By Gerald Curtis, the Burgess Professor of Political Science
A member of the Columbia faculty since 1968, Gerald Curtis is the author of numerous books on Japanese culture and politics, written in both English and Japanese. He was director of Columbia’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute for a total of 12 years between 1974 and 1990. In 2004, he was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star by the Emperor of Japan, one of the highest honors bestowed by the Japanese government. Curtis visited the disaster zone on Japan’s Northeast Pacific coast in May to prepare a documentary for Japanese television and he returned there numerous times in the subsequent months.
There are towns along the Pacific coast in Tohoku, the region northeast of Tokyo, with names like Ofunato and Rikuzen Takada in Iwate prefecture and Minami Sanriku and Watari in Miyagi prefecture, that until March 11 of this year meant little more to most Japanese than the names of towns along the Maine coast mean to most Americans. Many people knew these towns only as places from where Japanese got a lot of their fish, and that they have a harsh winter climate and hard-working people of few words.
The 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the ensuing tsunami that struck Tohoku on March 11 changed all that. Now the names of these towns — towns that I visited over several days at the beginning of May — and others on the northeast coast evoke images of miles upon miles of devastation where houses, ports, fishing boats, merchant shops and small factories, rice fields and hot houses for vegetables and strawberries have disappeared. The landscape had been turned into an endless vista of debris punctuated by the occasional presence of a boat or car perched on the roof of some concrete structure that somehow did not collapse under the incredible force of the tsunami that left more than 20,000 people dead or missing. The tsunami damaged or destroyed 125,000 buildings and spread an estimated 27 million tons of debris over a wide expanse of the northeast Pacific coast. In Miyagi prefecture alone, the debris tonnage was the equivalent of 23 years of the prefecture’s garbage.
The landscape had been turned into an endless vista of debris punctuated by the occasional presence of a boat or car perched on the roof of some concrete structure that somehow did not collapse.
Few lives were lost as a result of the earthquake itself. Japan has gone to extraordinary lengths to adopt strict building codes, early warning systems, evacuation drills and other measures to protect people and property in the event of a major earthquake. For example, Japan’s bullet train system has a network of 97 earthquake detectors; about 15 seconds before the earthquake hit the tracks, automatic brakes stopped all 27 bullet trains that were running. There was extensive damage done at many places along the route to stations, bridges and tunnels — but no lives were lost. In Tokyo, high-rise buildings swayed — and did so for so many minutes that it made some people feel as though they were seasick — but none collapsed. In the north, the earthquake knocked out electricity, gas and water lines, but power was restored relatively quickly in areas that were beyond the reach of the tsunami, and deaths and injuries were relatively few.
If there had not been the tsunami, the lead story about March 11 would have focused on the remarkably successful earthquake disaster prevention measures Japan has adopted.
Earthquake damage to the train station at Sendai, Miyagi prefecture’s capital, had been repaired by the time I got there on May 4, a few days after bullet train service resumed along the entire Tokyo-Aomori route. Neither at the train station nor anywhere else in the city center was there evidence that Sendai had been violently shaken by the strongest earthquake in its history.
As soon as I arrived in Sendai, I headed to the airport. Driving toward the ocean from the city center, everything looked normal for the first 10 kilometers or so. Then the scenery suddenly turned bizarre: a smashed car sitting in the middle of a rice field, wood, metal and other debris scattered here and there. The closer I got to the ocean, the more destruction I saw: a two-story building, for example, whose walls were still intact but without any windows on either the first or second floor. The tsunami had blown them out, washing away most of the things that had been inside and drowning people who were living there. I could see large characters painted at the top of what had been the building’s entrance. They indicated that this had been a community old-age home.
There was an incredible number of cars tossed about helter-skelter throughout the area along the coast, many so crushed and mangled that it looked as though they had been involved in head-on collisions. One car was perpendicular, with the front half of its hood buried in the ground as though someone had tried to plant it. Others were upside down; one looked as though it was trying to climb a tree. The Self Defense Forces (SDF) had been collecting and sorting the debris and piling it up — wood here, scrap metal there — for eventual disposal. Every so often along the side of a road there would be a stack of ruined automobiles piled on top of each other and taking up the equivalent of half a New York City block. Since automobiles are virtually the sole mode of transportation for people who live in this coastal part of Sendai, it is not unusual for a household to have several cars for family members to commute to work. Never have I seen so many ruined automobiles.
