“Kimochi ga wakaranai” Recovery Standing in the Way of Recovery in Tohoku

University of Sheffield 


Between 2015 and 2016, I spent 13-months traveling up and down the coastline of Miyagi, talking to people in multiple locations to gauge their experiences of the recovery following the Triple Disaster of 3/11 and the imaginations and ideas they held for the future. I was carrying out the ethnography for my doctoral dissertation that focuses on the long-term post-disaster community development. While the diversity of experiences was great and people presented both enthusiasm and frustration toward the recovery, there was one utterance that I heard more than any other: kimochi ga wakaranai, ‘they don’t understand how we feel’, referring to the authorities involved in the recovery on multiple levels of government. Why were so many peoples across the Sanriku Coast, living in multiple communities and under multiple municipal authorities, articulating their experiences of the recovery in the same way? This question eventually rose as the central puzzle of my thesis.

To deal with the diversity of the recovering region, the Japanese Government opted for a “community-focused” recovery by placing the affected municipalities as “the main administrative actors” of the recovery process (Reconstruction Headquarters 2011, pp.1-10). The decision is in line with the global ‘best practice’ for post-disaster recovery, with ‘community-based approaches’ today embraced and promoted by international organizations, national governments and NGOs alike. According to the principles of community-based recovery, the closer to the community the recovery takes place, the better it will suit the local context and enable participation of the affected populations, thus leading to more resilient outcomes at a faster recovery (Shaw and Goda, 2004; Aldrich, 2012). The Government and municipalities in Japan have echoed this message (Town of Onagawa 2011, Town of Minamisanriku 2011). In efforts to “listen to the people” municipalities have recruited affected populations to sit in machizukuri councils, attend meetings, fill surveys and participate in community planning workshops. In addition to this, thousands of grassroots businesses and projects have been set up by the residents themselves, creating for a generally excited and buzzing atmosphere in these communities. However, despite these efforts to induce a community-based recovery, I remained puzzled; what made people participate in the recovery while at the same time so strongly identifying with the narrative of disempowerment and voicelessness of kimochi ga wakaranai?

This question began to unravel after a meeting I had with a long-term collaborator in Tohoku, who one day during the course of our conversation said: “once this recovery is over, we can finally start to rebuild our communities“. He presented me with a view of a sequential recovery that I had already noticed in the characterizations of other people I had spoken with, and further reflected in my field diary before. The utterance indicated that people were building two stories about the recovery that were operating simultaneously. In my thesis I argue that this apparent duality of the recovery can be explored through Berlant’s (2011) concept of ‘cruel optimism’, where the desired goal becomes an obstacle to the achievement of that goal. For Tohoku’s affected populations, recovery was standing in the way of recovery, where ‘rebuilding our communities’ could not take place before the ‘recovery’ was over.

As humans we like to imagine our lives as having a clear trajectory, like a plot of a story, and once we recognize the arc of that story, we can identify our authorship within (Berlant, 2011). The sense of voicelessness, articulated through kimochi ga wakaranai, emerged when people stood at the intersection of the two stories and recognized their two differing trajectories: one built upon the communal experience of the disaster and the prolonged recovery and their imagination of the future that emerged as a direct consequence of those experiences and desires (what can be), and the other, where they could not go back, nor move forward, that emerged from the visions for revitalization, budgetary constraints, legal boundaries and slowness of the recovery, that set limits to what was possible (what is).

By shifting my analysis into the narrative framework, I was able to understand how people were constructing and re-enforcing these plot lines in their interactions with me. In the “what can be” -narrative, the present condition, past experiences and visions of the future interconnected into a practical trajectory, seamlessly weaving the disaster as part of their communal history. For the affected populations, ’recovery’ was an intimate and pervasive experience of life itself, where the disaster and the recovery had become part of the arc of their personal and communal histories, upon which the future would be built. In the “what is” -narrative however, people existed in a liminal state where the past no longer existed and the future was not yet. This narrative was driven by perseverance (gaman), so that the “what can be” storyline could be realized afterwards. The recovery in this frame was perceived as an abnormal phase that needed to be overcome, a crinkle in the personal and communal history, and a technical process driven by expertise, fiscal regulations, and the government; and one that the communities had little access to, despite the “community-focused” recovery.

When the disaster struck the region in 2011, the Government saw recovery as the solution to the long-term woes of rural Tohoku. The region has for a long-time existed in an extractive relationship with urban metropolitan Japan that has led to long-term social, economic, and demographic decline that Japanese Studies scholars have explored for decades (Matanle and Rausch, 2011; Kelly, 2012). Japan’s rural regions have been subjected to national policies of municipal mergers and fiscal devolution, countless localized revitalization initiatives, designed to breathe life into the regions and counter the decline and increase their self-determination and self-responsibility (Jacobs, 2011; Oguma, 2013). However, often they have left cash-strapped rural municipalities with few options but to go through with the reforms in exchange for immediate monetary returns (Oguma, 2013; Hirano, 2013). The official recovery in Tohoku has become couched in this familiar language and counter-narrative for decline, speaking of growth, prosperity, and revitalization, against the long-term anxieties of the decline in the region, offering hope for the residents that they could finally be a turning a corner in their persistent condition of slow death.

Post-disaster recovery and reconstruction needs to be seen as part of this longer historical trend of national socio-political engineering and self-responsibilization that Japan’s rural regions have been subjected to through the numerous nationally driven policies for decades (Love, 2013). The community-based approach in this context provides a powerful road map for advancing the message of self-responsibilization and local decision-making power. In my thesis I conclude that the “community-focused” approach to recovery has been instrumental in developing the dual structure of people’s experiences of the recovery, resulting in ‘cruel optimism’, by placing local residents and municipalities as the authors of their own destinies (and importantly, responsible for the failures), without providing them the power to produce those destinies. It was the community-based process of recovery that was standing in the way of the re-establishment of life and ‘rebuilding our communities’, leading to a sequential understanding of the recovery, and the overall sense of voicelessness among the affected populations.

Through my research it became clear that community-based approaches are falling short from their promoted and projected goals, leaving people feeling dissatisfied and voiceless in a process that is supposed to elevate and empower them. Community-based approaches been integrated as the core approach to post-disaster recovery and disaster mitigation (UNDRR, 2015), but despite their widespread utilization, outcomes of community-based programs remain consistently inconsistent (Davidson et. al., 2007). The contribution my research aims to make in the field of post-disaster recovery is to show that it is not the implementation of the ‘best practice’ but the ‘best practice’ itself that was the source of people’s disempowerment. Given the wide-spread utilisation of community-based approaches in a number of fields, such as education, well-being and mental health to social interventions, it is vital that we approach these processes critically in order to understand their full impact.



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