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Teach 3.11: participatory educational project puts the Kanto Tōhoku disaster into historical context

Lisa Onaga

With contributions by Kristina Buhrman, Christian Dimmer, Chihyung Jeon, Honghong Tinn, and Tyson Vaughan

The official version of this article appeared in the September 2011 issue of
East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal. Please click here to download a PDF proof.

From the Here and Now
My first visit to the countryside of Fukushima Prefecture took place in the early autumn of 2008. The occasion was a notable “return” to a historic center of premodern Japanese silkworm egg production for two busloads of members of the silk and sericulture industy, en route to the annual Silk Summit held at the Fukushima Agricultural Technology Center. Someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Onaga‐san, look there.” I looked out the window and saw in the distance a large, white, rectangular building tucked in amid the greenery. “That’s a nuclear power plant,” the retired scientist told me. “If that explodes, we’ll die.” At the time, I was unsure what to make of this jolt of information. Wrapped up in my own thoughts about fieldwork and research, I had certainly forgotten that moment until now.

Place‐names such as Fukushima and Tōhoku need little introduction today. Following the disasters that unfolded in Japan on 11 March 2011, people around the world have flocked to social media and news outlets, bearing witness to viral videos of the Kanto‐Tōhoku earthquake’s devastation and the horrifying tsunami that followed it. The tense play‐by‐plays of the nuclear reactors in Fukushima and speculations about health risks associated with their failure have focused intensely on the here and now, with good reason. As the hours melted together in those very raw early days of the triple disaster, a number of things seemed to become apparent to many of us Japan‐watchers: a consternation with the media’s reproduction of facile if not circular explanations of how Japanese stoicism and civility stem from “Japanese culture,” which seemed to perpetuate a myth of homogeneity; a gulf in the quality of reportage between those with and without Japanese language skills or access to technological or scientific expertise; the use of ambiguous metaphoric language in the foreign press; and, perhaps most important, an overall challenge in ascertaining the lay of the land.

In times of crisis and disaster, can an individual realistically grasp a panoramic
state of the field? As people desperately struggled with the scientific and technical details of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, one challenge that seemed to emerge from the catastrophic coalescence of the natural and man‐made disasters appeared to touch on the ability to collectively consider, as a public if not as analysts, matters of temporality and historicity to appreciate why events unfolded as they had. What is happening as the chaos of the present proffers a deluge of information that intensifies the resolution of a digital archival grain? Laudatory media accounts of Japanese disaster preparedness call into question the degree of preparedness of the academic community, especially in the humanistic studies of contemporary and historical science and technology, to lend some voices of analytical calm in stormy times to bring the past to light, if not to participate in the discomfiting divination practice that many in the world also demand, that is, to bet on the future. The multilingual educational project Teach 3.11 (, conceived little over a week after the earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. on that ill‐fated day, serves, at very least, to help make it easier for people to learn about the history of science and technology related to the three disasters.

Launching Teach 3.11
Teach 3.11 officially launched efforts to build a participant‐powered, digital educational resource in partnership with the Forum for the History of Science in Asia, a special interest group of the History of Science Society, on 2 April. Although the three cofounders—Honghong Tinn, Tyson Vaughan, and myself—were all graduate students at Cornell University at the time, the idea to operate Teach 3.11 as an institutionally independent website has been important from the start, given our second goal: to encourage the collective wisdom of scholars working at the intersections of history of science and technology and Asia.

The project’s modus operandi came from conversations that occurred simultaneously about three things: learning, collaborating, and doing. From just my own perspective, several factors made the need for something like Teach 3.11 obvious: I wanted to learn more about the history of nuclear power in Japan (even though it had little direct connection with my own research); I was helping non‐Japanese colleagues locate suitable Japanese collaborators in light of the emergency‐extended submission deadline for the 2011 Society for the Social Studies of Science meeting in Cleveland; and I had been conversing with other junior scholars located away from Japan (some of us having come into friction with the Kobe earthquake in 1995) who wanted to do something beyond sending donations for relief efforts.

