Ten Years of Tōhoku’s ‘post-disaster’
There were over 400 environmental disturbances in 2020 that led to loss of human life, habitat or infrastructure, with the majority of these events taking place in the Asia Pacific region (Statista 2021). This is nearly a hundred more environmental events compared to two decades ago, with climate change, population growth and urbanisation impacting where and how these events occur. Disasters are therefore increasingly becoming a reoccurring threat to a growing number of communities, affecting not only their immediate conditions and survival, but long-term trajectories as well. When the Great East Japan Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Disaster took place ten years ago, the shock reverberated from the Tohoku region across the world. The events were labelled as ‘unprecedented’, speaking to the forces of nature that defied comprehension and indicating the scale of social, cultural and human impact upon the populations in Japan and, through the impact of the Fukushima nuclear accident, beyond. While environmental disturbances are disproportionately impacting less well-resourced communities in the Global South, events such as the Triple Disaster, alongside Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy and most recently the Australian wildfires, have revealed deep underlying vulnerabilities and cracks in resilience measures even among the richest of nations.
How did a disaster like this unfold in a country like Japan, where earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and typhoons compose a perennial threat to daily life and where repeated disaster experiences have been embedded into the social, economic and cultural history of the country? Technological answers to this question were widely sought immediately after the disaster. Aging tsunami walls (Yamori 2013) and miscalculations in the hazard maps (Stein et al. 2012), for instance, were found to have contributed to the severity of the event and the nature of the damages, thus partly providing actionable answers to an occurrence that seemed to defy comprehension. Tragedies such as the perishing of dozens of children in the Okawa elementary school in Ishinomaki also exposed the human errors that equally contributed to the losses (Suppasri et al. 2013), leading to a heightened national consciousness toward and debate on the preparedness for potential future mega events that will emerge in the wake of 3/11.
Equally, the Triple Disaster also ignited a wave of public discourse about where Japan should go from here and reinvigorated long-standing debates about social divides and justice as well as economic sustainability in light of the new post-disaster reality. On the one hand, the disaster may have bolstered neo-conservative imaginations of national strengths and harmony (Koikari 2017, Mullins 2016). Yet, the coinciding anti-nuclear protests (Brown 2018), reinvigoration of grassroots movements (Shaw 2017), rural migration (Klien 2017) and growing reflections on happiness and well-being in 21st-century Japan (Manzenreiter and Holthus 2019) tell a story of deepening engagement with a plurality of values and desires beyond the orthodox post-war socio-economic framework of development. Not least of all, through the impact of the Fukushima nuclear accident, the Triple Disaster has also further highlighted the long-standing gaps in geographical distribution of wealth and development across Japan. Alongside these national discourses and engagement with global development trends, the disaster also promoted intense localism, with the post-disaster recovery highlighting the central role of citizens and communities along the affected coastline who were taking an active role in directing the recovery and shaping their own futures. When looking at the development across Tōhoku, and Japan as a whole, it is clear that the impact of the disaster has been profound and long-lasting.
The Triple disaster has been transformative to the communities along the disaster-affected coastline in particular, who saw their lives upended by the forces of nature and that have remained in continuous state of fluctuation through the years of post-disaster reconstruction and recovery. However, the broader attention toward these mega events is often quick to lose its momentum. As Brian Massumi noted in his Guardian piece soon after the Triple Disaster in 2011, as we follow such logic-defying events through our screens, with “a shocked-and-awed hole of horror into the fabric of the everyday” drawing in on our emotions, it very quickly “subside[s] into the background” of life, soon to be replaced by the next newsworthy event. While Massumi, in this case, primarily referred to the “half-life” of disasters in the contemporary media cycles, to a great degree academic inquiry into disaster events today follows a similar pattern. As Gomez and Hart (2013) report, the majority of research related to specific disasters typically comes out within two years of impact, with interest thereafter toward the events themselves only peaking during anniversary events. With such quickly waning attention, it is appropriate to ask to what degree the vast majority of disaster-related research has really explored the long-term impact of disasters on individuals, communities and the broader society.
Anthropological research occupies a vital role in exploring disasters as the outcome of the complex interactions between the natural and sociocultural systems, and the effects of these events thereafter (Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 2019). This online series of reflections from Tohoku’s recovery dedicates itself to introducing some of the anthropological perspectives and insights that have emerged from the Triple Disaster. While the series has of course been motivated by the ten-year anniversary that has recently passed in March, our aim is to slow down and elongate the process of reflection beyond such periodic forms of remembrance. This philosophy has guided our editorial and publication process with the papers in the series being published over several months, leading up to the 11th anniversary in 2022.
