Applied Humanities: Ramona Bajema, Ph.D. '12 and the Tohoku Earthquake Relief Effort

Volume 4, Issue 1, Fall 2013

By Dylan Suher

The call first came at four a.m. Ramona Bajema, then a doctoral student in modern Japanese history, was on spring break, finishing up her dissertation at her mother’s house in picturesque Ojai, California. Her best friend, Ella Gudwin, vice president of emergency response for the aid organization AmeriCares, was trying desperately to reach her.

“The first couple of calls, I thought, She probably just thinks I’m in New York, and doesn’t know the time difference,” Bajema recalls. “I picked up the phone and she said, ‘Do you know what’s going on?’ I said, ‘No, are you okay?’ I was laughing, thinking, Ella, I’m in California, it’s five in the morning. She said, ‘Okay, I need you to sit down for a second and turn on your computer.’”

What Bajema saw when she opened her computer were images of devastation that shocked and horrified the entire world. On that morning, March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck just off the coast of the Tōhoku region of Japan. It was the fifth-largest earthquake ever recorded, and it was followed by a tsunami with record-breaking, 133-foot high waves. Entire villages were swept into the sea. The final death toll would reach upwards of fifteen thousand people. The tsunami also precipitated a partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor. Thousands were evacuated from areas near the plant, and two years later authorities still struggle to keep tons of radioactive wastewater from contaminating the local water supply.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, many in the Columbia community helped. But Bajema went one step further. Temporarily setting aside her academic career, she signed on as a program director for AmeriCares’s relief efforts in Japan. She arrived in Tōhoku in June 2011 and has stayed ever since, helping AmeriCares bring relief to people affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

“The difference with Ramona,” her adviser, Carol Gluck, George Sansom Professor of History and Professor of East Asian Language and Cultures, notes with admiration, “was that Ramona went—and she stayed.”

* * *

Ramona Bajema has always been an outlier. She grew up around artists, intellectuals, and academics: her mother is an artist and art dealer, and her father is an actor and writer. Raised outside the mainstream of American culture, Bajema was drawn to Japan from an early age. Her mother introduced her as a young child to Japanese art, cinema, and cuisine, and Bajema, who has no familial ties to the country, was intrigued by what appeared to her to be a drastically different world.

The early infatuation eventually blossomed into a lifelong interest, fueled in part by her politics: as a high school student in San Francisco, she protested against the Gulf War. The young Bajema saw Japan as a counterbalance to American power. “This was during the time of ‘The Japan That Can Say No,’ this alternative capitalism, state capitalism. It looked like Japan could rival America,” Bajema recalls. “I thought, Oh, great, I’m going to become this in-between force between Japan and America.”

Having witnessed the precarious life of the artists around her, Bajema was determined to be pragmatic. “I thought, I will go and make money and take care of all these people,” Bajema said. She did her undergraduate thesis at the University of California, Berkeley, not on the arts or culture of Japan, but on the history of Japanese financial markets.

After graduation, she participated in the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) program, a Japanese government initiative to place native English speakers as assistant language teachers in Japanese schools. Bajema taught English for two years in the idyllic prefecture of Fukui. She then completed a master’s degree at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. After graduating from SAIS, Bajema accepted a position with Lehman Brothers, where she had interned the summer before graduation; she seemed to be on the way to a lucrative career in finance.

But Bajema soon found that finance wasn’t for her. She quit in a hurry, literally fleeing Lehman’s Tokyo offices in the middle of the night. “It was not me, it was not my values, it was not a good fit,” Bajema says. “I came back to the United States just going, ‘Oh my God, my ten-year plan, what am I going to do?’”

Unsure of what to do next, Bajema came to history out of frustration. A friend who worked at the BBC repeatedly picked her brain about Japanese history for news segments, and Bajema obliged—but always without receiving attribution in the resulting programs. “I was in the shower, getting so frustrated that once again I was getting called upon and not getting any credit for it, and then I realized, Oh, if I had a Ph.D. then they’d have to cite me,” Bajema says. “I got out of the shower and said, ‘Now’s the time to do it, I have to go back.’”