After an initial planning and development phase, Teach 3.11 began posting a daily stream of annotated citations of readings and digitized media on 14 April at 2:46 p.m. Japan standard time to remember the event. Now the project publishes on average twice a week, and participants share annotated citations and other reading or audiovisual suggestions in Asian and European languages through the website. Multilingual editors work with contributors to prepare annotations and any translations, highlighting reading accessibility, language, and topical focus. Twitter facilitates the process of sharing this educational resource with broader audiences (@Teach_311).

Learning: Outlining a State of the Field
Given its remit of providing historical context for teaching, understanding, and learning about the Kanto‐Tōhoku disasters, Teach 3.11 has published annotations of a fairly wide range of videos, books, and articles on topics including earthquakes, seismology, tsunamis, and nuclear power. For example, Takashi Nishiyama annotated Boumsoung Kim’s 2007 book Beyond Local Science, which tells the story of how Japan became the world’s preeminent nation for seismology during the Meiji period and how it later lost this position. Kenji Ito annotated Hitoshi Yoshioka’s Social History of Nuclear Power (1999), which gives an overview and analysis of the development of nuclear power in Japan from wartime to the late 1990s. Other posts have included an excerpt of Craig Nelson’s essay on Japan’s relationship to nuclear power from Hiroshima to Fukushima, “‘The Energy of a Bright Tomorrow’: The Rise of Nuclear Power in Japan.” Kristina Buhrman’s annotation of Gregory Smits’s “Danger in the Lowground: Historical Context for the March 11, 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami” points at the historical unreliability of institutional and collective memory of disasters.

Teach 3.11’s multimedia editor Christian Dimmer has been curating an eye‐ opening set of digitized films and animated shorts for the project: “Born and raised in Germany, I grew up with a healthy skepticism of nuclear energy. . . . In my travels through Japan and in many conversations, I learned that my unease about this technology was not shared by most people here.” Indeed, the pros and cons of nuclear power have come into greater relief through Teach 3.11 for Dimmer and others who wonder why Japan promoted peaceful atomic energy. This question is explored in his annotations of the films Tale of Two Cities (US War Department, 1946) and Cold War Scenarios for Introducing Nuclear Energy to Japan (NHK, 1995). The latter suggests a US Cold War strategy in collaboration with the powerful president of the Yomiuri newspaper company that successfully overturned public antinuclear sentiment through the skillful use of public relations. In his annotation of Nicholas Röhl’s Nuclear Ginza (1995), Dimmer notes how the media in Japan avoided the topic of accidents in nuclear power plants due to close sponsorship ties. A journey through the multimedia presented on Teach 3.11 makes it clearer why this high‐risk technology turned out to be less controversial than perhaps would have been expected in one of the most disaster‐prone countries in the world.

Buhrman, a Teach 3.11 editor who has studied the political and religious history of earthquakes and disasters, commented in personal conversation with the author, “For me, the most valuable outcome from studying this material from a science and technology studies or history of science perspective is the awareness of how the potential risk of these disasters changes over time.” She explains of the trap of hindsight bias: “I think you can see traces of it in the media coverage, particularly when the history of tsunami disasters on the Sanriku coast is brought up. It is very easy to say that these are cases where leaders and experts ‘should have known.’ While the past has indeed been used to gauge the present, the historical record of these disasters depends greatly not only on the archival practices of the past, but also on how these events were understood and perceived. Warns Buhrman, “Simply mining the historical record without understanding these points can result in a skewed model.” Teach 3.11 helps illustrate how decisions about the future based too heavily on the precise mechanics of the 2011 disaster may result in complacency that will likely fail in the next disaster because the next “big one” will be different.

Not all of Teach 3.11’s posts focus on Japan. On the contrary, fully understanding the historical context of the triple disaster in Japan requires engaging the East Asian region as well as broader knowledge of disasters more generally. Fumitaka Wakamatsu provided one of our bilingual annotations, of an article by Adriana Petryna on the long‐ term testing and suffering of post‐Chernobyl radiation victims in the Ukraine—a sobering cautionary tale for residents in the area around Fukushima. As part of Teach 3.11’s interest in supporting the creation of science, technology, and disaster‐related classroom exercises, Angie Boyce (2011) designed a teaching module aimed at helping instructors and students of undergraduate courses to think critically about the creation and uses of standardized risk scales.

