Public Health Perspectives: Japan

For my STEP Signature Project, I did an Education Abroad trip to Japan that focused on public health issues in the country. With a group of students from Ohio State I traveled to 6 cities in Japan and learned about the unique issues affecting each of the cities.

This trip changed the way I view disasters, both natural and manmade. From a classroom far away from a disaster it is easy to oversimplify an issue instead of learning from it. After visiting many communities that have been impacted by earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear fallout, and contaminated water among other issues, taught me to think about the impact of these events in a holistic way that considers not just the physical damages but the emotional consequences.

This trip allowed me to view the United States as an outsider and consider issues we face in this country from another perspective. It was interesting seeing the issues that both the United States and Japan face and how each country is handling these issues. It was interesting seeing how geography and history play a part in the economic and social policy decisions made in both countries. Through the conversations I had with locals in Japan I learned how their beliefs influenced their policies, and I realized how my beliefs were tied to the policies we have in the United States.

The first city we visited outside of Tokyo was Fukushima, which was badly hit by the earthquake and tsunami which caused a meltdown at the nearby nuclear plant. Due to the damage at the nuclear plant people living in the surrounding area are not allowed to return to their homes. Even though the earthquake and tsunami happened over 5 years ago, since no one lives in the area no efforts have been done to revitalize the area. Being able to see with my own eyes the damages of the combined earthquake and tsunami was very impactful. There is no way I could have understood the scope of natural disasters the same way from a classroom.

Another city we visited early in the trip was Toyama, where we learned about Itai-Itai disease and what the community learned from it. At the Itai-Itai disease museum we learned that the disease was caused by cadmium poisoning in their water supply that they also used to irrigate the rice fields. The cadmium got into the water supply from a mine upstream. The cadmium poisoning caused victims bones to become extremely brittle. Itai-Itai disease translates to “it hurts-it hurts”, because that’s what the victims would constantly repeat. As disease progressed even the weight of a blanket could cause bones to fracture. This disease was a large burden of on both the victims and their families that took care of them. It also created stigma against the community for many years to come out of fear of the disease. This has influenced the politics in Toyama to this day. The community has a strong commitment to protecting the environment, and citizens make regular visits to the mine to make sure it is taking precautions to protect the environment from contamination. The families of survivors make sure that history is not repeated in Japan.

On the final day of the trip we visited Ookawa and heard from a father who lost his child when a tsunami hit her elementary school. This is another example of the power of the survivors of tragedy. The tsunami caused the death of most of the students and staff at the elementary school. More than 80 lives were lost. The father gave us a tour of the remains of the elementary school, and emotionally told the story of his daughters last day. He highlighted all the ways that better disaster planning could have prevented the devastating death toll. Hearing his story and perspective is something I will never forget and implement as a public health professional.

This trip changed the way I view the results of public health disasters and this will change the way I try to create public health solutions in the future as a public health professional. After seeing how different it is to hear something in a classroom and see it in real life, I will change the way I think of things in my academics. Often in the classroom we learn about issues through facts and figures, but after this trip I will remember to consider the emotion behind and causing issues we face. I will continue to use this new mindset when I graduate and am a public health professional. After hearing from the victims of disasters and their families on this trip, if I am ever tackling a crisis I will make sure to talk to the people who have experienced it. Overall, this trip changed my perspective on public health issues no matter if they are in the United States or in a foreign country.