The area around the airport, the large Sendai shipping port, the Wakabayashi ward that suffered the most death and destruction in Sendai, and everything in between was a scene of utter devastation. It is going to take imagination, money, bold planning and strong political leadership to rebuild this area. The rice fields have been inundated with salt water and the land in many places has sunk 70–80 centimeters. Restoring this land to agricultural use will be difficult and expensive. The port will be restored and airport repairs will be completed, but in the absence of some development scheme, the population of this corner of Sendai and even more so in the affected towns along the coast undoubtedly will decline, leaving behind mostly elderly people who cannot or do not want to leave the only place they have ever known, even if there is nothing there.
The tsunami had rolled across the Sendai airport, washing mud and debris onto the runways and doing extensive damage to the terminal building. With the bullet train system down, the airport not functioning, boats unable to enter the Sendai port and roadways cracked and covered with debris, it was a monumental task to get relief supplies and rescue workers into the region.
In the days immediately following the earthquake, the U.S. military in Japan launched Operation Tomodachi (tomodachi meaning friend), ferrying supplies by helicopter from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, which had changed course to go to Japanese waters to assist the humanitarian effort. A team of Air Force special forces flew from Okinawa to a Japanese SDF airbase near Sendai and then traveled to the airport in Humvees they had brought with them. Within a few hours the team had enough of one of the runways cleared for C-130s to land with emergency supplies. When I got to the airport 1½ months later, the runways were open for limited domestic civilian traffic but the passenger terminal building had been so badly damaged that there was only one small area being used for ticketing and passenger check-in.
The Japanese press and television coverage of the activities of the American troops no doubt reinforced Japanese public support for alliance with the United States. U.S. military personnel, in addition to their work in opening the airport and ferrying in supplies, worked with the SDF in the offshore search for victims. They also cleared the debris at one of the many damaged train stations.
American participation in efforts to help people in Tohoku has not been limited to the military. There are American and other foreign volunteers working with Japanese and international NGOs throughout the disaster zone. One of these is an international disaster relief organization, All Hands, which is active in Ofunato city in Iwate prefecture. What the American volunteers working with All Hands are doing is a reminder that the U.S.-Japan relationship is far more than a military alliance.
The great majority of Americans working in Tohoku with All Hands and with other NGOs are people living in Japan. A typical case is that of a businessman who has been in Kanazawa for more than 15 years, who took time off from work to volunteer with All Hands, saying that after all Japan has done for him he could not stay away and do nothing.
Another American there turned out to be a student of mine from 20 years ago. (Teach long enough and former students show up in all sorts of unexpected places.) Having gone from Columbia to a successful career as an investment banker, he became prosperous and was enjoying retired life in Tokyo until the earthquake struck. Able to set his schedule as he likes, he decided to do volunteer work with All Hands, and this subsequently became his calling. He heads the All Hands operation in Tohoku, and when he is not shoveling mud and debris along with other volunteers, he gives financial advice to government leaders as well as to businessmen and fishermen trying to get their businesses up and running again.
When I caught up with the All Hands volunteers, they were working on a house that had been badly damaged by the tsunami. Mrs. Chiba, the owner of the house, was watching them work when I got there. She was staying in an evacuation center with her husband, who is confined to a wheelchair, and her son. She said that a couple of nights earlier she had slept soundly through the night for the first time in the nearly two months that she had been at the evacuation center. “I went to bed thinking that in the morning those nice volunteers would be back at my house,” she said. “I felt so relieved.”
There are countless uplifting stories about the foreign volunteers and the reception they have found, but there also have been problems with government bureaucrats telling volunteer organizations that their help wasn’t needed or that there were no accommodations for them. These frazzled functionaries seem incapable of doing anything for which there is no precedent, to think “outside the box,” and they find dealing with NGOs, Japanese or foreign, to be more trouble than it is worth.