Collaborating: Partnerships with Classrooms and Beyond
In addition to the Forum for the History of Science in Asia, Teach 3.11 attempts to maximize its reach and educational impact by building collaborative relationships with valuable partners such as the Asia‐Pacific Journal ( and Dissertation Reviews (

Different college classrooms around the world are also finding ways to use Teach 3.11. At the University of California in Berkeley, the instructor of Science in the U.S. (History 138 and 138T), Mary Sunderland, plans to pilot a class project that will contribute new educational content for the project in addition to helping draw out the comparative histories of nuclear power between the United States and East Asia. At Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan, we have been working with anthropologist Tak Watanabe, whose students in his Disaster Studies and Global Culture of Nature and Technology classes (ANT352 and AG525, use social media to engage with Teach 3.11. Some students have developed projects that will produce content for the growing pool of collective wisdom on the topics at hand. Master’s student Kuda Mutenda had at the time of this writing embarked on a project to investigate the production of a historical promotional TEPCO video depicting the construction of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and to produce English subtitles that can reach broader networks of students and scholars.

Doing: Identifying New Research Opportunities
The catastrophes in Japan and the launching of Teach 3.11 have helped identify fertile opportunities for future research that scholars may wish to examine. The project’s Korean editor, Chihyung Jeon, stresses the need for more historical and social studies of the earth sciences (including meteorology, seismology, and oceanography), natural disasters, and relevant government policies in Korea. “Given the geographical and historical connections between Korea and Japan, more studies of Korean experiences of disasters and technoscientific responses to them would help us recognize the current events in Japan as a common concern for all East Asia within our shared historical and cultural contexts,” he explains. Recent scholarly works, including those featured in a special 2009 issue of Historia Scientiarum on nuclear histories in Japan, Korea, and the United States, have produced a promising set of studies on nuclear power in Korea whose histories closely relate to those of Japanese colonialism, the Korean War, and the Cold War (DiMoia 2009, 2010; Jasanoff and Kim 2010; Kim Dong‐Won 2009a; Kim Seong‐Jun 2009b). “In the aftermath of 3/11, Korean society will witness more debates on nuclear power, which will surely take Fukushima as a reference. The future paths of nuclear energy in the two countries are likely to be intertwined. Teach 3.11 will serve as a useful resource and preparation for such discussion,” Jeon says.

Honghong Tinn, the project’s Chinese‐language editor, expects to see more material related to the historical development of nuclear energy research and controversies over the safety of Taiwanese nuclear power plants, including annotations of a recent study of Taiwan’s first graduate program in nuclear physics and home of the majority of Taiwanese nuclear engineers since 1957; Shiang‐ling Hu’s book Nuclear Engineering Experts vs. Antinuclear Experts (1995); and Shu‐hsin Tsui’s 2004 documentary, Gong‐Liau, How Are You? Given that Taiwanese nuclear power plants are in underprivileged fishing villages, Tinn anticipates adding Mei‐Fang Fan’s 2009 article on the Orchid Island nuclear waste repository, which discusses the marginalization of the indigenous population. Notes Tinn, “As strong earthquakes hit Taiwan frequently, too, we hope to locate more videos or other types of teaching materials about the history of earthquakes in Taiwan.”

Teach 3.11 can certainly do more to help educate about how people experience disasters such as earthquakes and build collective memories about them. This could be useful given how the past is used in forming perceptions concerning disaster risk and the political decisions. Buhrman hopes to introduce more material relevant to how earthquakes and tsunamis were understood in pre‐Edo times, including in China. She also plans to explore historical seismology, or how the ways people have studied historic earthquakes have changed over time. For now, “our” historic earthquake is the Kanto‐Tōhoku that Teach 3.11 and its participants study.

Boyce, Angie (2011). Educational module: Understanding the International Nuclear Event Scale. (‐module‐ understanding‐the‐international‐nuclear‐event‐scale/, accessed 18 April 2011)

DiMoia, John (2009). Atoms for power? The Atomic Energy Research Institute (AERI) and South Korean electrification (1948–1965). Historia Scientiarum 19: 170–83.

DiMoia, John (2010). Atoms for sale? Cold War institution‐building and the South Korean atomic energy project, 1945–1965. Technology and Culture 51: 589–618.

