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Phoenix Forward

University of Phoenix faculty and students rally in Japan

Brent Duncan’s sense of adventure has been put to the test this past month, after Japan was rocked with a 9.0 earthquake and the northeastern part of the country was slammed with a tsunami, killing almost 14,000 people and flattening communities.

Duncan, the faculty administrator for the University of Phoenix Asia-Pacific Military Campus, was in his classroom on the Misawa Air Base preparing for class March 11 when the earthquake struck. Several minutes later, the tsunami hit, causing about 100 miles of coastal damage and devastating the land and many lives. Duncan watched the tsunami waves hit the shore from the Misawa bluff, located in the northeastern part of the country.

UOPX Japan rally

A Noda Village resident climbs through tsunami debris to see what is left of her home. Photo by Yohsuke Od, courtesy Brent Duncan.

“I’ve been through a lot of earthquakes,” says the Northern California native, in a telephone interview. “I’ve seen a lot of disasters. But I’ve never seen anything like this. The entire landscape has become a wasteland.

“Just imagine the Twin Towers, and the twisted mass of rubble and steel that existed in that location. Spread that over thousands of miles of coastal villages and towns and cities, and you might be able to imagine the damage and loss of life.”

Since that fateful day, Duncan and his wife, along with University of Phoenix students, military personnel from the base and other volunteers and organizations including the Red Cross, have been neck-deep in cleanup efforts, combing through the rubble of shattered communities and helping the Japanese who survived cope with the loss of family members, pets, homes, farm animals, power, water and belongings.

Duncan, who speaks Japanese, has been instrumental in acting as a translator between the Japanese and cleanup crews, and helping the Americans understand some of the cultural sensitivities, particularly when digging through rubble fields and finding personal items, some of which have religious significance. He and his wife have gone on missions into areas once off-limits due to radiation threats (which he says were overblown), working side by side with military personnel. Much of these activities Duncan and others have documented on YouTube™ videos and Facebook™.

Duncan and his wife moved to Japan three years ago to work at the Misawa Air Base. Prior to the move, he was already a faculty member for University of Phoenix in San Jose, Calif., but the couple wanted a new experience, an opportunity to serve and a chance for some travel as empty nesters. They spend much of their time on the base for work and social activities, but also are entrenched in the Japanese community. “For us it’s an adventure,” he says.

In Japan, Duncan teaches management, marketing and leadership courses, and manages a handful of faculty and students. His military students often get deployed, meaning in-classroom sessions turn into online teaching as well.

Duncan says Japan had experienced several large earthquakes prior to what he calls “the big one” on March 11. The quakes, which differ from the jolts of California quakes, are more rolling in nature. “We are continuously feeling like we’re on a boat,” he says. Aftershock earthquakes have continued since March 11 — according to news reports, Japan has experienced 900 aftershocks since that date — and the country had tsunami warnings for days. Duncan says Misawa is located at the “edge of the chaos” roughly two miles inland from the beach, so wasn’t under direct threat, though the base did suffer property damage and loss of power.

UOPX Japan rally

A team of relief workers from Misawa Air Base, including Brent
Duncan (front left), arrive in Noda Village to start cleanup efforts.
Photo courtesy Brent Duncan.

Following the disaster, Duncan and his wife first started helping farmers recover their fields, along with “roving bands of do-gooder Americans who had a like-minded spirit.” University of Phoenix students at Misawa were among the first responders, and some students at Misawa are involved in high-level support missions. One student coordinates rescue and relief efforts for the Japanese Self-Defense Force, and another is a dentist for the Japanese Self-Defense Force who is tasked with matching dental work to bodies, he says.

U.S. military personnel, French civil firefighters and even Los Angeles firefighters also helped the Japanese during this difficult time. 

"The Misawa Air Base has become the hub for international relief efforts in Japan, and we’re right in the center of all of these efforts and it’s exciting,” Duncan says. Most recently, Duncan and his wife accompanied 20 Marines and 20 airmen into the no-travel zone, an area where the U.S. government said there were radiation fears.

Duncan says the relief efforts, titled Operation Tomadachi (which means “friend”), have been an eye-opener for the Japanese, whose culture is not accustomed to such a high spirit of volunteerism nor has the infrastructure to support it. Foreign volunteers have spent days doing what he calls “dirty, awful, rotten, yucky work” to clean up the mess left by the tsunami. 

“The concept of volunteerism — selfless sacrifice — is entirely foreign to the Japanese culture,” Duncan says. Since the disaster, Japanese citizens are now joining the U.S. relief efforts as volunteers.

Duncan says University of Phoenix has been incredibly supportive, giving faculty members flexibility and offering to pay for Duncan’s evacuation if he and his wife chose to do so. But Duncan says they didn’t even consider it. Instead, he’s using his employee vacation time and sick days to help. His classes recently resumed.

As the relief efforts continue, about 15,000 Japanese citizens are still missing, and people are still without their homes, their businesses, and in many cases, their family members. As for Duncan, he has no immediate plans to leave, but says at some point he’d like to return to California.

“This has been an amazing experience being here with these folks,” he says. “What we are seeing is the graceful stoicism and resilience in the face of absolute disaster. It’s an honor to be here doing this.”

Brent Duncan's Facebook photo albums:

Brent Duncan's YouTube videos:

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