Teaching with 3.11 in the Present

Aleksandra Kobiljski

Editors’ Note:

The current global health crisis has called us to reflect upon the role of digital pedagogical tools for facilitating empathetic learning about disasters in history. Our ability to create new materials and to ensure accessibility depends on a community of students and instructors learning together, and with those who have lived through disasters and their trauma. The COVID-19 outbreaks around the world, pronounced by the WHO as a pandemic on 11 March 2020, have made chillingly clear how vulnerable—and simultaneously, how important—communities are. The moment of silence commemorating the “3.11” triple disaster in Japan this year has been overshadowed by the hope for a successful Olympic torch relay (starting in Fukushima and continuing through the archipelagic country, including Okinawa) and the ongoing pandemic, which in turn contributed to cancellations of public memorial services. This shift in attention may be characterized in hindsight as one step toward public amnesia of the as yet ongoing disaster. The fading of the ongoing “3.11” issues in the face of the current pandemic forces us to remember the meaning and purpose of the analog and digital preservation of past moments and memories for communities now and in the future.

There is no point in making these pedagogical tools if we do not use them. It will also become difficult to make good, responsible use of them if the processes of making them are isolated from students.

The premise for Teach311.org when it launched in 2011 was to encourage collective interrogation of the past and of enduring disaster in the wake of March 11th. Now, our international team faces a similar challenge to engage with the COVID-19 crisis and apply the practical and intellectual lessons we have learned from our own past. The pandemic takes on a new shape every day epidemiologically and politically, pitting evolving and diverse expert and experienced knowledge against misinformation, misunderstandings, and politics of blame. This makes the importance of comprehending and documenting the meanings and relevance of disasters in the public’s memory nothing short of acute. Now, furthermore, many of our colleagues around the world are being encouraged to move their teaching activities and classroom meetings to the virtual world. Students are being asked to continue coursework in this extraordinary condition of social-distancing. These and other shifts make for a tectonic change in education and gesture to a new normal, which, at the time of this writing, remains unsettled.

The “3.11” triple disaster also remains unsettled, and if it offers any premonition as to what our shared future will be like, it behooves us to continue to teach crises from the past as we struggle through the pandemic in the months and years to come.

By making available translations of oral histories from the Interview Archive in English and French, we intend to contribute to the ongoing development of knowledge and resources for our fellow educators and students around the world. We would like to do our part, not least because some of these oral histories, including those of first responders and college students, may offer a glimmer of the recovery process that must follow a disaster. These select translations of oral history interview transcripts are the result of a collaboration with a contemporary Japan MA seminar for students at the University of Paris (Diderot), led by Aleksandra Kobiljski in Spring 2019. Using our newly launched Interview Collection, the students embarked on a translation project. In the piece below, Kobiljski outlines the practicalities of how she incorporated these oral history materials into her pedagogy. We hope her reflections will provide insights about the possibilities and spark your imagination about how you might like to use the Interview Collection. We are in this together.

                                                                                      – Grace Teo & Lisa Onaga, 25 March 2020


In 2019, my contemporary Japan seminar entitled Thinking with the Past in the Present was geared toward developing an understanding of contemporary Japanese society while at the same time fostering critical thinking skills. This seminar centered around the study of social science and literary texts that examined various ways by which Japan engaged with its past to structure its contemporary self-understanding. In this context, the Interview Collection was an especially pertinent opportunity for engaging with not just the particularities of “3.11” but also with the questions of aftermath and meaningful recovery. What does it mean to survive and cope with having survived a major crisis? When does a crisis stop and an aftermath begin? How do you make survival meaningful?

We spent three 2-hour class sessions working together to study the Interview Collection. In the first meeting, we began with an introductory lecture grounded upon an STS and history of technology reading of what took place in Japan on March 11th, 2011. We then watched interview excerpts in class and analyzed the visual and language aspects of the interviews briefly.

Preceding the second meeting, students had full access to the Interview Collection and each selected an interview they wanted to work with specifically. They arrived to class with a draft translation of a section or full interview in a language of their choice. The small 8-person seminar format allowed us to discuss their translations and use them as a springboard to raise larger questions about the meanings of Fukushima for contemporary Japan and more broadly for our world today.

The wide range of interviewee backgrounds featured in the Interview Collection nicely matched with the diverse intellectual interests represented in my seminar, and each student found something they could connect with. Their interest ran across disciplinary currents: Some, like Carla Adami, are on track to train as a literary translators; others, like undergrad physics major Jules Kollisch, came with interests in social scientific issues; several, like Lydie Ozourma and Florian Giraud, are pursuing governmental and activist interests, such as Japanese peacekeeping in the Middle East and Africa and the LGBT movement in Japan, respectively.

In the third meeting, students read aloud and commented upon their fine-tuned translations. This workshop-style session served to finalize the transcripts themselves, and it also served as a springboard for discussing questions such as the importance of art in the process of recovery, survivor guilt, and issues concerning the responsibility of remembering things you’d rather forget or wish had never happened.

Soil remediation in Namie (Photo: Tyson Vaughan, 7 December 2015)

The remarkably high level of ability among French MA students in Japanese Studies did set a certain pace for how the collective analysis and discussion of translation could work as an entry point for learning about the recent past. However, by taking time to work with the students and the materials regardless of their level of Japanese language ability, I felt that the exercise of studying the Interview Collection itself can be highly adaptable for different skill levels. If one wishes to pursue translation as method, the length of the interview to transcribe simply needs to be adjusted to students’ Japanese language proficiency. The interviews might also be used in language classes, or be analyzed as primary sources in research methodology classes.

The Teach311.org resources ultimately helped offer quality content that made teaching meaningful in ways I did not envision when I started the seminar. The richness of the interviews provided a lot of material to unpack that were insightful for the students. It also gave me a clear guiding path for delivering teachable content in an area outside of my direct research field (history of Meiji Japan). One particularly memorable teaching moment was when I observed the  slow dawning upon the students that what they are doing is not mere class work but the generation of knowledge and academic value. The scale was modest, yet, the point was significant. As my students were informed in advance at the beginning of the seminar of the potential to give back to the Teach311.org project, they seemed to feel the utility and power of their academic studies not for the sake exercising their admirable language skills alone, but for contributing to a broader community of mind and concern.


Aleksandra Kobiljski is a historian of modern Japan and a Research Associate Professor in the French Nation Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). Since 2018, she is the director of the Japan Research Center at The School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris. Her current research project is on the shifts in technical culture of Japan from 1800-1885 and works to reframes the story of the profound economic, social, and cultural changes that transformed modern Japan.




Instructors: Please contact us here to request a password to freely access the Interview Collection on behalf of your classrooms.  Ensuring continued access to these interviews for educational purposes requires ongoing efforts and commitment from our team of volunteers and teachers like you who make learning count.


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The Teach311 + COVID-19 Collective began in 2011 as a joint project of the Forum for the History of Science in Asia and the Society for the History of Technology Asia Network and is currently expanded in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science(Artifacts, Action, Knowledge) and Nanyang Technological University-Singapore.

Teaching with 3.11 in the Present