Fan, Mei‐Fang (2009). Public perceptions and the nuclear waste repository on Orchid Island, Taiwan. Public Understanding of Science 18: 167–76.

Greene, J. Megan (2008). Starts and stops. In The origins of the developmental state in Taiwan, 14–46. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hu, Shiang‐ling 胡湘玲 (1995). He kong zhuan jia vs. Fan he zhuan jia 核工專家 vs. 反核專家 (Nuclear engineering experts vs. antinuclear experts). Taipei: Qian Wei Chu Ban She.

Jasanoff, Sheila, and Sang‐Hyun Kim (2010). Containing the atom: Sociotechnical imaginaries and nuclear power in the United States and South Korea. Minerva 47: 119–46.

Kim Boumsoung 金凡性 (2007). Meiji ∙ Taishō no Nihon no Jishingaku: “Rōkaru ∙ Saiensu” wo Koete. 明治・大正の日本の地震学 ―「ローカル・サイエンス」を超えて (Beyond local science: The evolution of Japanese seismology during the Meiji and Taisho eras). Tokyo: Tōkyō Daigaku Shuppankai.

Kim Dong‐Won (2009a). Imaginary savior: The image of the nuclear bomb in Korea, 1945–1960. Historia Scientiarum 19: 105–18.

Kim Seong‐Jun (2009b). Technology transfer behind a diplomatic struggle: Reappraisal of South Korea’s nuclear fuel project in the 1970s. Historia Scientiarum 19: 184– 93.

Nelson, Craig (2011). “The energy of a bright tomorrow”: The rise of nuclear power in Japan. Origins 4 (June). ( NHK (1995).

Genpatsu dōnyū shinario ~ Reisenka no Tainichi genshiryoku senryaku 原発導入シナリオ ~ 冷戦下の対日原子力戦略 (Cold War scenarios for introducing nuclear energy to Japan). YouTube video, 45 min., posted by “naga2218.” (‐lZE8, accessed 27 March 2011)

Petryna, Adriana (2011). Chernobyl’s survivors: Paralyzed by fatalism or overlooked by science? Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 67(2): 30–37.

Röhl, Nicholas (1995). Kakusareta hibaku rōdō: Nihon no genpatsu rōdōsha. 隠された被曝労働—日本の原発労働者 物語 (Nuclear Ginza). YouTube video, 30 min., posted by “aikoku369.” (, accessed 30 March 2011)

Smits, Gregory (2011). “Danger in the lowground: Historical context for the March 11, 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami.” Asia‐Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 9(20). (‐Gregory‐Smits/3531, accessed 16 May 2011)

Tsui, Shu‐hsin 崔愫欣 (2004). Gong Liu ni hao ma 貢寮你好嗎 (Gong‐Liau, how are you?). Documentary. 89 mins.

US War Department (1946). Tale of two cities. YouTube video, 12:03 min., posted by “nuclearvault,” 5 September 2009. (

Yoshioka, Hitoshi 吉岡斉 (1999). Genshiryoku no shakaishi: Sono Nihon‐teki tenkai. 原子力の社会史―その日本的展開 (A social history of nuclear power: Its development in Japan). Tokyo: Asahi Shinbunsha.

  1. Upon first encountering the Teach 3.11 site and its organizers I was immediately struck by two things. First, the organizers seemed to have intuitively understood the urgency of creating a network, building connections of people where beforehand there were books and articles. This is important because of the massive amounts of information (mainstream media, instant histories, social media, primary documents, oral histories, images) that can be lost, or at least misplaced, so easily. As a collective enterprise the process of collecting, sifting, annotating can happen much faster than it might otherwise.

    This brings me to the second point, a question really: why build the network, beyond the academic impulse to connect, collect, and talk? I’m sure the 3.11 organizers may have more to offer us by way of explanation, but let me offer one: the academic community has a responsibility in times of war and disaster to provide the information necessary to help people make sense of things, shape good responses, and forge effective public policy. The authors say it well here:

    “Laudatory media accounts of Japanese disaster preparedness call into question the degree of preparedness of the academic community, especially in the humanistic studies of contemporary and historical science and technology, to lend some voices of analytical calm in stormy times to bring the past to light, if not to participate in the discomfiting divination practice that many in the world also demand, that is, to bet on the future.”