All Hands got lucky in Ofunato. The mayor, who had worked for the Shimizu Corp. before deciding to run for mayor of his hometown, had spent time at the architecture school at Harvard. He met with the representative of All Hands, discussed the situation with him in English, and not only welcomed the volunteers to his city but also found a place for them to live. Although there have been glitches, on the whole the Japanese government and local communities have welcomed foreign volunteers and have been grateful for their help.
One woman told me that her only worldly possession is the cell phone she had with her when she fled the tsunami. But she smiles and says that she will be OK.
There has been an outpouring of sympathy for Tohoku’s victims from across Japan. Innumerable ad hoc groups have emerged to collect donations of money, clothing and other needed items. More than a million people have traveled to Tohoku to volunteer their services. Many companies made special arrangements to make it easier for their employees to take time off to do volunteer work. Mitsubishi Corp., for example, has established an employee volunteer program whereby employees go to Tohoku in groups of 20 for three nights and four days, and receive their regular salaries during this time. Other companies also have programs to make it possible for employees to volunteer.
I met many people and heard many terribly sad and terrifying stories. I spent a couple of hours with Mayor Sato of Minami Sanriku town. He was in the town office with more than 30 town officials when the earthquake struck. They all ran up to the roof, anticipating that a tsunami would come. What they could not know was that this tsunami would be so powerful — it was measured at one location at 128 feet and it wrought its destruction as far as six miles inland — that it would be higher than the town hall. Sato and a few others were thrown by the wave toward one end of the roof, where he was able to grab onto a steel pole and hold on as the tsunami washed over him. Most of the others were pushed to the other side, where there was only a flimsy metal fence. The fence broke under the force of the water, and they were swept away to their deaths. Only 10 people working in the town office, including the mayor, survived.
Photographs and television footage do not do justice to the incredible scale of the devastation that struck Minami Sanriku town. There is almost nothing left of the homes and businesses that were there. The fish market, the seafood processing plants and canneries along the wharves, and almost all the boats that had anchored in its harbors were badly damaged or destroyed. According to the Miyagi prefectural government, about 90 percent of the 13,400 fishing boats in the prefecture were damaged or destroyed. Most of the boats that survived were those that fishermen sailed out into the open ocean as soon as the earthquake struck to ride out the tsunami.
When I visited evacuation centers in Minami Sanriku and other towns, the first thing that struck me — and which is immediately apparent to anyone who has seen television footage of the evacuation centers — is how orderly they are. This is Japan, after all, and people are incredibly — that is, incredibly to someone who is not Japanese — neat and polite. Shoes are taken off before entering the room, there are special slippers to wear at the immaculate bathrooms, there is no one playing loud music that might disturb someone else and people keep their voices down so as not to bother their neighbors (in this case, people living on the other side of a cardboard partition). Whatever meager belongings they have are arranged neatly along the outer perimeter of the small space that these people have had to live in for the past months, ever since their homes and possessions and, in all too many cases, their loved ones perished.
At the end of June there were still nearly 90,000 people living in evacuation centers. By September the government had completed the construction of temporary housing, leaving only a few people still in evacuation centers. But moving homeless and elderly people — an estimated 30 percent or more of the population in the tsunami-affected areas is more than 65 years old — into temporary housing was not a simple matter.
One elderly lady drove the point home to me. When I talked with her in May, she said that she did not want to leave the evacuation center if it meant moving to temporary housing somewhere where she would be separated from her friends in the village where she has lived all her life. She would prefer to stay there until all the people in her village could be resettled together. She is afraid of the loneliness and worries about becoming entirely dependent on her son to drive to wherever she might be relocated to take her to her doctor. She was not alone in this view; I heard the same lament from others. But the government, anxious to move people out of the evacuation centers as quickly as possible, used a lottery system to relocate them into temporary housing, where the conditions also were problematic.
Although there are variations in the quality of the housing across the region and in the size of the units, the rule of thumb is that a couple or a family of three gets two rooms that are each 4½ mats in size, about 70 square feet. A person living alone gets a “lK,” a 4½-mat room with a refrigerator and two-burner stove in the entranceway that doubles as the kitchen. The government was in such a hurry to erect the housing that it did not use sufficient insulation or double-paned windows. Now, with winter approaching this cold and snowy part of the country, the government is spending an estimated $30,000 per unit on winterization.
