MC professor documents devastation in Japan

July 6, 2011
Contact: Karen B. Eldridge, Director of Communications

Dr. Scott Henson has packed his video cameras and traveled abroad numerous times to document mankind’s misery – famine, war, human trafficking, extreme poverty.

But he has never before seen the scale of devastation that the earthquake and tsunami dealt the people of Japan on March 11 of this year.

“The power of a tsunami is incredible,” said Henson, an assistant professor of political science at Maryville College. “Lives are erased suddenly – within minutes – and it’s just shocking.”

In May, Henson traveled to the island nation in East Asia, invited by friends associated with Christian Relief, Assistance, Support and Hope (CRASH) Japan. CRASH is a network that supports Japanese churches to do relief work locally and around the world. Relatively new, the organization emerged on the international scene when an earthquake hit the Sichuan Province of China in 2008.

“There was an organized trip for a media team – mostly made up of young volunteers,” Henson said about his purpose in Japan. “CRASH wanted us to help document the devastation of the country and the relief work that the organization is providing as well as mentor their new media staff.”

“I’m working on a 10-minute video that’s due in September. It will be used as a report to donors and to attract new volunteers.”

Henson’s tour of Japan started at CRASH headquarters in Tokyo, a city which was, two months after the devastation, still experiencing brownouts and blackouts.

CRASH volunteers left the city with the media group – many for the first time since the disaster. Henson said because the office staff had been focused on setting up base stations along the coast and coordinating the distribution of supplies to those stations, many volunteers had not had time to get out of the city to see the devastation for themselves.

Describing the stops in Sendai and Minami Sanriku, Henson said: “These young Japanese volunteers had a local connection to tragedy, so they were quite emotional. Those first days I ended up videoing their reaction to what they were seeing as much as videoing what we saw around us.”

It was impossible to capture on video the putrid odors in the area or the full scale of the destruction, but with his camera, he did tape glimpses of the devastation. And in doing so, he captured images of a hospital with the first five floors washed out; a collection of random household items like bottles and baby’s toys in the mud where 300 homes once stood; the frame of a lonely tsunami warning tower that gave a chance of survival to many in the once thriving coastal community.

“We visited a fishing village where, before the tsunami, about 20,000 people lived,” he remembered. “The sea wall was completely destroyed. Practically everything was gone – only debris remained. Cars looked like balls of crumpled-up aluminum foil.”

The story on the ground, according to the assistant professor and professional documentary maker, is the total sense of loss. Recent reports show that more than 25,000 people are either dead or missing as a result of the earthquake and tsunami, 350,000 are homeless or in temporary housing, and property damage is estimated to top $300 billion.

Henson and the media group spent a day inside an evacuation center where tsunami survivors are living because they have no home – and in many cases, no community, village or town – to return to.

In the centers, they interviewed residents with the help of Japanese translators.

“Probably the most powerful interview I had was at a convention center that had been turned into an evacuation center. This center was near the Fukushima power plant, so those residents will never be able to go home [because of the radiation contamination of the land].

“We talked to an 85-year-old man. He was friendly and very talkative at first, and then he started crying, which is an emotional display unusual [for the Japanese]. He said, ‘Everything that I have spent my life building is gone, and I’m too old to start over.’ It’s as if he had never lived.”

The same day that Henson and his crew interviewed the elderly Japanese man, they also interviewed a younger man who shared a cardboard partition with him. This individual discovered that he had a talent for creating origami artwork and decided to use it to pass the time. Soon, he was using it to brighten the mood of his fellow survivors.

“It was colorful three-dimensional paper-cut, and he had decorated the evacuation center with it,” Henson explained. “He told us, ‘I’m just trying to cheer people up with my artwork.’”

The juxtaposition of the two residents – one, hopeless; one, hopeful – was interesting, the professor said, but it also made for a very emotional day.

Inside the evacuation centers, Henson heard stories of a mother who had held her baby in her arms for two weeks until a pastor’s wife started a children’s program to give parents a safe place in the center to go and play with their children. He heard stories of heroism by Japanese people who sacrificed their lives to save others such as the tsunami warning tower operator who continued to call out the warning signal until the water washed away the tower.

And he heard about hand massages.

“At this one place, people kept telling us to film these hand massages. I wondered what could be so important about hand massages. So we went and found that these massages were actually great catalysts for interaction between people. They were looking each other in the eye, beginning to relax, and finally opening up to share what they had been through.”

Talking about personal loss isn’t characteristic of Japanese culture, Henson said, but the country’s reputation for stoicism may be changing.

“There is a feeling that people just can’t grin and bear this, that this [disaster] is different, life-changing and people need to talk about their suffering.”

Henson said he shot scenes in coastal Japan where total destruction is everywhere six kilometers inland, but beyond that line, land and property appears untouched. Roads have been cleared, and the government has been efficient about restoring services to affected areas. Nearly everyone in the area felt the earthquake and aftershocks, and the fear of nuclear disaster gripped the entire country, but where people don’t have to deal with destruction and loss, life seems to be getting on as usual. He shot one scene of a woman working in her rice field, which was within yards of a fishing village that had been annihilated.

“The calmness of that was disorienting,” he said.

These two Japans – one that has lost everything and one that is carrying on as usual – “will have to figure out how to get back in touch with each other,” Henson added.

CRASH Japan may be able to help. The organization’s initiatives have turned from relief and clean up, to providing emotional care and basic necessities for starting new households.

The youth of Japan are stepping up to help, and Henson noted that a reliance on younger generations for leadership and assistance in nation re-building could be a lasting effect of the March 11 disaster.

“In Japan where seniority is very important, the young generally have to wait their turn,” he explained. “I think now, there is a younger generation of Japanese learning valuable leadership skills that the country will look to utilize.”

Other lasting effects are hard to predict, Henson said. Economically, he expects them to eventually recover and people will regain the privacy and independence that they value, but it will take time.

“I heard several people comment that 3/11 was Japan’s 9/11 moment,” he said. “There is a sense that this disaster was a seminal marker for the country, but no one has been able to articulate what it means yet. Maybe we’ll find out over the next year.”

And it’s possible that Maryville College students soon may experience this new Japan.

Henson teaches World Culture 370: East Asia, and he expects to share his video footage, experiences and observations with students, using the trip to lead discussions about geography, history, religion, culture, art and social institutions. He plans to put together a trip to Japan, Korea and China as an experiential version of the course.

“I think it would be a fascinating trip and a great way to teach students about this vital region of the world.”

For more information on CRASH Japan, visit

Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2016 semester is 1,198.