‘Post-disaster’ and the value of long-term ethnography by Anna Vainio

This piece is the concluding part of the JAWS online series of Reflections from Tōhoku.


Disasters today continue to be seen as events revolving around physical recovery – at least in public discourse. Some of the reasons for this may be that physical recovery and reconstruction are easier to comprehend, rather than the complex emotional and socio-economic shifts that are taking place at both individual and communal levels within disaster-affected communities (Morrice 2012, Whittle et al. 2012). The focus on the physical side of post-disaster recovery however is problematic, as it not only shifts the focus away from the aforementioned complexity but can also perhaps be seen as contributing to the waning of interest among the general public. The public focus on Tohoku has witnessed ebbs and flows during the last 11 years since the day of the disaster, with majority of the attention to the region and the disaster’s aftermath today culminating in anniversary events. Such fluctuating attention that ignores the continued and persistent nature of Tohoku’s ‘post-disaster’ has led to local populations at times feeling forgotten (Martini and Vainio 2021) – which is a trend that many of us working in the region, or in Japan in general, have undoubtedly witnessed.


Whilst working on my own research in Tohoku in 2015 and 2016, I often came across Tokyoites who visited the disaster-affected region, “to see the recovery with their own eyes” and “to support the local efforts”. However, upon coming to Tohoku many were surprised, some even shocked, at the slowness of progress that had been made: people were still living in temporary housing, many of the roads and footpaths were unfinished, with the constant rumble and movement of the construction vehicles filling the air with noise and dirt. During one of my visits to the coastal areas, I struck up a conversation with a young woman from Tokyo who I met at a cafe in Onagawa. She too reported her surprise at the ‘unfinishedness’ of the recovery, finally noting “to be honest, living in Tokyo I thought that the recovery was already done. And now seeing this [the town filled with construction vehicles] I feel very ashamed of myself”.


Onagawa Town centre 2015 (Anna Vainio)


View from Nobiru railway station 2016 (Anna Vainio)


The experience of the disaster affected communities is of course different. While today, 11 years later, much of the physical recovery has finally been brought to completion, it does not mean that Tohoku’s ‘post-disaster’ is over. The ‘invisible effects’ of the disaster linger on despite life seemingly having fallen into a new familiar pattern for the affected communities, towns and villages. The pain of losing loved ones and neighbours continues to haunt many (Boss and Ishii 2015), alongside the longing for the places, traditions, customs and relationships that have been lost or altered due to the events these localities have had to endure (Gagné 2020). The recovery not only changed the physical shape and character of many of the affected towns (Hirano 2013, Ubaura 2018), but also resulted in an exodus of residents who simply could not gaman the long recovery period and ended up relocating elsewhere (Matanle 2020), giving rise to distressing worries about the continuation of the communities and their way of life among the residents. In this series of papers, we sought to explore these ‘invisible effects’: the grassroots efforts and psycho-social processes that to outsiders may seem subtle in dealing with the aftermath of the disaster but remain vitally meaningful to the victim communities. The papers in this series have dealt with heritage projects, memory work, development of new relationships and the politics of the disaster, all of which illustrate the multifaceted nature of post-disaster coping, adaptation, hope and resilience of these communities.


However, as noted in the opening of this piece, our general imagination of disaster events and post-disaster recovery continues to be stubbornly narrow, with this understanding perhaps being driven by the initial reactions to shock and empathy on the part of the general public and research communities. The desire to help and understand disaster events is natural, with the aftermath of Tohoku for instance seeing a flurry of volunteers descending into the region to offer help and supplies (McMorran 2017). At the same time, disaster events also garner the interest of research communities, often leading to an exponential growth of disaster-related publications and projects that unfortunately most often focus only on the immediate emergency period (Gaillard and Gomez 2015). Some argue for the necessity of such rapid response studies, highlighting how the immediate descent into the sites of emergencies is vital in order to gather materials and observe processes that are taking place. Doing so provides a better understanding of the dynamics of emergencies (Stallings 2007) as well as the much-needed manpower to quickly help the victim communities.


The impulse to both to help and study, however, intensifies the short-term interactions between outsiders and the victim communities that often cannot reflect the overwhelming intimacy and persistence of the ‘post-disaster’ condition among those whose daily reality the ‘post-disaster’ now constitutes. Thus, raising questions about both the benefits and harm potentially caused by outsiders flooding the region, despite their good intentions (Numazaki 2012). In the context of academic inquiry, considering the nature of the post-disaster reality for the victims, we must ask to what degree can rapid response studies truly capture the complexity of the ‘post-disaster’ space? Or the gradual physical, social and cultural changes that take place in this space? The emotional and psycho-social reactions of the victim communities to them? Not to mention the meanings that local populations as the witnesses and survivors of the tragedy are creating for the disaster and long-term recovery processes over time through their own personal and communal paths to recovery? These processes are more often than not subtle, gradual and subject to changing, requiring long periods of reflection from the locals themselves, and therefore impossible to capture without long-term slow commitment to building relationships and trying to expose oneself to the embodied, emotional and affective lived reality of the survivors.


