Japan trip has new meaning following disaster

Valley Catholic students attend peace conference three weeks before devastating earthquake
by: Submitted Photo Namitha Lukose, Lavanya Sridharan, Aidan McLeod and Elliott Jackson visited the Itsukushima Shrine near Hiroshima, Japan, during their February trip.

The destruction, loss and lingering fears of radioactive fallout following Friday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami in northeastern Japan struck close to home for a group of Valley Catholic High School students.

Just over three weeks ago, Namitha Lukose, Elliott Jackson, Lavanya Sridharan and Aidan McLeod returned from an international peace conference at the Ritsumeikan Uji Junior and Senior High School in Kyoto, Japan, where they had the opportunity to discuss issues and befriend students from 10 other countries.

As the sole American delegation at the forum, the students along with Valley Catholic history department chairman Tommy Manning also gave a presentation on the topic of nuclear disarmament.

In the days following the earthquake, tsunami and radiation leaks from four reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in the Fukushima province, the Valley Catholic students have found themselves pouring over news reports, watching videos and trying to come to grips with what the people of Japan, who welcomed them with open arms, are now facing in the aftermath.

'The timing of it all is just shocking,' said Sridharan, a junior. 'We were just there and it was fine, then we get back and hear about all the things happening.

'The first thing we did was contact people on Facebook to see if they were OK and if they had heard from their families in Tokyo. We found out that a lot of them do not have the ability to get in touch with their extended family in the north. So many are without power and can't get a hold of them, and that's definitely a concern.'

Having friends that have been affected and visiting the country 'definitely connects you a lot more to what is going on,' said McLeod, another junior. 'I wanted to make sure the people I met were alright. They may have relatives in the country who have to deal with this.'

'It's all so devastating,' added Lukose, a senior. 'It is such a beautiful culture and place. It's sad to think that all of that could be gone.'

The school where the conference took place and Kyoto were not in the hardest-hit region of the country, Manning said.

'I left with an image of Japan and the friendships we made there in my head and to think that might not be a reality any more for them is sad,' he added. 'They went from one extreme to another.

'They welcomed students into their homes from all over the world and were so generous to us. Now they are calling on us, the rest of the world and each other for help in their time of need.'

The Valley Catholic community plans to do its part to help. Although no fundraisers have yet been planned for Japanese relief efforts, the school is doing what it can to support 10 foreign exchange students from Japan on campus.

'To have them in class and see them every day personalizes the whole tragedy,' Manning said.

Lessons learned

During the conference, students discussed several subjects that included presentations on environmental sustainability and economic inequality as well as excursions to the cities of Kyoto and Hiroshima. During the visits, they were provided insights on historical events and how peaceful efforts could help them overcome tragedies.

'This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these students,' Manning said. 'Not only did they have the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussions about important topics, they ended up making lasting friendships…I hope this trip will plant a seed for these students to become involved in promoting peace and international cooperation and also take an interest in other global issues.'

Little did he know that those hopes would become a reality so quickly as Valley Catholic and the world monitor the response to nuclear emergencies in Japan, he added.

'We heard from a presenter who was a nuclear physicist,' recalled Jackson, a senior. 'While we talked about how nuclear weapons can be devastating, the presenter would focus on how the ability to have nuclear power was a positive thing.

'It seems really ironic. We discussed the advances in nuclear technology, and now all the nuclear reactors are in danger.'

'The technology was highly praised during the conference and now it's problematic,' Sridharan added. 'We'll have to see how it turns out.'

In the meantime, the students feel empowered by their experiences and discussions with other student leaders.

'I learned the youth of the world have a lot more power than they think they do,' McLeod said. 'We can work together to affect change.'

Sridharan agreed and added. 'There are problems yet to be solved that we are all concerned about.'

The Japan trip and the recent tragedy that has stricken the country has also broadened the Valley Catholic students' perspective.

'It changes everything,' Lukose said. 'My own world is so much bigger now.'