    I REALLY like and value the phrase, “voices of analytical calm in stormy times.” I think academics under-value their ability to shape events as they are happening. Many of us may be uncomfortable in these roles (though I doubt few who are reading this find such engagement discomforting). The fog of disaster and of war–even in the age of ubiquitous and multi-platform media–often leads to simple media narratives finding great resonance not only with the public, but also with policy-makers. In some instances this seems to be part of an agenda (fighting a war in Iraq for “liberation,” for example), but in other cases I truly think it is a reflection of the gulf between reporters on deadline and academics in their slow-motion grind of research and publication. In the midst of calamity a middle space of information is exceptionally useful to victims who want to know the deeper history of what happened to them, and policy-makers who genuinely would like to respond reasonably. Wikipedia just won’t do . . . at least not ONLY Wikipedia!

    This issue has special interest for me as a person who has studied the collapse of the World Trade Center since September 11. The impulse to collect and connect among academics was evident after September 11, but the platforms for network-building in those days were less sophisticated, and most of us had much less experience and comfort with blogging, collaborative publication, and other social media. Much energy was lost, troves of valuable artifacts (think about the Union Square “memorial” and anti-war space that arose spontaneously) were lost, and scholars struggled to fight back against the overwhelming narrative that the “terrorists would win” if we asked questions about the history of U.S. foreign policy, or looked more deeply into the technical failures of two experimental, unsafe buildings controlled by a quasi-governmental entity that was (is) for all intents and purposes above the law. We weren’t organized fast enough to supply the public and policy makers with narratives and analyses that MIGHT have shaped the events that unfolded after September 11–the disasters after the disasters.

    I wonder if the Teach 3.11 organizers might say a bit more in this space about where they see their efforts connecting with (if any of these) victims’ groups, official investigations, school curricula, and policy formation?

    Thanks for an inspiring article.

    Scott Gabriel Knowles

    • Thanks for your great comments and questions, Scott. It’s certainly important to think about how the digital tool sets after 9/11 and 3.11 differed as well as the next step for Teach 3.11 might be given the possibilities. The educational approach of Teach 3.11 focuses on making scholarship accessible to teachers and students, but the flexibility of Web 2.0 means the site may be interpreted differently by its visitors. I do know of some reporters who have first visited our site and then went on to approach individuals whose works have been featured. Although not a speakers’ bureau, Teach 3.11 does bring more attention to history of science and technology and science studies scholars who have been working on relevant issues pertaining to and in conversation with Asia. This does, as you note, suggest a need, perhaps, to make clearer the responsibility that academics have to shape public impressions of disasters and cultures.

      We should expect that Teach 3.11 may serve other needs that have yet to be fully identified or articulated. Teach 3.11 has a strong commitment to stay focused on education and promoting academic exchange, but I think the jury is still out as to what those alternative roles may, can, or should be. Hopefully, this online conference can help circulate word about Teach 3.11 so that more meaningful discussions can take place to address these questions. I do not think it is solely up to the founding members and current editors, who are all volunteers, and some of whom do not conduct research on disasters specifically (although, as a historian of biology, the disaster is shaping my approach to researching the history of genetics in Japan.) One thing I am interested in seeing in the current capacity of the project, is a syllabi sampler similar to the project undertaken here: What do people think of this? My sincere hope is that the Teach 3.11 project can continue to grow in conversation with scholars across languages, which means we need more volunteers willing to make this happen. That means those of us in history of science and technology and science studies may need to be willing to have conversations down the hall with their Asian studies department colleagues, etc. I hope this challenge may be taken as an opportunity. The longevity of Teach 3.11 depends on sustained interest beyond the current members, so we are taking it step by step. In our second year of activity, Teach 3.11 will focus on producing new content in any home language, as well as increasing translations of existing content in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. Students as well as faculty are warmly invited to contribute through this web page . We can also be reached by email (teach3eleven -at- or Twitter (@Teach_311). Thanks!

      Lisa Onaga

  2. David Slater permalink

    Wow–this is great, Lisa. As is your whole site. Hugely helpful.

    • Thanks for your ongoing support, Slater sensei! I hope the panel “3.11: Issues, Materials, Teaching and Research” at the Asian Studies Conference Japan meeting this summer will be a great success.

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