Understanding Tohoku

October 15th, 2013By Category: Uncategorized


I came to Japan in July 2011, about four months after the East Japan Earthquake. We had been warned that electricity use had been cut in an attempt to compensate for the shortages in the northeast, and the first obvious show of this was in the Tokyo nightscape, scattered with patches of darkness where signs hung unlit.

I moved to Akita a few days later, a community both geographically and emotionally closer to the affected areas than Tokyo ever could be. Even a third of a year after, the area still showed scars from the event. For the first few months we felt earthquake aftershocks regularly. Coming from a place that doesn’t get earthquakes, their frequent occurrences gave me a bizarre inability to tell when the earth was actually shaking and when it was just me. I put free-hanging decorations in my apartment to act as amateur earthquake indicators. I turned on my cell phone’s earthquake alerts. I learned jishin – the Japanese word for earthquake.

Another feature of Tohoku’s post-earthquake society was the issues of availability and rationing. We heard stories from people who had been in Akita on March 11 about supermarkets and convenience stories desiccated of instant ramen, cell phones that didn’t work, and having gas but no water. By July, most order had been restored, including the ramen aisles, but what was evident were occasional limitations on certain vegetables and dairy products, and sweeping cutbacks on the use of lights and air conditioning. Even in Akita’s stifling, humid summer, Japanese only opened the windows in the schools and used electric fans, while cutting back the dress code from business formal to what they call “cool biz,” meaning short sleeves and lighter fabrics. This was supposed to compensate for no longer using air conditioning. Whenever teachers left the staff room for meetings, someone would turn off all the lights, leaving only the lone beacon above my desk – because I don’t get invited to the staff meetings.

Even with all this, the lifestyle interruptions people in Akita had to face pale when compared to those experienced in its neighboring, eastern prefectures. At the time of the earthquake, I had heard the stories and seen the catastrophic pictures on the news same as everyone else. I was actually excited to be moving to Tohoku, despite the still uncertain status of the reactors in Fukushima, because I thought it would be a fascinating place to live during a unique time in Japan’s history.

Still, somehow, the gravity of the situation didn’t get to me. Perhaps it was the all too frequent exposure to whatever trendy disaster is always happening that did it – although I wanted to live in Tohoku, visiting the places affected never occurred to me, nor did trying to get some first-hand perspective on the scope of what had happened there. Maybe I thought just being in Akita was enough. I didn’t seek out an understanding beyond that of what was affecting my immediate area.

The most intensive volunteer projects had basically ended up the time I arrived, so it wasn’t until this summer, two and half years after the earthquake, that I found the opportunity to go and see the impact of the event for myself. Rikuzentakata, a town on the eastern coast of Iwate prefecture about a three hour drive from Akita City, became something of a poster child for survival after the earthquake. As well as being the home of one of the two ALTs who died during the tsunami, it became famous for its lone pine tree, which continued to stand tall through all the destruction taking place around it. This year, the ALT-associated and co-founded group, Volunteer Akita, teamed up with a local Japanese charity group to put on an event for the community. We held it in the baseball field of Takata elementary school.

In between running carnival games and selling stamp cards, the anecdote someone had dropped at the beginning of the day about the tsunami having reached the school grounds didn’t faze me. About half way through the bustle of the event, however, I took a moment to look out past the edge of the baseball field, situated on the side of a hill, and down at the town and water below. I saw tops of buildings and trees, and the sea, way off in the distance. Standing there, I couldn’t say that the water was close. The magnitude and the scope of the disaster finally seemed so impossible – that this place, really quite removed from the edge of the sea, could have been reached by a wave so enormous it carried yachts up on shore and razed whole neighborhoods. Where I stood had not only been reached but also swallowed up by the water in an event that, in retrospect, the news had made seem all too knowable.

We, as humans, compartmentalize magnitude. We abridge scope. It’s difficult to imagine things that don’t seem possible, so we make them smaller, split into slivers that we can imagine. It’s difficult to remember the people who manage lingering aftermaths because the world is always moving on from one crisis to the next, and we donate the money in our pockets much more quickly to the new causes than to the perpetually unsolved old ones. Japan voted a new political party into power earlier this year partly to deal with what has not yet been dealt with – the people displaced, the old still living in temporary housing, the understandable reluctance of the government to rebuild economically dead towns for the sake of their elderly residents. Rikuzentakata is a small community, but it is one that got the short end of the stick – that despite being a symbol of the fighting spirit of the Japanese, it is still displaced.

Everywhere in Akita can still be seen signs encouraging “Ganbarou Tohoku, ganbarou Akita.” This a message of keeping calm and carrying on in the face of adversity. It’s also a cop-out. For places more affected than Akita, places which really do need intervention and a helping hand from a power greater than themselves, it is not enough just to be told to keep fighting. It is not enough to watch footage of destruction by tsunami and to visit a famous pine tree. More needs to be done, which is why volunteer groups still visit the northeast of Japan – because they are needed. Maybe we did little the day we went. We played with some children and gave them candy. However, it was a chance for me to imagine something unimaginable – a chance for me, at least, to see and to understand a little more of the hardships that particular community, my Tohoku community, still face.

Author of this article

Jessica Fast

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