It’s not easy being both a mother and a PhD candidate at age 28. It’s even more difficult to face tragedy in the midst of it.
Asato Ikeda had one year left in her PhD program in art history at UBC when the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on March 11, 2011, causing immeasurable damage to the area where her in-laws lived. She was four months pregnant at the time.
“It was mentally not a good thing to happen to a pregnant women,” she said about dealing with the news of the tsunami while living in Vancouver. “I was constantly turning on the TV…I kept watching, watching, watching for an entire day. I think I was traumatized by the images I saw on TV.”
Both Ikeda’s mother— and father-in-law’s lives were drastically impacted by the tsunami and earthquake. Her father-in-law, who was right in Sendai, was stranded in the fourth storey of a building for 24 hours without food or water, unable to escape as the flood water crept up to the second storey. He was eventually rescued by helicopter, but lost his car to the waters.
Her mother-in-law was at a mountain-side cafe when the earthquake struck, starting a massive mudslide that filled up half of the cafe. Although rescue workers discovered later that several died in the cafe, she was a lucky survivor.
Ikeda and her husband breathed sighs of relief when they finally received an email from her mother-in-law saying they were alive.
Though Ikeda feels blessed that her in-laws survived, there have been many other losses for the family. And the ongoing threat of nuclear contamination from the power plant is still strong for the family in Fukushima, who live only 70 kilometres away from the damaged nuclear plant.
“We felt really lucky they survived. It was a matter of survival at first. But then, after we got to know about the nuclear issue, now its more about the…ongoing issue of how much radiation they’re getting from the air or the rain, or how much radiation they’re getting from their food and water,” she said.
Out of fear for the health of her now 8-month-old baby girl, Airi, Ikeda has not yet returned to Fukushima to visit her in-laws and introduce them to their grandchild.
So far, most of the coping has been done here in Vancouver amongst friends and her husband.
“When the earthquake and tsunami happened I got together with my Japanese friends and talked about it,” she said. “That was the only thing I could do to go through that kind of terrible experience.”
One year later, life has regained much of its former balance–though with the added bundle of joy that is her daughter. When she’s not working on her dissertation and looking after her family, she takes time to do yoga and go swimming. But one other thing has been added onto the agenda since then—an inspiration to teach others about what happened.
“I’m involved in the exhibition that is going on at the IKB Learning Centre. We try to raise awareness about the earthquake and tsunami, and also about the nuclear issue.” As someone whose doctoral dissertation focuses on Japanese propaganda art during WWII, she has the nuclear reality of Hiroshima and Nagasaki clinging to her thoughts.
“I came to wonder how much we actually learned from Hiroshima now that we have so many nuclear plants throughout Japan. We don’t really care about what’s going on in those plants. We want people at UBC also to think about these issues.”
Ikeda will be finishing up her PhD this summer (“Hopefully,” she adds with a laugh), and heading to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, for a one-year fellowship next year. She’ll be leaving Canada, her home of six years, for at least a while. After that, her plans are like many of the rest of ours.
“I’ll go there for a year and after that I don’t really know. Hopefully I’ll get a job somewhere.”