocks but are regaining peace in the city and on campus as well as preparing to resume classes.
What we are now thinking of taking urgent measures for is to thoroughly share information with the university and teachers, staff and students as well as parents not only with the school’s intranet but also through the university homepage, Facebook, and other social media. This time, writing the instructions and other such things from the shelter on Facebook was helpful.
Also, we are doing as much as we can to dispatch information about relevant evacuation and contact information in Japanese and English as soon as possible. At our school, we are following up with the international office to arrange a system to share information in Chinese, Korean, Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese and other languages.
From now on, we are considering how to send the students who have emotional shock from the earthquake back to student life and city life without anxiety through counseling and support systems. And as for dealing with disaster prevention, we would like to make improvements with input from students based on this experience. Furthermore, I would like to collaborate more with the government and citizen’s group using the lessons we have learned from experiencing this disaster.
Read the full interview with Mr. Imamura (in Japanese) here.