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UC Suspends Travel in Japan, Bruin Experts Lend Assistance

Three UCLA experts with family ties to Japan are among the Bruins who have rushed to aid Japan after that country’s devastating March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

By Alison Hewitt for UCLA Today

The University of California is suspending all non-essential travel to Japan, and only researchers whose presence is requested by the governments of either the Unites States or Japan will be approved for travel there, UC officials announced over the weekend.

Those currently in Japan are being evacuated per U.S. State Department recommendations, and the UC travel insurance provider has suspended coverage for travel to Japan, explained Nathan Brostrom, the executive vice president of business operations for the UC Office of the President.

Meanwhile, three UCLA experts with family ties to Japan are among the Bruins who have rushed to aid Japan after that country’s devastating March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. One is traveling through disaster areas with a Japanese government-sanctioned medical team, and the others are working from the U.S.  All three recently sent in updates of their activities described in a UCLA Today article last week.

This week, the UCLA doctor who was waiting to deploy with a Japanese medical team is being sent into the affected regions north of Tokyo. An interactive mapping expert working with a U.N. contractor sent in the link to one of the maps his team designed for relief workers. Finally, a professor who grew up in Sendai, a major city close to the quake’s epicenter, wrote a touching tribute to his old hometown and created a list of what he and his colleagues consider the best charities with direct links to the people who need help.

The ‘American doctor’

Kozue Shimabukuro

UCLA pediatric critical care doctor Kozue Shimabukuro is en route from Tokyo with a government pediatric disaster relief team to northern Japan, where damage from the disasters was severe and radiation concerns linger. Although Shimabukuro grew up in Japan, she trained as a doctor in the United States, which now makes her the object of media attention in Japan and the subject of a Q-and-A in the Los Angeles Times. As a Japanese citizen, she’s been surprised to hear herself called “the American doctor.”

“I think I am the only American-trained Japanese physician who was able to come back and help since the disaster,” Shimabukuro wrote in an email. “I’m also Okinawan (Okinawans and Japanese have a long history of animosity) and I’m a female physician. Maybe that’s why people have so much interest in me … All I know is that I’m little, I’m definitely not a hero, but I’m dedicated to do my work as PICU [pediatric intensive care unit] doctor.”

She won’t have easy access to the Internet for a few days, she wrote Sunday in an email to colleagues at Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA. The government plans to transfer her team north, where she said many foreign medical teams have evacuated. “The people in nearby cities were left behind without appropriate care,” she wrote. “The area still needs physicians.”

When the earthquake hit just as she about to fly home to Japan for a vacation, Shimabukuro didn’t bat an eye before deciding to turn her vacation into a medical mission. When asked why she was heading into danger when others have evacuated and even her friends have told her to “get the hell out,” she revealed how her own childhood has inspired her mission.

“I grew up in a small farm town where nobody wanted to educate a young girl from the village,” Shimabukuro wrote. “My government believed in me, and gave me a scholarship to go study in America. I was able to fulfill my dream of becoming a physician. Now it’s my turn to believe in Japan.”

How to help Japan

Hitoshi Abe

Internationally renowned architect Hitoshi Abe, director of UCLA’s Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies, and a professor and chair of architecture and urban design in the School of the Arts and Architecture, was born and raised in Sendai. Abe and his colleagues from the Terasaki Center researched and compiled a list of charities that they believe can deliver aid quickly and directly to the people who need it.

Abe also wrote a heartfelt letter about the former beauty of his hometown. Sendai was a university town with a famously beautiful coastline, Matsushima, “one of the three famous beautiful places of Japan,” he wrote. The agricultural and fishing industries were vital to Japan’s food culture, and annual festivals illustrated the deep sense of community in the area, Abe continued.

“All of this has been lost, or heavily damaged,” Abe wrote. “The countless beautiful landscapes by the sea that I, along with many others, enjoyed since childhood exist no more. There will probably be no festivals celebrating communities for some time. Some of the communities themselves have been wiped away by the tsunami. … Many are still searching for family and friends.”

The list of places to donate includes links to the Japanese Red Cross, local government groups, Peace Winds Japan, the International Medical Corps and many more.

“After much research and consideration, we recommend [these] groups due to their presence in Japan and their ability to bring relief to the victims directly,” Abe wrote. “I hope from the bottom of my heart that as many people as possible will extend a helping hand.”

Helping relief workers from afar

Yoh Kawano

Relief workers can now turn to an interactive map created in part by UCLA Urban Planning Lecturer Yoh Kawano, one of six geographic information system (GIS) specialists tapped to design the map for the United Nations. The U.N. asked its partner, CrisisCommons, to find GIS experts to gather information for relief workers on the ground, and turn that information into user-friendly maps.

“We’ve been working tirelessly to put together a portal for Japanese relief data-mapping and visualization,” Kawano said. “This map is what we have so far, with hope for more information layers to come.”

The map lets the user overlap details about which areas are flooded, the location of evacuation centers and their current capacity, which streets have been cleared and even where to find a pay phone.

In addition to teaching, Kawano works in UCLA’s Office of Information Technology as the campus GIS coordinator. He’s also part of the HyperCities team, which creates archived collections of geo-located tweets, allowing the world to follow local response to events like the revolution in Egypt. HyperCities Sendai was up and running the day after the quake.

Kawano lived in Japan in college, and his parents and siblings still do. He has a sister in Yokohama, a brother in Tokyo, and parents in Osaka, so the quake literally hit home, even though none of his family live in heavily affected regions.

“They’re all okay. Tokyo was shaken pretty hard, but there was little structural damage, and it was nothing compared to Sendai,” he said late last week. “There is a little worry about the radiation. There are rolling blackouts, businesses are not back on board, and there’s a huge level of concern – 200 miles is close enough where radiation could be a problem. People are on edge.”