JSPS Quarterly
No.46 2013 Winter

Research and Life in Japan by a JSPS Fellow (28)

Hailing from Colombia, Dr. Oscar Andres Gómez Salgado came to Japan to pursue postgraduate degrees at Tohoku University. Just after receiving his PhD, the Great East Japan Earth quake struck in the vicinity of his university. It triggered the theme of his subsequent research for which he was awarded a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2011. To advance that work he moved to Doshisha University in Kyoto to collaborate with his host Prof. Yoichi Mine.

- What kind of research are you doing under your JSPS fellowship?

The title of my research is “Protecting and empowering as one—Securing humans from borderless disasters.” I am mainly researching the international interface that emerged after the Great East Japan Earthquake. The research comprises three sub-themes: Information provision, identity and risk perception/reaction, and the role of international organizations. It includes analyzing the posture of foreigners during disasters, elucidating the influence of information and communication technologies during disasters, and examining the role of embassies and foreign organizations with respect to foreigners caught up in disasters.

- We understand your having experienced the massive earthquake in northeastern Japan sparked your interest in this field.

Yes. I obtained my PhD in 2011 from Tohoku University. Before that, I did research on Japan’s four major pollution-related diseases in my master’s program, then went on to study the theory and practice of human security in my doctoral program. Upon receiving my PhD, I encountered firsthand the huge earthquake that hit northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011. With my main interest being human security, experiencing that disaster provided a new juncture for putting my research into practice.

- How did you get to know your Japanese host researcher?

Prof. Mine is the Secretary General of the Japan Association of Human Security Studies and was also the founder of other organizations in this area. He was one of the evaluators of my PhD dissertation, which spawned our collaboration.

- What have you achieved so far through your research with Prof. Mine?

We have produced several papers related to the March 11 disaster, taking the viewpoint of human security. That research explored many challenges that current disaster-management systems will face in the near future. The topics we have addressed include the reaction to disasters by international students, panic over diminished food supplies, the difference between security and justice approaches to disasters, the role of foreign governments, asymmetries in information provision, and how identity comes into play during emergencies. Our research is grounded in extensive fieldwork and a large pool of data acquired in large part before the second anniversary of the tragedy. Hopefully, the draft of a book will be ready by the end of my fellowship.

- What is your impression of your host institution?

Doshisha University is located in the center of Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital. I am grateful for the opportunity to do re- search at Doshisha, and am really enjoying my stay here. The university’s research resources are very good. It also offers a beautiful environment both on and off campus.

- How do you spend time outside your research work?

I have a wife and a little son, so I spend most of my free time with them. Besides, I like to write and read literature. At home I also do some DJing and play board games. Because of the baby, we cannot travel as much as we would like to.

- What do you think of life in Japan, its culture and customs?

I pretty much enjoy and feel identified with it. It is a great, mind-expanding experience in the beginning and keeps getting better until you hit a threshold from which there is no return.

- What did you think of your participation in the Science Dialogue Program?

Last year, I volunteered to participate in Science Dialogue and gave a lecture to high school students in Saga Prefecture. I enjoyed it a lot. Talking to high schoolers is always intimidating, but they were very kind to me during and after my talk, and their teachers were very supportive. Impressively, I also came away from the experience with a better appreciation for the great diversity of Japanese surnames.

- What do you plan to do after your fellowship ends?

I want to keep developing my career as a researcher on human security, hopefully through a job at an international organization, although a university or research institute would also offer me a great platform for interaction on both the global and local levels.

- Please give some advice for young re- searchers who may be thinking about doing research in Japan.

Since my research touches upon issues related to disasters and the response of foreigners caught up in them, I cannot help but focus my comments on that subject.

Japanese society as a whole is very well prepared to deal with all kinds of disasters. To take advantage of that preparation, I would advise them to be sure to attend drills at their university and to read at least once the manuals available. Then, please convey the disaster-related information you obtain from the drills and literature to your family members.

Most of the information one needs when a disaster strikes is obtainable in the local media—radio, newspapers and TV channels, not in the international media and, some times, not even in the national media—so JSPS fellows should acquaint themselves with their local media (at least know that they exist!). Yes, the information provided will be in Japanese, but figures transmit information, while plenty of people will be willing to translate for you. If you group together with other foreigners during an emergency, you should keep the door open for updated information while observing what the locals are doing and talking with them before making decisions—you are all experiencing the same situation.

That said, there is a Japanese proverb that I find very illuminating when it comes to emergencies: 遠い親戚より近くの他人. “The stranger close to you will be more helpful than the relative far away.” Disasters make no distinction between nationalities— during them, people are always willing to help each other.

Dr. Gomez Salgado’s research theme is attracting wide attention, as disasters are a concern of everybody around the world. He speaks with a voice of experience. The outcomes of his work are expected to add new dimensions to crisis management. Intriguingly, not limited to emergency response , his research offers tips for living in unfamiliar places. At Doshisha University, he is enjoying his collaboration with co-researchers and with his family in the deeply cultural city of Kyoto. Advancing research with his colleagues amidst this ideal environment, he will most certainly make significant contributions to creating a safer, more secure human society.

Dr. Oscar Andres Gómez Salgado

JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow, Graduate School of Global Studies, Doshisha University, Japan, 2011-2013

Collaborator for Research and Education, Graduate School of Environmental Studies,
Tohoku University, Japan, 2011

Ph.D. (Environmental Studies (Human Security)), Tohoku University, Japan, 2011

M.Sc. (Environmental Studies (Human Security)), Tohoku University, Japan, 2008

B.Sc. (Chemical Engineering),
National University of Colombia, 2002

Introducing Japan: Kyoto

Floating bridge of Amanohashidate

For most people, Kyoto does not need an introduction. Over a thousand years, Kyoto was Japan’s imperial capital, making a visit to the ancient city almost mandatory for anyone coming to Japan. There are so many temples and shrines, museums, historical attractions, and shops offering traditional goods and cuisines that the two years of a JSPS fellowship would not be long enough to exhaust all that the city has to offer. Kyoto is not only a mecca for the historical, but also for the modern, as it attracts many genres of artists and even hosts a famous manga museum.

Kyoto’s exuberance is not only urban but also rural as the prefecture the city seats features one of Japan’s most beautiful scenic spots: Amanohashidate (“bridge in heaven”), a thin strip of pine-clad land stretching across the Miyazu Bay. Possibly because it is located about a 2-hour train ride from Kyoto, the place receives less attention than the city by both foreign and local visitors, but it is definitely a must see. Viewed from the neighboring hills, Amanohashidate is a truly gorgeous sight to behold. If you decide to go there, be sure to give the local custom a try: Turning your back to the bay, bend over and look at it upside down through your legs. What you will see is supposed to be the image of a bridge floating in the heavens.  Although, I must confess that for me it appeared to be more like a tail growing between my legs.

Doshisha University

With wife and son

Another greatly attractive characteristic of Kyoto is its nearby environmental amenities. Its surrounding  mountains offer multiple options from a pleasant walk to trekking and even skiing. In every season the mountains have their attractions:  Frozen lakes in the winter, fresh green in the spring, cool relief during summer, and breathtaking scenery in the fall. Above all, there is no experience more intrinsic to life in Kyoto than indulging oneself in a lazy afternoon on the banks of the Kamo River. Sitting under cherry trees in the spring you get a glimpse of how common people enjoy simple pleasures: Sporting with friends, picnicking with family, reading alone, practicing yosakoi (traditional dance jazzed up with modern music), or just watching the water flow by. All in all, Kyoto is a great place to live and do research.