Bajema’s background made her an attractive candidate for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “She knew contemporary Japan as well as the history and culture of Japan, she had very good language skills, and she was dedicated and committed,” Gluck says of the decision to take Bajema on as a student.

Bajema would find her openness and independence to be valuable assets, not only in graduate school, but in her future disaster relief work—a vocation she never anticipated.

“Ramona would always take on very difficult things,” Gluck says. “She wouldn’t just work in her comfort zone.”

* * *

When Bajema saw the images coming out of Tōhoku, she was immediately reminded of her time in Fukui. Tōhoku and Fukui are both largely rural places, made up of fishing and farming villages, and both are home to many nuclear power plants. “It just looked like it had happened to Fukui,” Bajema says, “and I saw these flashes of the faces of my kids and the teachers that I worked with.”

Bajema found she could process the shock by helping. She connected Gudwin with her contacts from SAIS and colleagues from Columbia who were in Tōhoku. She spent hours researching and emailing clinics and hospitals—unaware that many of the clinics she was trying to contact had been swept out into the sea. “I realized within twenty-four hours that, in this case, I could actually help, and that was an amazing feeling, to not just hear about something horrific passively,” Bajema says.

But Bajema didn’t fly to Japan immediately. When spring break ended, she returned to New York as she had originally planned. She had postdoctoral positions to apply for, and most pressingly, a dissertation to finish. For her dissertation, Bajema had returned to art, writing about Japanese-American artists between the world wars. Bajema had found a lost history of Japanese artists—most of whom immigrated from Japan as educated laborers and intended to return to their homeland—who became American. The painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi, for instance, originally from Japan, was the first American artist to be honored by the Whitney Museum of Art with a retrospective while still alive.

Though Bajema was passionate about her topic, the tragedy in Tōhoku preoccupied her. Reminders were everywhere. That semester, she served as a teaching assistant with Carol Gluck in a course on the history and memory of World War II. One day during lecture, Gluck put up a photo of Hiroshima next to a photo of Rikuzentakata, a village obliterated by the tsunami. “She talked about the visual impact it must have on so many elderly people who were born into World War II and are leaving with the tsunami,” Bajema recalls, “and I realized that this was going to be a huge historical moment for Japan, and that I wanted to stay attached to this.”

Bajema was not the only Columbian who felt compelled to assist in the relief effort. Columbia has a large population of Japanese students, as well as many students and faculty with a direct connection to Japan. There were fundraisers and initiatives—bake sales, armbands for sale, photography auctions—at almost every school at the University raising money for the Japan Society, the Red Cross, and other relief organizations. These individual initiatives coalesced into an  umbrella organization,  the Consortium for Japan Relief, which organizes symposia on topics related to the disaster, such as mental health issues and the lingering effect of radiation.

“Many of us from Japan living in New York City were struggling because we had mixed feelings. Relief that we avoided the crisis, but at the same time guilt for not being able to do anything and a desire to do something for the mother country,” recalls Daiyu Suzuki, president of the consortium and a student at Teachers College. “The fact that so many things happened immediately toward Japan relief was a manifestation of those feelings.”

Bajema felt that guilt and obligation particularly strongly. She began to feel that she had to go herself, stay, and work full time for the relief effort. And Bajema does not compromise on what she feels is right. “I told myself after Lehman that I was never going to do what I thought I should do ever again,” she says, “I was only going to do what I believed in.”

Aside from a sense of a personal mission, sheer coincidence helped to draw Bajema into working for the relief effort. Her friend Ella Gudwin’s organization AmeriCares was looking for a director for their Japan efforts. “Ella was saying, ‘Oh God, I don’t know what I’m going to do, I need a program manager on the ground to spend the money right,’” Bajema recalls. “So I said, ‘Would you consider me?’”

Gudwin accepted the offer, and Bajema passed through the gauntlet, meeting with decision makers in every department and at every level of the AmeriCares organization. She emerged the overwhelming favorite to head up the Japan program. “People identified two key elements,” Gudwin says of the decision to hire Bajema, “One, she’s very ‘spongy’: she’s smart, and she’s going to absorb new information and come to a point of decision on that information very quickly. Two, she’s a natural communicator, she’s a storyteller, and I think that’s rooted in her appreciation for history.”