Both the individual papers and the series as a whole therefore aim to draw attention to the persistence of the condition of life in ‘the post-disaster’. As the papers in the series will reflect, despite the physical reconstruction in many places today having reached its conclusion, there is no ‘end point’ for this event. The Triple Disaster has proved itself a seminal event in the communal and personal histories of the affected populations, permanently altering the physical and social landscape within which people carry out their lives, and where the signs of lingering trauma and loss will be witnessed and remembered for decades to come. The series contains nine ethnographies, with all of the authors having spent time in Tōhoku’s disaster-affected communities, engaging with residents, new arrivals, tourists and community leaders. Their papers present a bricolage of both the conditions of fluctuation and persistence in Tōhoku’s ‘post-disaster’.
The series opens with three papers reflecting on the meaning of material culture and landscapes in the ‘post-disaster’. In July, we begin with a paper from Aliise Donnere on the destruction of a collection of Jizō statues and gravesites of the Shōtokuji Temple in rural Miyagi. She explores the process of providing care for the ancestors that too suffered in the tsunami and the meanings this can provide for the living. In August, Julia Gerster, Akiko Okubori, Yuki Sadaike and Kohei Takahara from the Disaster Debris Research Team at Tōhoku University analyse how disaster objects and buildings that remain deeply meaningful for local residents but officially fall between the categories of debris and heritage are dealt with. They outline their efforts to archive and digitise these remains together with local residents. Finally, in September, Alyne Delaney’s paper broadens the scope of the material impact of disasters to landscapes. While the emerging seawalls across the north-eastern coastline have sparked heated debate among locals and academics alike, Delayne reflects on the ‘missing mountains’ that were flattened by the disaster reconstruction, and the impact the transformation in the landscape has had on the coastal culture and communal identities.
In October, we will publish two papers by Pilvi Posio and Dunja Sharbar Dar respectively, which reflect on the role of the anthropologist in disaster settings, the process of doing ethnography in sensitive contexts, and how the researcher’s own positionality links with the subject matter at hand. In her paper, Posio reflects on gender in community recovery research in an aging rural town where recovery forums and social settings tended to be dominated by elderly men and the contrast with her own identity as a young female researcher being accompanied to her field site by her full-time househusband. Sharbar Dar’s paper focuses on the stigma brought about by the nuclear disaster in the Fukushima region and its communities, and how this stigma is shaping the ‘post-disaster’ for Fukushima’s communities. She juxtaposes these negative associations with the reactions ranging from curiosity to shock towards her own decision to carry out field work in the ‘nuclear zone’.
Through November to January, the papers in the series will explore the themes of memorialisation, heritage and recreation of the past, and the different ways in which people are recreating their communal life histories and social ties in the ‘post-disaster’. In November, Nobuko Adachi will discuss the positive impact the revitalisation of local festivals can have on disaster-affected communities. Adachi’s paper focuses on the Nomaoi cavalry ceremony in Fukushima prefecture and how the festival has been able to not only reunite local communities but also play a role in normalising the identity of Fukushima after the nuclear disaster. In December, Julia Gerster’s paper reflects on the promotion of kizuna (bonds) in the aftermath of the Triple Disaster in efforts to promote social cohesion, and how this prescribed kizuna spirit was not always positively received by local residents. In January, Flavia Fulco will discuss disaster storytelling (kataribe) activities that emerged in the post-disaster context as a way of not only remembering the past but also processing what occurred. Based on long-term fieldwork in the disaster region, this paper reflects on the development of kataribe activities and their audiences, and how these developments may have impacted the role kataribe plays in the ‘post-disaster’ era.
The final paper in the series comes from Millie Creighton in February 2022 and broadens the scope of the Triple Disaster both geographically and temporally, reflecting on the way in which local communities and Japan as a whole are trying to ‘move forward’ without forgetting the past. The paper explores the vertical effects that this ‘moving forward’ is having, discussing the complexities arising from the national aspirations for the future and the tensions they induce between the state and citizens. Our series will close with a final reflection from Anna Vainio, one of the JAWS editors, leading to the 11th anniversary in March, exploring the commonalities and complexities emerging from these monthly contributions, and the lessons that the Japanese experience can bring to the broader understanding of ‘post-disaster’ elsewhere. We hope that the collection of papers in this series will provide a worthy panorama of the diversity of research carried out in the context of Tōhoku’s long-term recovery, and highlight the contributions made by anthropologists in the field of disaster research in general.
