Voices from the Ground in Japan: Still a Disaster Zone


Voices from the Ground in Japan: Still a Disaster Zone


“Four months after the devastation wrought in northeastern Japan by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the area must still be called a disaster zone.” – Tatsuaki Kobayashi, Deputy Director General, The Japan Foundation

On July 21, 2011, a Town Hall-style discussion hosted by the Asia Society (New York), the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership (CGP) and the Japan Center for International Exchange (JCIE), featured speakers from Japanese civil society organizations working to address the devastation wrought by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The affected areas in Japan were the prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima, an area roughly equivalent in the US to the coastline from Boston to Washington. The disasters left 15,544 dead, 5,383 missing, and 107,347 homes destroyed. 112,405 have been left homeless.

Open questions: By the end of the evening, it is fair to say that while we were given a clear picture of the disaster statistics and of the activities of NGOs and volunteers working to reconstruct and rebuild Tohoku’s communities, some larger questions remained.

For the coming five years, what will be the extent and cost of the physical and emotional care needed for evacuees? How will those costs be met? How can a disaster struck economy be revitalized? How can new jobs be created? How can Japan continue to construct new homes and create new communities better suited to an elderly population? And how can the spirit of traditional communities populated primarily by people over 65 and ripped apart by disaster, be revitalized?

Japan’s disasters have met with overwhelming support from the USA, with over $300 million raised for disaster relief. But this evening’s discussion made it clear that the work of disaster recovery has just begun. The chief question, never directly addressed, was, where will the money come from to meet immediate and longer term needs for disaster recovery?

As the meeting was sparsely attended and there did not appear to be much press, one can only hope that the word about the monumental work that has already been done and remains to be done, will get out before donor fatigue sets in.

Overview of the disaster: As Noboru Hayase, CEO of the Osaka Voluntary Action Center, has pointed out, damage due to these disasters is huge. Due to the triple impact of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accidents, recovery has been delayed.

The affected area is four times as great as the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, and Japan has sustained its largest number of casualties since World War II. Local government offices, which would be the logical administrators for disaster response, have also fallen victim. Secure locations for rebuilding homes and other structures are difficult to locate due to the ravages of the tsunami. Finally, the accident at the nuclear plant has yet to be resolved. 36,000 evacuees have left Fukushima prefecture and there is danger that this community may be completely destroyed.

The evening’s speakers were introduced by president of the US-Japan Council, Irene Hirano. Tatsuaki Kobayashi, Deputy Director General, The Japan Foundation NY, acted as moderator.

Speakers included Noboru Hayase, Chief Executive Officer, Osaka Volunteer Action; Fukiko Ishii, Director and Japan President, Sakura Net; and Tae Namba, Counselor, President’s Office for International Affairs, Association of Medical Doctors of Asia (AMDA). The evening was sponsored by The Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership and the Japan Center for International Exchange

Snapshot of disaster: Hirano: gave a brief introduction to the sequence of the disasters- on March 11 2011. A great earthquake in eastern Japan precipitated a tsunami; then a nuclear power plant disaster. These disasters were unprecedented in their scope and devastation.

The aid picture: Kobayashi expressed his thanks to the international community and especially to the USA for its generous outpouring of aid, Hirano noted that the international aid response, was unprecedented.

Y295.4 billion/$US 37 billion were donated in direct aid to victims and Y26 billion or US$325 million in financial contributions to NPOs and disaster volunteer centers. Japanese relief agencies were compelled to work together to manage the distribution of aid for disaster relief.

Hayase‘s overview of the Japanese civil society’s disaster response and useful statistical reports have been incorporated into the text here as have the medical reports of Namba.

The immediate response: Kobayashi commented that this was an extraordinary series of disasters. Virtually all structures were leveled. Nothing was left. In a comment which echoed remarks at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Kobayashi said those four months after the earthquake the Tohoku area must still be called a disaster zone. Hirano said that her central concern was to establish an effective management of the response to the crisis. She said that it was critical to ensure that the disaster recovery work be effective for the long term. She believes that the Japanese experience will have much to teach the world about large scale disaster management and recovery.

