Nicole Gunawansa | November 10th, 2015
This interview was held on May 25th, 2015 in the Tohoku Medical Megabank Building
|Introduction to the Interviewee:
Dr. Masayuki Yamamoto is the Executive Director of Tohoku Medical Megabank Organization (ToMMo) at Tohoku University. Prior to obtaining his current position, Dr. Yamamoto demonstrated excellent leadership as the Vice President of Tohoku University (2008-2012) and as the Dean of the School of Medicine, Tohoku University (2008-2012). Following the Great East Japan Earthquake, he was a key contributor to the university's relief efforts and to the conception/establishment of ToMMo. As ToMMo's Executive Director, Dr. Yamamoto continues to serve the people of Tohoku through his ambitious endeavors and initiatives originating at this innovative institute.
Question 1: Where were you at the time of the earthquake?
Dr. Yamamoto: Having received the Award for Leading Edge in Basic Science from the Society of Toxicology in the Washington DC two days prior to the disaster, I returned to Tokyo in the early morning of 3/11. That day was particularly hectic as I had two conferences, one in Kyoto and the other in Tokyo, and when the earthquake started (around 2 pm) I was actually on a Shinkansen from Kyoto. Normally a bullet train trip from Kyoto to Tokyo takes a few hours, but this day my transport took 7 hours longer than expected, returning me to Tokyo at 10 pm. I was shocked to see the chaotic situation in Tokyo station as a result of so many people being stranded, unable to return their home. This raised my concerns about the situation in Tohoku, and as the Vice President of Tohoku University and the Dean of the School of Medicine, I felt a deep sense of responsibility to help alleviate the suffering of those at home.
I headed to the Tohoku University office in Tokyo and spent the night deliberating methods of providing disaster relief. At midnight I finally received news about the situation at the university from the administrative head officer of the medical school, who reported that no one was injured and everyone had been evacuated into a frigid gymnasium. With no electricity or heating, the students and staffs were left to endure the cold on this snowy March night. Unsure of how long utilities would be unavailable, I decided to ensure that evacuees at least had a warm and safe shelter. The morning of the 12th, I made accommodations to obtain 2,000 blankets and 600 futons (and pillow) from the leading company in Japan. Borrowing a truck, I left Tokyo that evening with the supplies in tow, but I experienced numerous obstacles along the way to Sendai. The main hindrance was access to the highway, which had been restricted to vehicles with big relief effort machinery and the Japan Self-Defense Force's cars. I negotiated with the understanding policemen and fortunately obtain a highway permit, allowing me to make it home and start providing for the devastated Tohoku people.
Question 2: Can you summarize your experience of being involved in the first responder efforts immediately after the disaster?
Dr. Yamamoto: On Sunday March 13th, administrative personal and professors from the medical school gathered at the interim disaster headquarter, located in Tohoku University's School of Medicine, to discuss the future of this city and recovery of our university. It was at this meeting that we decided to make an official headquarter office to confirm the safety and document the damage status of our school. We agreed to create a public homepage to facilitate the flow of information to the Japanese and the world about the disaster and recovery status in Tohoku. We requested that only pertinent, qualified medical staff report to the university to help the relief efforts run more smoothly. Moreover, this meeting instigated the tsunami affected area reconstruction by Tohoku University's School of Medicine volunteers; in the first two months following the disaster, 1500 staff/doctors contributed precious temporary coastal clinics to serve those who had suffered the most.
Question 3: How did Tohoku University School of Medicine persevere and unify for disaster recovery immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake?
Dr. Yamamoto: Lack of information access was a great hindrance during the disaster aftermath. In order to rally the university community I wanted to ensure that people were adequately informed about the situation at hand. In the first few weeks we held 30 minute to 1 hour disaster coverage update meetings twice a day. Almost two weeks following 3/11, these meeting decreased to once a day as the situation began to improve.
Although donations and disaster support was overflowing by late March (2011), the first few weeks after the Great East Japan Earthquake were demanding and chaotic. Fortunately, the university withstood the devastation and focused on alleviating the trials of the Tohoku people. The School of Medicine reached out to the many medical schools in Japan, requesting food and other necessities donations. Goods arrived around the clock, and the faculty endured the frigid temperatures to receive and unload these materials. During a time of emergency, the work being done by grassroots' initiatives is extremely important given that the ordinary, hierarchal system is disrupted. As people panicked about the gasoline and food shortage, the School of Medicine became a pillar of strength for the area as faculty and students unified to console those distraught or traumatized, distribute supplies, and promote restoration of the Tohoku region.