Skip to main content area Skip to main content area Skip to institutional navigation Skip to search Skip to section navigation

Prof. Feldman’s GRS on law and disasters takes students to Fukushima site

April 18, 2016

Soon after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Penn Law professor Eric Feldman received a call from a colleague in Japan, who lamented that the legal academy had paid so little attention to the issues triggered by disasters. There were huge numbers of displaced people; tens of thousands of deaths; millions of destroyed and damaged homes; a seriously damaged and leaking nuclear power plant; and only the faintest legal framework for deciding who should be compensated, and how much they should receive.

Feldman realized that these complex legal issues demanded attention. He worked closely with a group of Japanese and international legal scholars to study the problems laid bare by Fukushima in the two years following the disaster. Not satisfied that they had fully explored the area, he then created a new course at Penn Law: the “Disasters and the Law” Global Research Seminar.

Penn Law developed the idea for Global Research Seminars (GRS) when Feldman was serving as Deputy Dean for International Affairs, and for the past six years has been offering students the opportunity to enroll in these intensive research courses coupled with overseas field research. Past GRS’s have traveled to countries including Germany, Malaysia, Brazil, China, and India. Feldman’s idea was to use the Fukushima disaster as one example of the importance of law in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from disasters, while also exploring disasters elsewhere in Asia and in the U.S.

Although disasters have affected the lives of billions of people, and have had a profound economic and political impact, they are mostly uncharted territory for legal scholars. Feldman, an expert in Japanese law, comparative public health law, and torts, knew of only one casebook on the subject, and less than a handful of legal scholars who identify as experts in the intersection of law and disasters.

“There are almost no law-and-disaster-focused classes in the United States,” said Feldman. “To call it a field is an exaggeration.”

Japan is highly disaster-prone, Feldman explained, subject to earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis. And disasters have implications for almost every branch of law. “There are not a lot of areas in the law school curriculum that aren’t touched by this,” he noted. Criminal law, procedure, contracts, international law, corporate law, tort law, and administrative law were all at play at some stage of the disaster life-cycle.

In early January, Feldman took 14 JD and LLM students to Japan to visit the Fukushima site and meet with government officials, lawyers, politicians, and members of NGOs. In addition, Penn Law SJD student Eri Osaka served as coordinator and assistant for the trip to Japan, helping to set up meetings and resolve logistical issues. Osaka is a professor of law at Toyo University in Japan and is completing her dissertation on law and disasters at Penn Law.

During the fall 2015 semester, the course met as a regular seminar and hosted numerous distinguished guests, including a senior FEMA official, the director of New Jersey’s Hurricane Sandy recovery effort, a lawyer who represented victims of Hurricane Katrina, and a senior official at the U.N. In November, Feldman organized a conference under the auspices of Penn Law’s Center for Asian Law that involved an in-depth analysis of the Bhopal chemical disaster in India, the Sichuan earthquake in China, and Fukushima. The keynote address was presented by the foremost expert on disaster compensation in the U.S., Kenneth Feinberg.

“By the time we went to Japan, the students had a reasonably sophisticated understanding of the field,” said Feldman. “They arrived in Japan with their eyes wide open.”

In Japan, the group’s first stop was the Fukushima site. Even with a semester of preparation, the students were still shocked by what they saw.

“In class, it’s easy to learn about the events leading to the disaster, the evacuation of the area, and response activities,” said Leia Andrews L’17. “We knew that the disaster had displaced hundreds of thousands of people. But the impact of a site visit is almost unexplainable. We saw firsthand an entire region full of destroyed homes and no people. Five years post-disaster, a lack of effective disaster-recovery policy is much more tangible when you see homes with their exteriors ripped off and people’s belongings still inside.”

The students also had the opportunity to meet with government officials from Iwaki City, near the Fukushima site, and members of the central government, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They noted that some officials were tirelessly devoted to the work of restoring Fukushima, while others seemed more interested in presenting an image of progress, rather than confronting the difficulties of the process.

The students even had the chance to meet with officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Authority. “These meetings allowed us to get a sense for how the Japanese government is thinking about the recovery effort and its lessons,” said Nathan Swartz L’17. “Our meeting with the Nuclear Regulatory Authority was particularly interesting as it gave us the chance to hear about how the Japanese nuclear regulators are approaching the process of reactivating Japan’s nuclear reactors.”

But the students didn’t just visit disasters sites and sit through meetings. It was important for them to have some time off, Feldman said, so they could learn about the culture of Japan as they embarked on their own research projects. They had the opportunity to have a traditional tofu meal and even go to a sumo tournament.

Since their return, the GRS students have been working on research papers on legal topics related to disasters. Feldman noted that many of his students revised their topics after the trip to Fukushima. They saw things from new angles, he said, or realized they needed to delve deeper into a particular subject.

That kind of engagement with field research is one of the most valuable things about the Global Research Seminars, he explained. Too much of students’ legal research is done sitting in front of a computer. By visiting places and talking to people, they gain new perspectives.

“Getting out of one’s comfort zone, out of the academy, out of the library, out of one’s character, away from one’s computer,” he said, “allows you to learn something interesting about the world.”