Fukiko Ishii, Sakura-Net and its Disaster Volunteer Centers: Kobayashi, introducing Ms. Ishii, said that Ms. Ishii was herself an earthquake victim and evacuee. The Kobe earthquake of 1995 which left Ishii without a home, prompted her to become active in relief efforts. Since 1995, Ishii has been living out of hotels, travelling back and forth to manage disaster relief in each affected prefecture.

Civil society efforts have been strong: 358 organizations are providing assistance in the affected region. In addition to the efforts of NPOs, Ishii has set up Disaster Volunteer Centers throughout the Tohoku region which support volunteers in their work to address the needs of victims and carry out reconstruction.

Key needs in the affected areas: Ishii’s remarks were striking not only for their on-the-ground immediacy – literally, tales of laboring in the mud- but for her emphasis that not only the basics needs must be addressed —housing, medicine, information exchange- but recovery efforts need to focus also on reviving the spirits of the people and of the communities.

Volunteer management: She said that her first priority was to create systems for managing volunteers. As of June 2011, 500,000 people had volunteered to help in disaster recovery. She noted that few in Japan have had experience in-creating new management structures for treating disaster victims, carrying out construction and reconstruction, managing the volunteer effort and managing disaster recovery overall. She said that the process was made the more difficult because with every fresh disaster the management effort had to be boosted again.

Elderly population and disaster damage: Ishii commented that a major difficulty is that Tohoku, the affected area, has one of the highest concentrations of elderly people in Japan, nearly one in three. Already a vulnerable community before March 2011, they have been hit very hard by these disasters. There are 160,000 left unemployed by the disasters.

For many formerly employed in agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, their livelihood has been taken away. Local industry must be revived and new jobs created for the unemployed.

No resettlement: As Ishii noted, an additional difficulty is that resettlement in Tohoku is not an option. It is necessary for her aid workers to do construction and reconstruction in the existing villages. The people of Tohoku who have lived in their villages for many generations, don’t want to abandon them.

Construction and reconstruction: Ishii explained that to begin with, ditches, roads, and houses have all had to be cleared of mud. Ishii said that since the earthquake forced mud underneath the flooring of houses still standing, volunteer aid workers have had to rip out the wooden structures, clear out the mud, haul it away, and then replace the wooden structures.

Then the workers can set up prefab wooden housing. 51.000 housing units are expected to be built; 35,000 have been built as of July 4. The houses are raw, unfinished, but they will have to be homes for their families in residence for anywhere from 2 to 4 years.

Ishii said firmly that she believed that the direct practical work of volunteers helping in reconstruction is supported by the evacuees and the Centers.

Individual spirit, community spirit: Ishii then introduced a new element into her conversation - the spirit.

She outlined activities which have helped to restore evacuees’ spirits and help in recreating a sense of community. For example, volunteer aid workers have cooked meals for evacuees and delivered food supplies to each household. Similarly, aid workers have helped to facilitate information exchange by setting up libraries with books and computers available to all. Medical treatment of evacuees, performed by traditional Japanese acupuncturists, has been well received.

Ishii said that helping people to recover their memories had also become vital. Virtually every family lost their photograph albums. These losses were so damaging to the spirit that she set up a special effort to identify, restore, conserve and return photo albums to the families.

Ishii’s testimony offered hope. She noted that in addition to providing food, medical care and housing, student aid workers had thought up a small but important thing to help to rebuild a sense of community. They placed wind chimes in the front of each community shelter and at the entryway of each household. The sound of wind chimes, said Ishii, makes Japanese feel cool and welcomed to the home.

The sound of the wind chimes welcomes guests. Each building and its wind chimes are part of a community. The students think of these wind chimes as a message of hope from Japan’s young people to each disaster victim.

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