Monday, March 19, 2012

Resilience In The Lost Decade: Recovery In Tohoku

From Memory: Things We Should Never Forget. Photo courtesy of Nikkei Inc.

When Japan Society education director Rob Fish was putting together events in recognition of the one-year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, one moment stood out for him. During school visits in the Tohoku region in summer 2011, surveying the devastation after months of recovery efforts, principal Sadayoshi Sugiwara from Shizugawa Junior High School told Fish how happy he was to have received so much support from the U.S. and people around the world, but how concerned he was that after a year’s time people would forget.

It's an alarming prospect. In a recent interview about Japan Society's relief work, president Motoatsu Sakurai told Reuters he believes economic recovery and rebuilding “will continue for more than 10 years”, with ongoing work to repair damage, remove mountains of remaining debris, begin rebuilding, and cope with nuclear contamination.

A decade of recovery after Japan’s “lost decade” isn't an exaggeration at this point. Despite incredible efforts to clean up the large amount of debris left by the tsunami, the hard-hit city of Ishinomaki is home to the biggest dumping grounds, further exacerbated by other cities rescinding their offers to take  some of the waste due to fear of contamination. Japan’s Environment Ministry, recently reported that of the “estimated 22.5 million tons of debris in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures… only 1.42 million tons have been disposed of” to date.

The affected areas have seen a rapid decrease in volunteer workers from the peak of 171,800 individuals two months after the disasters to about 11,000 volunteers as of January 2012. Meanwhile, professors and experts from Cornell University cite “serious political problems” that may prevent a speedy recovery.

The nuclear meltdown in Fukushima has been a constant source of danger for the local population. Despite all attempts to secure the area and remove as much radiation as possible, including collecting every leaf, the Daiichi plant reactors have “readings peaking at 1.500 microsieverts per hour – more than a thousand times what was normal pre-accident” making repairs difficult. The latest estimates have soil radiation levels far below those of Chernobyl during the same time frame, though Fukushima and its surrounding prefectures will be irradiated for years to come.

The situation has become problematic for displaced citizens. In the little time given former residents of Okuma, for example, many people were barely able to recover belongings, let alone clean any family graves that survived the disasters.

Despite all of this, there is visible progress happening all around the affected areas showing signs of renewed life and resilience from the local population. International concern for Japan was reflected by an outpouring of mainstream media coverage that began weeks before the tragedies’ anniversary. Wall Street Journal's RealTimeJapan blog ran an all encompassing "March 11, One Year Later" series. NY1’s Dean Meminger reported from Kamaishi city for a week-long special report focusing on the affected people of Tohoku. MSNBC carried a photo series with a remarkable then-and-now panoramic photo as well as poignant portraits of survivors. Photographer Denis Rouvre’s survivor portraits in The New York Times questioned whether the disaster can be summed up as shikata ga nai, or “it can’t be helped,” as similar situations have been received in Japan.

Inspiring anecdotes of survivors, young and old, included a man who refuses to leave the no-go zone in order to take care of abandoned animals, and student Yuji Hamada, who turned 15 on the 11th, recalling the loss of his mother and sister on the day of the disasters, and who strives to live life to the fullest.

Working collectively to overcome hardships continues in Minami-sanriku, where oyster farmers feel the “local industry could be back on its feet and thriving as soon as three years from now” and a high school baseball team plays hard towards the national tournament in the name of Ishinomaki.

--Sean Tomizawa

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