The government’s stated goal to move people into permanent housing within two years seems unrealistic. In Minami Sanriku town, for example, the plan to move everyone who had lived in the tsunami zone to new housing on higher ground is still being discussed rather than acted upon. Given this reality, the government needs to do more to create a community structure for people living in these probably less-than-temporary housing facilities. Having a common room where people could meet for a cup of tea, having a nurse on site, a community garden and so on would help make life more bearable for people while they wait for the opportunity to move.
Many observers have noted the bravery, stoicism and resilience of the victims of the Tohoku earthquake. They have a dignity about them, an instinctive readiness to band together to help each other, a courage and an inner strength that has impressed the entire world but that perhaps has impressed no one more than the Japanese themselves. People who thought that cherished core traditional Japanese values had weakened or disappeared stared at their television screens, transfixed, as they watched people forming long lines to wait patiently for water and for a single rice ball for dinner; as tens of thousands of people who had crammed into evacuation centers got themselves organized, chose leaders and formed groups to perform the various tasks needed to make their refuge as civilized and comfortable a place to live as possible. The pictures and stories coming out of Tohoku were heartbreaking and at the same time inspiring. They have given the Japanese a renewed sense of pride.
It is important, however, not to exaggerate and idealize the stoic, patient, resilient Tohoku victim. You do not have to spend much time talking with people in the evacuation centers before you are overwhelmed by how frightened they are and how hopeless they feel. They are disappointed in their government’s inadequate response to their predicament and desperate about their future. These are brave people who have nothing and have no idea what the future holds.
One woman told me that her only worldly possession is the cell phone she had with her when she fled the tsunami. But she smiles and says that she will be OK. Another lady, perhaps in her mid-60s and with the sweetest, softest smile, told me that she shares her small space in the evacuation center with three other people. I assumed that one of them was her husband and asked what his occupation is. “Oh, my husband,” she said very gently, “he got swept away by the tsunami and died.” As she spoke she strained to keep her smile on her lips, but there were tears in her eyes and every muscle in her face seemed pulled taut.
In May I visited an evacuation center in Watari, a town about 30 kilometers south of Sendai that is famed for its strawberries, accompanied by a local town assemblyman whom I had met through a mutual friend. It was the middle of the afternoon and there were perhaps 100 people sitting around chatting quietly, napping or just staring into space.
The assemblyman went over to three men who were sitting together, introduced me and asked one of them to talk to me and tell me what he thought the government should be doing to deal with their situation. The man said that he did not have anything to say and turned away. I would have given up but the assemblyman persisted. Being friends from the same village, he asked the man to do him a personal favor and just answer a question or two.
I sat down on the floor next to him and tried to engage him and his companions in casual conversation. For the first few minutes all I got were short, guarded replies and a kind of when-are-you-going-to-get-out-of-here look from the three of them. But in this and other interviews I had in Tohoku, it was not uncommon for people to spend the first few minutes trying to figure out who this Japanese-speaking American was and deciding whether they wanted to talk to him.
It did not take long before their guard came down. Usually it was sparked by some innocent question, as happened when I asked the lady what her husband’s occupation was. In this case, I asked the man sitting next to me what he did for a living before the tsunami hit. He said that he was a strawberry farmer. When I asked whether he planned to go back to strawberry farming, the floodgates opened up. “How can I?” he said. “I am 70 years old, my house is gone, the strawberry hothouses have all been destroyed, the land is full of salt water and has sunk 75 centimeters and I still have a loan on equipment I bought that is ruined. I have no income and no way to take out another loan on top of the one I already have.”
The other two men were sitting across the table from us. One of them had been sitting there stone-faced, but suddenly he too became animated and chimed in to tell me that to buy a new thresher costs more than 8 million yen, or roughly $85,000. He does not have that kind of money and at his age he is not going to get a loan. So he sits there with little more to do than contemplate the dead-end predicament he finds himself in.
