On the day of the earthquake 10 years ago today, Keitaro Matsumoto watched the street outside his window flood with rushing water as the tsunami crashed into Kamaishi City. He fled to the roof, where he saw the waves leveling his hometown. Now the view has changed.
“It looks like progress, but I wouldn’t really call it a recovery. They built new buildings, but the stores from the old shopping district have disappeared.” Among the local businesses ruined by the Great Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami was Hair Studio K, the beauty salon that Keitaro had run on the second floor of a building that fronted the city’s main shopping street. Chain stores and the big Aeon shopping mall that went up in the middle of the city in 2014 have done much better.
For a while, Keitaro had been able to revive Hair Studio K and ran it out of a commercial space in the middle of a block of makeshift apartments that had been quickly thrown up — urgently needed housing for the hundreds of thousands of displaced, many of whom, like Keitaro, were sleeping on the floors of elementary school gyms or community centers in the months following the tsunami. His temporary housing complex had been far from the town center, where most of his old customers lived, and his business soon dried up. Since settling into a new place in a housing block built by the city, he has been cutting hair at people’s houses, in elder care homes, anywhere he can really.
“With the population declining, it’s impacting local businesses. Of course, as a freelancer, my work’s been hurt too.”
The dialectic of a disaster involves loss, death, and coming apart, but also its negation: flourishing, healthy, productive communities.
After March 11, 2011, many visions were put forth, ranging from the utopian to the spiritual to the market-based. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company put out Reimagining Japan: A Quest for a Future That Works, a volume mostly composed of essays by American and European academics and captains of industry, including the now-disgraced former head of Nissan, Carlos Ghosn. This assemblage of supposed experts features a cover drawing of Mount Fuji rising from the middle of the Tokyo skyline, a conflation of two familiar landmarks and a sign that this is indeed a book written by outsiders looking in and, one might say, down.
A synthesis of disaster and its negation would try to rebuild the communities devastated by the tsunami while bringing them into tune with the environment — in the longer term, restoring their social cohesion and putting the region’s economy on a sustainable path. In practice, some cities’ post-disaster plans did accomplish the first of these goals: moving town centers further inland or to higher ground; rebuilding ports for smaller fishing fleets and increased reliance on aquaculture; relying less on seawalls and enormous concrete breakers, like the kind that had been constructed around Kamaishi’s bay at a cost of $1.5 billion, only to be toppled by the tsunami in a matter of seconds.
On the national level, the tourism economy collapsed in the face of a global pandemic. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were supposed to serve as the crowning achievement of the campaign to lure in overseas visitors and also a sort of capstone for the recovery effort. After COVID-19 spread around the world, the Olympics were delayed for a year, but, with four months to go before the opening ceremony, the virus still raging, and vaccine distribution in Japan off to a slow start, the fate of the games is far from certain.
“The recovery Olympics were a lie,” says Masami Yoshizawa, a former cattle rancher from the town of Namie. His land was less than 10 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which was slammed by the tsunami and then suffered a triple meltdown, the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. “They were using Fukushima as a pretext. The Olympics were just proof of the city’s ego, thinking as long as it’s good for Tokyo it’s good. They’re saying recovery, but here people can’t come back or aren’t coming back.”
Before the meltdown, Namie was home to around 20,000. Though radiation levels in most areas of the town are now within a habitable range, only 1,500 have returned. Most of the dairy farmers and cattle ranchers around Yoshizawa lost everything to the nuclear disaster: “Everyone’s cattle starved to death, and the animals that were left were put down by the government.”
Despite receiving a compensation settlement from TEPCO, the utility that ran the power plant, Yoshizawa ignored the government’s evacuation orders and kept coming back to his ranch to feed his animals. The police arrested him half a dozen times as he was entering the exclusion zone, but now the roadblocks on the routes into town have been removed, housing has been built for those who want to return, and some businesses have reopened, including a few gas stations and a supermarket. Yoshizawa still looks after 235 head of cattle on his ranch, though the animals have lost any market value. He keeps them alive as part of his decade-long protest against nuclear power.
“Nuclear power has the possibility of such huge accidents. With that risk, it isn’t right for this country, but Japan won’t give it up,” he says. “The power of Japanese people to resist the government isn’t strong enough yet.” Yoshizawa can sound extreme, but he does have a point: the national media does little to hold leaders accountable, and, in spite of the frequent scandals and failings of the ruling party, it is a rare thing for the voters to turn them out of power.
“No one wants to look at reality or think about it. They don’t want to think about what would happen to them if a tsunami came. That was something in Fukushima, something in Iwate. It’s not my problem, that’s what people always think … But like with the coronavirus, we’re all mixed up in this together.”