Anthropological work sits at the heart of the exploration of these ‘invisible effects’ that the survivors are working through over longer periods of time, and therefore offers valuable insights that can help to diffuse, diversify, and to a degree also purposefully complicate and problematise our typical imagination of disasters. As we have seen through the papers in this series, individual anthropologists work at the interface of subjectivities, with victim communities, authorities, volunteers and organisational actors, seeking threads of commonalities and aiming to create interpretations of the situation based on the stories, feelings and experiences that they observe and hear from the ground up (Ingold 2018). What the papers in this series illustrate is not only the multifaceted nature of the post-disaster, but also how anthropological work, through ethnographic observations of and participations in the field, can be instrumental in its uncovering these many faces of catastrophic change and further influence the engagement and understanding of local people and places under traumatic circumstances.


Concretely, in our October instalment, Pilvi Posio and Dunja Sharbat Dar explored the role of the anthropologist in the field through their own participation and presence within. The “interference” of one’s own lived experience, personal views and political leanings are often something that scholars are told to be aware of. However, the open recognition and reflection of one’s positionality can also “ignite an analytical spark”, as Pilvi puts it in her piece, while also impacting one’s access to different spaces and how we are perceived once in them. Understanding the categories that we occupy can help researchers recognise and become more sensitive to the ways in which these categories operate within the field, as well as recognise the ethical issues associated with the approaches and positions we adopt toward our subjects. In Pilvi’s piece we can see how her own categories of young, female, breadwinner helped her explore and analyse the gendered ways in which disaster events are experienced and impact men and women differently, while her own presence in the field and relationships with her research participants also opened up discussions that helped to highlight the gendered pathways and structures of post-disaster recovery.


From this perspective, our subjective positions and the political processes that create imaginations of places can also make us better listeners. Access to people and their stories however can be restricted by physical barriers like the ones we see in Fukushima, but also the mental associations and imaginations created of the post-disaster spaces. In this vein, by exploring the comments and reservations from friends and family, Dunja Sharbat Dar explored the attitudes people held of Fukushima, primarily shaped by both rumours and negative associations intensified by the media. The way we imagine the post-disaster space and life within it impacts our ability to listen, with Dunja’s piece illustrating how the pre-held misconceptions of Fukushima have led to broader issues of fear and stigmatisation that do not often reflect the daily lives and coping processes of those inhabiting the post-disaster spaces (Kwesell and Jung 2019, Kwesell 2020). Listening to stories, and listening well, is a key aspect of anthropological work (Gerard Forsey 2010), providing survivors the opportunities to highlight the issues that are pertinent for them to communicate.


Storytelling therefore holds an important position for many surviving post-disaster communities (Barber et al. 2007). “The importance [of stories] lies in narrating the experience of the disaster and conveying to the audience their emotions […] in kataribe, facts, personal sto­ries, and feelings are mixed”, Flavia Fulco outlines in her piece, showing the emotive power of stories as both a process and an outcome that researchers need to increasingly recognise. Stories after all are not mere vessels of data, but rather constructions through which complex emotions and experiences become organised and communicable. Stories can therefore help to expose the complexity of emotional, political and social impacts of disasters, drawing attention to the storyteller-listener relationship and the politics of what sharing stories means to victim communities.


Indeed, the ways disaster affected communities try to be heard is often very different from how the formal recovery process tries to engage with them, in some cases leading to tensions between the authorities and communities, and a sense of voicelessness among the survivors (Vainio 2020). The emphasis on physical reconstruction and the measurable approaches to safety and resilience are often not helpful, indicated for instance by the notion of the authorities’ attitude toward communities focusing on the “useless things” in the recovery (storytelling, festivals, local customs), as Millie Creighton put it. But the material world is of course integrally connected to people’s memories, social relations and identities (Latour 2000, Deleuze 1991), with the rebuilding of physical infrastructure, housing and the general lived environment only constituting a small part of communal and individual journeys to recovery. The “useless” immaterial things often sit at the heart of people’s coping, adaptation and development of hopeful futures, helping them to bridge the gap between the past that was lost and the future that is unknown (Littlejohn 2021). The “useless” actions “represent something constant in an ever-changing landscape” as our authors in August explained. To maintain a continuation with the past, some communities work to create a sanctuary for salvaged jizō statues to “accommodate the ancestors that suffered because of tsunami”, while others resurrect old festivals and traditions. These “useless” actions therefore illustrate the importance of intangible cultural assets as part of the process of helping communities incorporate the disaster into the much longer and continuous history of the region.


Enforcing the indestructability of cultures and lifestyles over the material destruction local communities saw before their eyes also illustrates the fluctuations between permanence and continuous change within the post-disaster space, and how it impacts the way people construct visions and imaginations of their futures. Tohoku’s communities have lived through a decade of dramatic physical changes to their lived environment, the scale of which has often surprised people, as Alyne Delaney noted in her piece in this series. The changes in the physical landscape and its connection to survivors working through the stages of trauma and adaptation is equally something that has remained neglected in post-disaster research and planning. “The great change wrought on the scenes of coastal Pacific Tohoku, has come not so much from nature, but from government policies put in place in response to the tsunami”, Alyne writes, highlighting how the physical changes in the landscape have led to residents’ emotional reactions and anger toward the recovery policies that are delivering such drastic changes, while disregarding the seminal role nature plays in these communities’ place attachment and identities.