The third man told me that he is 43 years old and also is a strawberry farmer. His facial expressions and body language left me with the disquieting feeling that he was perhaps the most stressed and depressed person of all I had met. I tried to be encouraging and said that he was still young and physically fit and what did he think about moving to Sendai or somewhere else where there were job opportunities and getting a new start? He answered that he has lived his whole life in the village where he was born, that he never wanted to move away and does not want to now, that growing strawberries is all he knows how to do and is the only thing that he loves to do, and that he has no idea what is going to become of him now that everything is gone.
There is no place for him to turn for well-informed advice. He can get a temporary job cleaning up debris or fill out an application at one of the “Hello Work” employment centers. He might have the opportunity to talk with a psychiatrist or one of the other mental health specialists who have been going to Tohoku from around the country to offer their services. But since they stay for only a few days at most and are not familiar with local conditions, it is questionable how helpful their counseling is. More than a psychiatrist, what this strawberry farmer and others like him need are government policies that give them some reason to have hope about their future.
The first thing that struck me — and which is immediately apparent to anyone who has seen television footage of the evacuation centers — is how orderly they are. This is Japan, after all.
There was a lively old lady at the Watari evacuation center who started out our conversation by saying with a chuckle that she got divorced when she was 37, raised her children by herself, made a living all these years growing strawberries and that she would survive this tsunami disaster, too. But after several minutes the bravado disappeared as she told me, in a very heavy Tohoku dialect known as zuzuben, that she has no hope. “You have no hope?” I repeated, partly to make sure that I did not misunderstand what she had just said in her Tohoku accent. “None,” she said, “no hope or anything.” She added that she is 80 years old and strong and was planning to work until she is 100. But she was afraid that just sitting here in the evacuation center day after day with nothing to do except worry about the future was going to kill her. When I asked what was most important to give her hope, this country woman’s answer echoed what the other elderly lady had said to me about moving to temporary housing. “There are so many things, but what is most important is that all of us [from her village] can live together and bring our farmland back to life.”
I had planned to be at this evacuation center for about an hour but ended up staying for almost three. These brave people are neither as stoic nor as resilient as others who do not share their plight might like to believe. They try their best to be positive but cannot hide their stress and the grief that lines their faces. Nor are they as reticent and reserved as many people seem to think they are. Give them an opportunity to talk with a sympathetic listener, Japanese or foreigner, and they give eloquent expression to their fears. Their homes are destroyed, the land has sunk 70 centimeters or more so they cannot rebuild where they once lived even if they wanted to and many of them do not want to rebuild where a tsunami might hit again. They have no jobs, their fishing boats, farm equipment and everything else is gone, and in many cases they have loans on no-longer existing homes and on factories and machinery that are beyond repair, with little or no insurance to cover their loss.
There are local political leaders who have innovative ideas about how to rebuild their communities. The mayor of Minami Sanriku, the man who barely missed being swept off the roof of the town hall, would like to turn this disaster into an opportunity to reshape the fishing industry that is the heart of the economy of this town. Minami Sanriku has 23 ports, which means that there is a port in just about every inlet with just a few fishermen in many of them who eke out a meager income. Mayor Sato would like to consolidate them into two or three ports equipped with modern equipment and have the fishermen band together in a corporate structure that could buy and lease a modern fleet of boats and equipment.
The owner of a fish packing plant in Ofunato showed me the battered remains of a machine for smoking fish that he purchased the previous fall for $1 million, and other now-useless machinery. He said that it would cost somewhere between $5 million and $10 million to recover from his loss. He is determined to get his business up and running again and hire back the employees whom he had to let go. He is investing what money he has and getting bank loans wherever he can, but getting back into business without government assistance seems like an almost insurmountable hurdle. He and other local businessmen have been urging adoption of a program through which the government would purchase the equipment that is needed and lease it to people like him who want to restart their businesses.
The opportunity to create a new Tohoku development model exists. The key is to designate Tohoku as a special economic zone and transfer power and money to the prefecture and local governments. Domestic and foreign businesses would be offered tax holidays and other incentives to invest in the Tohoku SEZ and prefectural governments would have the authority to decide whether to apply or suspend ministerial rules and regulations and whether to impose restrictions of their own, for example on rebuilding in the tsunami danger zone. The people who best understand what is needed are those who are there on the ground, not politicians and their advisers in Tokyo who fly in for a few meetings with local officials and fly right back to Tokyo again.