Formally hired in April 2011, Bajema began commuting three or four days a week to Stamford to train at the AmeriCares headquarters. Her fellow students and professors were very supportive. Chief among Bajema’s supporters: her adviser, Carol Gluck.

“Carol said, ‘Oh, perfect, we’ll see this as a social-service postdoc,’” Bajema recalls.

* * *

When Bajema arrived in Tōhoku in June 2011, she was primarily worried about finding dentures.

AmeriCares specializes in providing immediate medical care in the wake of disasters. Robert Macauley, the founder of the organization, started his aid efforts by personally chartering a commercial  jet to rescue 243 stranded Vietnamese orphans. A relatively small organization in the field of disaster aid, particularly when compared with giants like the Red Cross, AmeriCares seeks to fill gaps left by the larger organizations.

In Tōhoku the gap was dental care. The population in rural Tōhoku is overwhelmingly elderly, and the tsunami had literally swept away their dentures. Children trapped in temporary shelters and subsisting on crackers and sugary snacks developed cavities. At the same time, the tsunami and earthquake had destroyed many nearby dental clinics. In response to this crisis, AmeriCares set up three prefabricated, mobile dental clinics to allow local dentists to attend to their patients. “You don’t know these things until you come here,” Bajema says. “How could you know about this problem from New York? Nobody writes about it!”

Bajema had a lot to learn about the nonprofit world. AmeriCares paired her with an experienced humanitarian aid worker, and Gudwin grilled her on stack after stack of grant proposals in a custom-made crash course in NGO management. The learning curve was sometimes daunting, but Bajema discovered that her academic background was helpful for the learning process. “A lot of it was being really honest about what I didn’t know. What my academic background gave me most of all was the ability to say ‘I don’t know, you have to teach me,’” she says.

But Bajema also found she had a lot to offer AmeriCares. For one, she knew the history. Tōhoku is renowned in Japan for its physical beauty. The poet Bash wrote a famous travelogue of his journey to the region, and the Matsushima islands, just off the coast of Tōhoku, are considered one of the most beautiful scenic views in all of Japan. But there has also been a dark side to that beauty. “Tōhoku has a hideous history of famine and has always been neglected by Tokyo,” Bajema says. “None of the issues raised during the tsunami are new.” The suicide rate for Tōhoku even before the disaster was the highest of any region in Japan.

Knowing the history of the region, Bajema was determined to stay in Tōhoku, in the city of Sendai. That way, she could prove that she was not just another person to arrive, make promises, and depart before those promises were fulfilled. And she also knew, based on her knowledge of Japanese culture and the specific history of the region, that the next great medical need would be psychological care.

The challenge was addressing those needs in a way that would reach the Japanese. Despite having the highest suicide rate in the developed world, cultural norms and government policy have discouraged mental health treatment approaches built around talk therapy in favor of approaches that emphasize pharmaceutical treatments and institutionalization. Japan has only one psychiatrist for every ten thousand people, roughly half the ratio of the United States, and many Japanese clinics don’t employ any clinical counselors. “Japan has more psychiatric beds per capita than any country in the world,” notes Gudwin, “but it does not have a tradition of counseling or talk therapy or anything like that.”

But Bajema was trained to look beyond cultural stereotypes and would simply not tolerate any mention of Japanese stoicism. “Because of working with people like Carol Gluck and Harry Harootunian and Marilyn Ivy, cultural explanations are anathema to me,” Bajema says. “I approach it as, All human beings are going to have a similar response to disasters of this nature. People were saying, ‘The Japanese are not going to let you in.’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, they’re human. It’s emotional. They cry, too.’”

To devise an innovative solution, Bajema did what any good graduate student would do—research. She came across articles on how horticultural therapy and gardening programs have aided in the rehabilitation of violent criminals and veterans suffering from PTSD. Intrigued, she searched for more information on gardening programs and came across a study conducted after an earthquake in Niigata, Japan. Researchers had built a garden in a temporary community of elderly evacuees. The residents of the community with a garden, when compared with a control group, had lower blood pressure, lower rates of dementia, and less severe arthritis. “So I thought, This is phenomenal,” Bajema says, “because if it could help on a psychological well-being and emotional level, and also on a physical level for the elderly, this could be a real answer.”

