When we think about Japanese disasters, we don’t usually think about Swarthmore’s efforts towards rebuilding the nation. Walking into McCabe last Sunday, however, I was surprised at the depth of the connection between the Tri-Co community and Japan. “Disasters and Rebuilding in Japan: Perspectives and Testimonies from the Tri-Co Collection” was an exhibition that traced the impact of four catastrophic events in Japan: the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the Kobe Earthquake of 1995 and the Triple Disaster of 2011.
Focusing particularly on Tri-Co archives and collections, the exhibition provided a glimpse into an unexpectedly longstanding association between the two countries. As early as 1923, Bryn Mawr alumna Anna Cope Hartshorne led the U.S. effort to rebuild Tsuda College after the Great Kanto Earthquake, and efforts continued extensively through the century until 2011, when Bryn Mawr students sent hundreds of paper cranes to areas struck by the Triple Disaster. Primary material such as letters sent to Swatties by children from affected areas surrounded the main area in McCabe, as well as panels and posters designed by students of the program that inspired the exhibit.
Under the guidance of Bryn Mawr College Professor Carola Hein and Swarthmore College Professors William Gardner and Tomoko Sakomura, students enrolled in three courses that specifically examined these disasters. Participants in the unique 360-degree program called “Perspectives on Sustainability” didn’t just look at Tri-Co attempts at rebuilding after disasters in Japan — they also considered the historical impact of disasters through mediums like literature, art and films. From writing about films like “Ponyo,” directed by Hayao Miyazaki, to looking at Oishinbo, a food manga graphic novel series, students involved themselves in a program that was both in-depth and incredibly disciplinary.
The focus on art and media worked towards bridging academia and the communities impacted by catastrophic events, so that themes such as nationalism, hope, education and technology were not just interpreted through a theoretical lens, but through a deeply cultural- and community-oriented one as well. The combination of primary research from Tri-Co archives and secondary research added to the intensity of the program, so that students considered not only the impact of disasters, but our efforts towards rebuilding as well, examining the role of communities beyond the boundaries of the nation.
Reflecting on the distinctive nature of the 360-degree program, one student wrote: “Class discussion brings to light just how interdisciplinary disaster and rebuilding is and should be. In Carola’s class we get a ‘bird’s eye view’ of the layout of cities, how they’re shaped, and how plans change and adapt over time, or are affected by different catalysts. On the other hand, as we do our readings for Professor Gardner’s literature class, we’re put right in the center of a story, experiencing what the city was like from a citizen’s personal view.”
Yet another student wrote about the personal impact of the class material, writing that the film “Hiroshima Mon Amour” made them realize “how personal and intimate, and how traumatizing, a disaster can be to someone, and how difficult it is for the victim, as well as those without direct experience to approach the memory of disaster.”
“Disasters and Rebuilding in Japan” appears to have provided participants with a well-rounded, intimate way to approach the memory of these disasters, focusing on scholarship without erasing the personal tragedies of four of Japan’s biggest catastrophes.
While the exhibition has been taken down from McCabe Library, you can still see it at Bryn Mawr College until March 7, or access an online version of the exhibition at http://bit.ly/1bdwqMN.