The three Tohoku prefectures of Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate account for only about 4 percent of Japan’s GDP, and the areas directly affected by the tsunami for less than half of that. The truth is that if nothing much is done to give Tohoku a new start, Japan will not suffer appreciably as a consequence. That, of course, is a good reason to make a bold and radical policy shift. The downside risk is small, and if it were to succeed, a Tohoku development model would become a beacon for Japan’s future.
I have returned to the disaster zone five times since making the trip in early May. During these visits, I have met with many mayors, the governor of Miyagi prefecture and other politicians. These local leaders wrestle with what is a crisis situation day in and day out. They do not enjoy the luxury to engage in the kind of political squabbling and gamesmanship that consume the energies of so many politicians in Tokyo.
Japan has a parliamentary system at the national level but a system of direct election of government leaders in the localities, where governors and mayors are elected directly for four-year terms. They have local assemblies to contend with but are not beholden to their legislatures for their very existence, as is the prime minister. There is great variety among them in terms of personality and political skill but in Tohoku and around the country there are increasing numbers of governors and mayors who are not hesitant to express their views and criticize the central government. They have their own ideas about how to rebuild their communities, administrative experience as their government’s chief executive and a realistic appreciation of what is doable. Since they are there working on the ground, they understand what the issues are in a way that bureaucrats and politicians in Tokyo do not. Observing the situation in Tohoku has given me a new appreciation of the advantages of decentralization and of the disadvantages of Japan’s overly centralized governmental system.
It is the private sector that responded quickly and decisively to the disaster in Tohoku. Within days of the earthquake and tsunami, Japanese automobile manufacturers sent upward of 2,000 engineers to Tohoku to assist companies that they depended on for parts to get them back in operation. Electronics companies responded with similar speed to get companies that had been knocked off-line back in business. The severe disruption of supply chains in Tohoku has lasted for a much shorter time than many observers anticipated; they are expected to be resolved before the end of the year.
Humanitarian assistance by companies large and small has been of unprecedented scope, and continues. Several firms have set up funds in the $100 million range, and many others have made large contributions as well. Having no faith in the ability of the bureaucracy to distribute their funds quickly and efficiently, businessmen have been channeling their funds through various nonprofit organizations or have taken their contributions directly to the mayor of the town or city they decided to help. Individuals as well as companies have provided money and supplies.
When I traveled to Tohoku at the end of July, I visited with the owner of the fish packaging plant whom I had met in May and who at the time was despondent about his ability to recover without government assistance. This time, he was all smiles. He had secured bank loans to repair salvageable equipment and was proud to tell me that he would begin operating again at the beginning of August. What was most telling was that he did it without any government assistance. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has a program to provide financial support to local businessmen. He has filed the necessary paperwork to receive assistance but as he told me, if he waited for the government to act he would be out of business.
Entrepreneurship, risk taking, individual initiative and community cohesiveness are bringing hope to people in Tohoku. There are other examples of local companies getting back on their feet and of some large companies making new investments in the region. But these actions will be the exception to the rule in the absence of government policies to foster investment in the tsunami zone that would create jobs and keep young people from fleeing the area. There is a pressing need for the government to create an incentive structure that will attract private investment to the region. That is what local political, business and community leaders are asking for. What is impressive about the situation in Tohoku is how much local communities are fending for themselves and how much support they are getting from the private sector and from volunteer groups around the country.
NGOs that had been accustomed to operating on a shoestring and managing a small number of volunteers suddenly have found themselves inundated with cash and people. They are struggling to recruit managerial talent and strengthen their organizational infrastructure and to better coordinate among themselves and with local governments. These are the inevitable growing pains of a newly vibrant civil society.
The Tohoku story is one of resilience, community solidarity and self-help. It is also the story of weak and divided politics and of the difficulty of fostering innovation and quick response in the face of excessive government regulations and a segmented bureaucratic system. And herein lies the story of the promise and the perils of Japan in the aftermath of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake Disaster.