Her solution was culturally specific. The residents of rural Tōhoku had always gardened, and Bajema and her partners planned the gardens in a way that would help the residents of Tōhoku maintain their ties to the land where they had lived for generations. Many of the gardens were even built on the foundations of homes that had been swept away by the tsunami.

Bajema’s co-workers at AmeriCares were supportive, but skeptical. They specialized in disbursing funds to distribute medicine and build clinics. They had never built gardens. They applied close scrutiny to the project, in an attempt to make sure that Bajema accounted for every contingency and the project succeeded. “My boss and immediate team never said no, but I was getting a lot of pushback from them,” Bajema recalls. “Then I had a meeting in December of 2011 with the CEO, with a menu of all the things that I wanted to do. He immediately looked at the garden on the list and went, ‘That makes sense.’”

There was no road map for building these gardens, nor would her supervisors be able to tell her what needed to be done. It was not a nine-to-five job. But as a graduate student Bajema had faced those conditions before: it was not unlike the beginning of dissertation research.

Undaunted, Bajema got to work. Partnering with a local organization, Peace Boat, Bajema disbursed more than one hundred thousand dollars to build over a hundred community gardens. Displaced tsunami survivors who had spent months cooped up in cramped, temporary shelters emerged to work the land. Elderly survivors who had been sullen and withdrawn opened up to explain the finer points of growing daikon radishes. All of the participants who were monitored showed a marked decrease in blood pressure. Altogether, AmeriCares estimates that this program has brought over five thousand survivors together and out of their homes to talk and to exercise.

But one data point in particular demonstrates the remarkable success of the gardening program.

“Ramona,” Gudwin asserts, “has been the recipient of more hugs than anyone else in the entire organization.”

* * *

This year marked the second anniversary of the Tōhoku earthquake, and Bajema and AmeriCares still have much to do. Bajema is overseeing the reconstruction of group homes and not-for-profit workshops for the disabled. She is managing what AmeriCares calls “community-directed initiatives.” These are tiny grants for grassroots organizations, supporting cultural activities vital to community well-being, such as traditional summer festivals and storage sheds for taiko drums.

And a final frontier for Tōhoku relief beckons: the areas of Fukushima prefecture affected by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis. Bajema had always wanted to do a garden project in Fukushima, where obesity rates for residents afraid to leave their homes are on the rise, but was stymied by the radiation in the soil. This year, she finally plans to expand the program to Fukushima, bringing in soil from outside and placing it in raised beds. “Usually, people hear about these programs through word of mouth. But we’ve already had eleven people sign up just by doing a mailer, which is really amazing,” Bajema notes.

At the same time, Bajema never lost sight of her academic goals. Working nights in Sendai, at the height of the earthquake recovery efforts, she finished her dissertation on time, flying to New York to defend it in December 2011. “She didn’t put it off! God bless her, she finished and she defended, and then she took the manuscript back and completed the deposit copy with all the footnotes and deposited and received her degree,” Gluck says. “That’s Ramona!”

Bajema hopes eventually to be able to write a history of the earthquake, the tsunami, and the recovery efforts, but believes that she will need time and distance. “Once she leaves Tōhoku, I think she will have a story to tell,” Gluck says. “The story she will tell will not be a story that begins on 3/11. As a historian, she’ll have a longer background to the story and a wider angle of vision on the present response.”

For now, Bajema must cultivate her gardens, which means delaying her return to academia. She wants to insure the projects she started will survive when she leaves. She also wants to write a report on her gardening programs, to help organizations replicate these efforts in other disaster-affected areas.

But she does not regret this academic detour at all. “Based on the results I’ve seen here, I’ve never been as proud of anything I’ve done in my life,” Bajema says.

And, she asserts, it is a detour that any Columbia student is capable of taking. “The NPO [nonprofit organization] field needs people who have analytical skills to be able to question how successful X, Y, or Z is. The work demands tremendous physical and emotional fortitude, and I think that analytical thinkers, people who are doing the humanities have that,” Bajema says. “You can work for an NPO. We have something to offer.”