What we can see also see through these reflections in the series is not only the unprecedented scale and intimacy of changes, but how these changes are creating a new state of permanence for Tohoku’s affected communities. For them the ‘post-disaster’ presents a ‘new normal’, where the trajectories for the future that we rely on to make choices and plot the course of our lives having been washed away by the tsunami. Weick (1993) calls disasters ‘cosmology events’ where the rational order of the world is lost, needing to be rebuilt upon a new foundation emerging from the meanings that are given to unique experiences. Individuals and communities have had to rebuild not only their physical environments, but also their understanding of and relationship with the past, their plans for the future, and navigate their daily lives in the absence of previous familiarity. Through the papers in this series, we can see how these processes have been slowly unfolding in a multitude of ways, with the imperative word however being “slow”. As mentioned above, we began this series with a desire to “slow down” the explorations into Tohoku and not produce another anniversary piece. In doing so we have aimed to open up the notion of ‘post-disaster’ along the intertwining temporal, psycho-social and political axes, and draw attention to the complex long-term processes that are involved when people are trying to mentally and socially navigate their way from the pre-disaster familiarity through trauma toward an unknown future.


The ‘post-disaster’ therefore forms a temporal and physical space that the affected populations occupy, differing from the surrounding ‘normalcy’ that has not been directly impacted by the disaster. While people outside of Tohoku of course intensely followed the unfolding of the events in 2011, with a heightened consciousness toward to the tragedy and its aftermath, the majority of the population has nonetheless had the opportunity to return to their familiar existence that has not been intimately and comprehensively been altered by the disaster. Tohoku’s populations and their shifting psycho-social and physical processes therefore exist as an enclavic space of the ‘post-disaster’, within the familiar normalcy where majority of the nation carries on – more of less business as usual. Foucault (1998) calls this a ‘heterotopia’, a space “out of place”, where the boundaries between accepted familiarity and perceived abnormalcy become highlighted; such as described by Millie Creighton in her piece from February, outlining the material reality people of Kesennuma were witnessing after the disaster:


“Houses, which “belong” on land, were swept into the seas by the tsunami, the ship conversely onto land where the houses had been. The ship became emblematic of “matter out of place,” meaning not being where it “should” be, creating a sense of disorder, chaos, and violated meaning.”


The lived reality of people occupying the ‘post-disaster’ space can be alien to outside observers, who can escape this space both mentally and physically. For the victim communities this is not possible, as the intimacy of the disaster experience encompasses every aspect of their daily pursuits, forcing them to forge a new reality and sense of ‘normalcy’ out of the world turned ‘upside down’. This nature of the post-disaster space as a physical and emotional entity therefore poses a number of ethical dilemmas in how to engage with victim communities in a respectful, empathetic and sensitive manner to avoid misrepresenting their reality, and instead supporting the voices and agency of the victims themselves.


For anthropologists, these questions sit at the heart of the epistemological and methodological approaches toward the subjects of study. All of the authors in this series have spent long periods of time in Tohoku over the last 11 years, observing the physical context and atmospheres in the field, building relationships with local residents, visitors and municipal workers and participating in community life in order to slowly build an interpretation of the various aspects of lived reality in Tohoku’s ‘post-disaster’. The papers in our series all underscore the vital contributions that anthropologists are making toward understanding disasters and challenging the normative definitions and understandings of disaster events, uncovering the ontological and epistemological shifts that are taking place in post-disaster spaces, and among their occupants.


The value of this embodied work can be seen clearly in this series, with all of the contributors having built trust and relationships over a long period of time, often times traumatised populations, in order to hear their stories that can help to create a more nuanced understanding of catastrophic events and how they impact surviving individuals and communities in intimate and persistent ways. However, researchers have faced unique challenges in the last few years, brought on by a different kind of a disaster: the Covid-19 pandemic. For Anthropology in general where despite the development of digital methods and tools, field research remains a corner stone of intellectual inquiry, the pandemic has posed particular challenges. For Anthropologists of Japan, the barriers to field work have been particularly stringent, with Japan’s strict entry regulations, targeting foreign nationals in particular, having been heavily critiqued (Hasegawa 2022). With political, social and cultural changes that have been brought on by the “new global normal”, we must not only continue to challenge how disasters present themselves, but also to further explore the contributions and boundaries of physical ethnography in this process. While the situation has forced us to expand our methodological scope on how to carry out research on Japan by exploring digital avenues, research exchanges and much more, we should however not forget the central role that field research and the contributions from long-term ethnographic explorations on-site will continue to play in the future of Anthropology of Japan.



Anna Vainio earned her doctorate degree in 2020, having spent extended periods of time visiting and living in coastal communities in Miyagi, with her research exploring the tensions between the ways in which post-disaster recovery is articulated by the authorities and the survivors. She currently works at the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield and is also one of the JAWS editors.





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