The opposite of rebuilding would leave a region in ruins, cities and towns abandoned, and swaths of people dispossessed, like so much tsunami trash washing up on an indifferent shore.
Although this worst-case scenario has not come to pass, look not too far into the future and one can see how deindustrialization and depopulation will hollow out northeastern Japan. The communities around the Fukushima nuclear plant are still largely empty, but, in the coastal communities that were affected by the tsunami, the rebuilding efforts have had mixed success. Now stabilized, these cities and towns are no longer facing immediate crisis, merely the steady trajectory of decline that the whole region has been on for the last three decades.
This negative dialectic is not destiny, but the product of a political culture that does not seem to be able to imagine a different future. The kind of government intervention that’s needed to set northeastern Japan on a more positive path is simply not conceivable for the Liberal Democratic Party, the conservative faction that has held power in the country for much of the postwar period. Under Shinzō Abe and his successor, Yoshihide Suga, domestic policy has been a mix of consolidating executive power, maintaining ties to industry, implementing targeted reforms like lowering trade barriers, and planning supposedly reflationary programs such as the Olympics.
None of these policies is particularly innovative, as the party has chosen to double down on strategies that served it in the past. The Liberal Democrats’ ties to the nuclear industry go back to the 1950s Atoms for Peace program, attempts to build the country out of deflation were first made after the 1980s economic bubble burst, and even the Olympics are a rerun of 1964, when Tokyo hosted the games to symbolize its recovery from World War II’s destruction. Predictably, these old approaches have often proven inflexible and difficult to adapt to today’s circumstances: people living in the vicinity of nuclear power plants, most of which were shut down after the Fukushima accident, have balked at attempts to restart them, and lawsuits promise to keep many reactors stalled for years. The anemic economic gains of Abe’s first years have been quickly erased by the current pandemic, and now the already overbudget Olympics are floundering.
This situation would seem to be an opportunity for Japan’s political left, which has begun to consolidate around the centrist Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. However, much like the ruling party, the opposition has been tainted by corporate influence and nepotism. Yukio Edano, the current leader of the Constitutional Democrats, was serving as chief cabinet secretary during a brief period of opposition rule when the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant went critical. He was widely criticized for refusing to say the word “meltdown” to describe what was happening, and his government’s response to the disaster was one of the main reasons his party lost power.
Far-left parties like the Japanese Communist Party and the newly formed Reiwa Shinsengumi promise more aggressive policies aimed at helping families and working people, but their factional support likely limits them to a collational role.
Like many people, Seiko Ise doesn’t pay too much attention to the political machinations in Tokyo, choosing instead to focus on the NPO she founded to help with the recovery effort.
“People here are tired,” she says. “It’s been disaster, disaster, and now corona, corona … Up until now, we were glad to have volunteers from Osaka, Tokyo, and all over. But with the risk of spreading the virus, locals don’t want volunteers from the big cities coming.”
Ise had been living in the south of Japan when the earthquake hit but returned to her hometown in Iwate Prefecture and started a branch of Caritas Japan, a Catholic charity that helped organize the volunteers who came to Tohoku from all over the country, all over the world. For the past 10 years, she has used her resources to help with projects in Ōtsuchi Town and the cities of Ōfunato and Kamaishi that include gutting tsunami-damaged buildings, providing childcare, helping displaced people move, and organizing local festivals. These days, her NPO mostly focuses on helping the local elderly and providing a space where people can gather, but even that has become difficult due to the pandemic.
“The population will keep declining, keep aging. But if we want to keep young people from moving away — so for instance if they go away for university — there need to be jobs, things to do to draw them back … if we don’t make some kind of a plan like that, people will just keep leaving.”
The disasters that struck Japan in 2011 remain among the costliest in its history. March 11 claimed more lives in Japan than any event since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki; to this day, there are many people whose bodies have never been found.
Ten years after the tsunami and nuclear accident, towns up and down the coast still face a difficult future. There is real value to be found in these communities, though, something worth struggling for. But to some this may seem like mere nostalgia. Ise says, “Some people face what’s ahead of them, but others can only look back.”
M. W. Larson is an author, editor, and assistant professor at the University of Tsukuba near Tokyo. A former Fulbright scholar, his book about the Great Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami, When the Waves Came, is available from Chin Music Press.
Featured image: "after Tsunami" by Jun Teramoto is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Image has been cropped.
Banner image: "Imari Bay and Fukushima Island from train near Haze Station 2" by そらみみ is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped.