JQ Magazine: JQ&A with Mark Flanigan, Program Director of the Japan ICU Foundation

Mark Flanigan volunteering with local fisherman for tsunami relief during Golden Week in Oshika Hanto, Ishinomaki, 2011.

By Shirley Dang (Yamanashi-ken, 2009-10) for JQ magazine. Shirley enjoys sipping chai latte and devouring scrumptious cakes while continuing her pursuit for Japanese- and education-related jobs. Visit her Facebook page here.

Mark Flanigan (Nagasaki-ken, 2000-04) currently lives on the campus of International Christian University (ICU) / 国際基督教大学 in Tokyo, where he is finishing up his two-year M.A. in peace studies as a Rotary International Peace Fellow. Last year he volunteered at Ishinomaki post-3/11, playing a vital role in tsunami relief.  Following graduation, Mark will move to New York City in July to work as a new program director with the Japan ICU Foundation (JICUF). JQ recently caught up with him to learn more about his extraordinary experiences.

Hi, Mark, welcome to the Big Apple! What’s your background story and how did it influence you to be a JET?

Thank you, Shirley! I’m glad to have the chance to introduce myself here. Well, I actually came into JET through my interest in teaching, rather than a specific focus on Japan. I wasn’t an Asian studies major in college, and I had never traveled anywhere except Europe and the Americas at that point. My first direct experience with Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) was spending about a year in Morelia, Mexico, which I really loved. After I returned to the U.S., I taught English at an international school for a while, but I wanted to experience the feeling of living in a different culture again. That led me to apply to JET, and I was lucky to have some great advice and support from both Japanese people and JET alumni living in D.C. I still remember how happy I felt when I received the acceptance letter in the mail!

What was your time on JET like, and how did it play a role in your future career plans?

My original plan, like many JETs, was to stay just one year. I had applied to grad school and thought I would finish up with my original contract. Needless to say, I became quite fascinated with the people and culture I found as a municipal ALT in Hirado, Nagasaki Prefecture, and decided to re-contract. I was then offered a promotion of sorts, and became the Teacher-Trainer ALT at the Prefectural Education Center, which was a great experience. In my last year, I also served in tandem with my other duties as the Nagasaki Prefectural ALT Advisor. In all, I ended up staying in Nagasaki for a total of four years! After that, I returned to D.C. and attended grad school in Public Policy at George Mason University. I was selected as a Presidential Management Fellow and worked for the U.S. government until 2010.

I see that you were a Rotary Peace Fellow at the ICU in Tokyo—how did that happen? And as a fellow, what were your roles and responsibilities? Anything you want to share?

I was very fortunate to have met Daniel Sturgeon (Gifu-ken, 2000-02), a JET alumnus and former Rotary Peace Fellow, in Washington. He and I shared many similar interests regarding public service and international exchange, and he strongly encouraged me to pursue the Rotary Peace Fellowship.  As ICU in Tokyo is one of the partner universities with Rotary for administering the Peace Fellowship, it was a perfect way for me to return once more to Japan.

Daniel was absolutely instrumental in helping me prepare for the application and selection process, which is certainly rigorous, but very much worth the time and effort. In two years, I was able to graduate with a fully-funded M.A. in Peace Studies, with direct experience interning at the United Nations in Geneva in summer 2011, thanks to the generosity of Rotarians worldwide who enable this outstanding Peace Fellowship program to develop.

I would certainly encourage any former JETs who are interested to review the current application at www.rotary.org/rotarycenters. Being a JET means you have already experienced Japanese culture directly, which is a huge plus with Rotary! You can also find a local Rotary Club for endorsement at www.rotary.org/clublocator. The annual application deadline is coming up, so if you are interested, apply ASAP!

It’s been over a year since 3/11. What changes have you noticed since then in the Tohoku region? How about regarding local government/politics?

After the disaster, there was an incredible outpouring of heartfelt support from the international community, which the people of Japan certainly appreciated. And there was also a very admirable show of solidarity among people here, in support of those most affected in Tohoku. Recovery efforts continue in Tohoku, and there is certainly still more to be done. There still seems to be a good bit of skepticism at the local level about whether the national government can deliver in terms of guaranteeing the safety of the nuclear plants in Fukushima, along with general mistrust of TEPCO in their lack of transparency on nuclear safety measures.

In contrast, one very interesting aspect for me, as a U.S. Army veteran, was the degree to which the Japan Self-Defense Forces rose to the challenge and deployed in record time in response to this crisis. It was their largest domestic deployment to date, and included both active and (for the first time) reserve forces, supported by police, fire and rescue personnel from across Japan, as well as global coordination with the UN, the U.S., Australia, France, Thailand, Israel, and others. That was worlds apart from what happened during the Kobe earthquake in 1995, for a variety of reasons.

When 3/11 occurred, many Japanese nationals, expats and foreigners fell in unison and wanted to do something. You physically went and provided hands-on support; how was that?

Quite honestly, it was the most difficult and yet most humbling experience I’ve ever had in my life. When the earthquake struck, I was not in Japan, but riding the Trans Siberian Express to visit my sister in Moscow. She’d been living there as a Fulbrighter, and we’d made plans to meet up for my spring vacation time. When I first heard the news of what happened, I was shocked and saddened for the victims, as well as being unsure of what would happen next. I had to fly back to the U.S. until Rotary and ICU could determine whether it was safe to continue our fellowship program in Japan.

Thankfully, I could return, and set my sights on volunteering in Tohoku as soon as I did. Four of us ICU Rotary Peace Fellows joined in with a student volunteer organization that organized a tsunami clean-up mission in Ishinomaki over Golden Week. It was very hard work, both physically and psychologically, as I had literally never encountered a disaster zone firsthand. But we were all motivated, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, by our love for Japan and our desire to make some kind of impact, no matter how small.

For those who may be interested, here is a short video clip that tells a bit about what we saw there.

What was going on in your mind when you arrived to volunteer? What were the difficulties you faced when you were there?

My mind was filled with conflicting emotions, to be honest. I was determined to help, but quite scared of what I might see or feel once I arrived on site. When I worked for the U.S. government, we helped to direct the health and medical portion of earthquake relief to Haiti in 2010, but that was way up at the headquarters level of operation. It’s so far removed from the actual mud and debris on the ground that you can’t even compare the two, really.

Luckily, when I volunteered in Japan, it was part of a very well-organized group. Even then, however, it was extremely hard not to feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale of destruction across Tohoku. The overwhelming sights, sounds and smells combined to disorient you beyond belief. For me, what kept me going that whole week was the survivors themselves working right there alongside us. Their inner strength was absolutely incredible, and it challenged all of us not to give up.

On a brighter note, how do you think your experiences helped shape you today?

Well, it certainly made me appreciate the severity of disasters from a more personal perspective, as well as reaffirming my love of and support for the people of Japan. It also helped me to refine the focus of my academic thesis at ICU, which had been looking at the role of Japan in UN Peacekeeping operations.

After 3/11, I became much more interested in Japan’s role (both domestically and internationally) in disaster response. This led me to do an internship at the UN in Geneva, focusing on the coordination of global disaster response operations. As it turns out, Japan is a key supporter of this activity, in terms of both financial and material support, through MOFA, JICA and also deployment of military personnel. I ended up interviewing a number of people across the Japanese government who are directly involved in disaster response operations, which was an education in and of itself.

What can individuals like JET alums at home do to help?

From what I have seen, many people and organizations in New York have already done some really amazing things to contribute to the recovery efforts in Japan.  For that, I really want to say thank you to everyone here who has given whatever they can to help people in need.  I’ve also recently heard that many people who experienced 9/11 directly, such as NYC police, firefighters, psychologists and surviving family members of victims, have been reaching out to Japanese people in support and solidarity with them. To me, that is simply amazing.

The Japan ICU Foundation hosted a special Sake Tasting & Fundraiser at the Penn Club in New York City on March 5th to help raise funds for International Christian University’s ongoing relief and rebuilding efforts after the devastation of 3/11. Over 100 guests from the U.S., Japan and many other countries came for the evening in support of this charitable event. I was invited to give their keynote presentation, describing the variety of ways in which ICU has been supporting the recovery efforts firsthand. These include a new joint-psychological relief program in Sendai, continuing student volunteer efforts in Tohoku, and the Earthquake Tuition Waiver Fund. A silent auction of different Japan-related goods, including a rare kimono, also took place during the same event. In total, approximately $10,000 was raised from donations that evening.

These funds directly helped to support the work of the East Japan Center for Free Clinical-Educational Service ( 震災復興 心理・教育臨床センター) in Sendai. The Center was founded by ICU professor Hide Kotani after the disaster and provides free psychological counseling to survivors from March 11th. Funds will also go to support the efforts of ICU students who continue to volunteer in the Tohoku region, as well as the Earthquake Tuition Waiver Fund for those ICU students whose families were impacted by the unprecedented triple-disaster. As for people in the greater New York area and beyond, I would suggest that those who are interested in donating to these ongoing efforts should please feel free to contact the JICUF at information [at] jicuf.org.

When you realized you were coming to New York, what was the first thing on your mind? Were there any particular places you wanted to see? Have you found your niche?

I’m still really learning. It’s always been a dream of mine to live and work in New York, but I never had the chance until now. On the top of my list would be the UN Headquarters, MoMA, the World Trade Center Site Memorial, etc. I’m still a newbie and therefore very much open to new ideas and suggestions on things to see and fun places to visit!

Can you tell us a little about your new role here as a Program Director for the Japan ICU Foundation? What does the organization do?

It’s a really wonderful organization, with an amazing staff and board of trustees who are truly involved in all aspects of supporting ICU. As a new Program Director at the Japan ICU Foundation, my duties involve outreach and program development to promote ICU as a key liberal arts academic institution in Japan. This involves active student recruitment, primarily by recruiting U.S. students to attend ICU, but also encouraging more Japanese students to study here in the U.S.

As a JET alum and then as a Rotary Peace Fellow in Japan, I can personally attest to the value of international exchange in broadening one’s personal and professional horizons alike. Another exciting aspect of the position is working in partnerships with esteemed organizations like the Aspen Institute. They will be holding a groundbreaking conference on peace-building in October at ICU, in partnership with the Japan ICU Foundation, which will be a whole new aspect of program development.

Do you have any particular goals in mind?

My number one goal is to learn as much as possible about the Japanese community here in the greater NYC area. I’m very much interested in JETAANY, Japan Society, Peace Boat US and other organizations, and I’d like to see how the Japan ICU Foundation can possibly partner with them in areas of mutual interest. As someone who has lived twice now in Japan, I really value such connections in my personal and professional life. I’d love to meet new people, attend various Japan-related events, receptions, fundraisers, workshops, classes, gatherings and so on. And of course, I really need to keep studying Nihongo!

What else are you looking forward to in New York?

After living in Tokyo for two years, I’m really looking forward to settling in and finding out many new and exciting things about my new home here in New York. Thanks again to you and all of your readers—I’m definitely looking forward to meeting everyone there very soon. 宜しくお願いします!

The Japan ICU Foundation is located at 475 Riverside Drive (between West 119th and 120th Streets) in New York City. Visit their homepage at http://jicuf.org.

Watch the official video of the ICU Rotary Peace Fellows trip to Hiroshima in autumn 2011 here.