Anna Vainio, Jennifer McGuire and Christopher Tso
Co-editors for the Japan Anthropology Workshop
An overview of the series publication schedule:
July 2021 – Washed away: A change of the image of sacred territory after 3.11. The case of Shōtokuji’s Nagare-Jizō. (Aliise Donnere, Tohoku Gakuin University)
August 2021 – Between debris and memorial: The meaning of disaster-affected objects for local residents after the Great East Japan Earthquake (Disaster Debris Research Group, International Research Institute for Disaster Science, Tohoku University)
September 2021 – Place attachment in a changed (cultural) landscape: Using visual methods to discuss complicated matters (Alyne Delaney, Centre for Northeast Asian Studies, Tohoku University)
October 2021 – “He’s a sengyōshufu” – Female fieldworker’s reflections on gendered disaster recovery (Pilvi Posio, Centre for East Asian studies, University of Turku, Finland) and Waste & Wonder – Reflecting My Fieldwork in Fukushima (Dunja Sharbat Dar, Centre for Religious Studies, Ruhr University)
November 2021 – Reconstructing local Fukushima identity using the 700 year-old Nomaoi Samurai Festival: The impact after 3.11 and 3.20 (Nobuko Adachi, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Illinois State University)
December 2021 – Kizuna: Reflections on the promotion of social cohesion during the ten years of recovery (Julia Gerster, International Research Institute for Disaster Science, Tohoku University)
January 2022 – Kataribe, 10 years of post-disaster storytelling in Tōhoku (Flavia Fulco, International Research Institute for Disaster Science, Tohoku University)
March 2022 – Concluding remarks for the series (Anna Vainio, School of East Asian Studies, The University of Sheffield)
Brown, A. J. (2018). Anti-nuclear Protest in Post-Fukushima Tokyo: Power Struggles. London and New York: Routledge.
Gomez, C. and Hart, D.E., (2013). Disaster gold rushes, sophisms and academic neocolonialism: comments on ‘Earthquake disasters and resilience in the global North’. The Geographical Journal, 179(3), pp.272-277.
Klien S. (2017). Young urban migrant in the Japanese countryside between self-realization and slow life? The quest for subjective well-being and post-materialism. In Assman S. (ed.), Sustainability in Contemporary Japan: Challenges and opportunities. London and New York: Routledge.
Koikari, M. (2019). Re-masculinizing the nation: gender, disaster, and the politics of nationalresilience in post-3.11 Japan. In Japan Forum, 31(2), pp. 143-164.
Manzenreiter, W., & Holthus, B. (Eds.). (2017). Happiness and the good life in Japan. Taylor & Francis.
Massumi B. (2011). The half-life of disaster. Guardian Opinion.
Available: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/apr/15/half-life-of-disaster (9.7.2021).
Mullins M.R. (2016) Neonationalism, Politics, and Religion in Post-disaster Japan. In Mullins M.R., Nakano K. (eds.), Disasters and Social Crisis in Contemporary Japan. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Oliver-Smith, A., & Hoffman, S. M. (Eds.). (2019). The angry earth: disaster in anthropological perspective. Routledge.
Shaw, V (2017). “We Are Already Living Together”: Race, Collective Struggle, and the reawakened Nation in Post-3/11 Japan” in Chih-ming Wang and Daniel PS Goh (Eds.), precarious Belongings: Affect and Nationalism in Asia. London and New York, Rowman & Littlefield.
Suppasri A., Shuto N., Imamura F., Koshimura S., Mas E., and Yalciner A. (2013). Lessons learned from the 2011 Great East Japan Tsunami: Performance of tsunami countermeasures, coastal buildings and tsunami evacuation in Japan. Pure Applied Geophysics, 170, pp. 993-1018.
Statista (2021). Annual number of natural disaster events globally from 2000 to 2020. Available: www.statista.com/statistics/510959/number-of-natural-disasters-events-globally/#:~:text=In%202020%2C%20there%20were%20a,to%20its%20size%20and%20susceptibility (9.7.2021)
Stein S., Geller R., and Liu M. (2012). Review Article: Why earthquake hazard maps often fail and what to do about it. Tectonophysics, 562-563, pp. 1-25.
Yamori K. (2013). A historical overview of social representation of earthquake risk in Japan: fatalism, social reform, scientific control and collaborative risk management. In Joffe H. et al. (eds.), Cities at Risk: Living with Perils in the 21st Century. Springer.