In Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, the town’s first non-Japanese reconstruction support ambassador is trying to send a message out to the world that assistance is still needed in recovery efforts from the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
“Please give just a little more help for the town of Minami-Sanriku,” pleaded Angela Ortiz, a 32-year-old American who was appointed as a representative of the town in February. At a gathering organized by an international NGO in Tokyo this past spring, she said, “The disaster is not over. I want to ask all of you to become a window and show the world the reality in Tohoku.”
Born on the U.S. West Coast, Angela Ortiz came to Japan at the age of 4. On March 11, 2011, when she was teaching at a Tokyo kindergarten, she saw the first images of the tsunami’s destruction on the news. She sped off to the area within the week and helped set up the group O.G.A. for Aid to assist the survivors in Tohoku. She has been working in Minami-Sanriku ever since.
At first the group went around distributing supplies sent in from around the world to survivors. When distribution of supplies stabilized and the need changed to rebuilding of livelihoods, O.G.A. implemented projects to help the survivors become “independent.”
The group worked with volunteers and others to plow uncultivated and fallow fields in the name of “reclamation” to assist farmers who lost fields in the tsunami. O.G.A. for Aid set up an arrangement to grow produce with the farmers in the fields, sold it locally and in the Tokyo area, then distributed the profits to the farmers. It has opened up around three hectares to farming in three years and sales have topped 10 million yen ($98,500). At the harvest festival, the local farmers and foreign volunteers stood together and sang songs by Saburo Kitajima, a famous enka singer who often sings about the spirit of Japanese farmers and rural laborers.
“A thousand volunteers from 22 countries have visited Japan with us here, they all come to love the country, and then they go back home,” Angela Ortiz said. “The reconstruction is long and tough, but I think it’s also a chance for the Japanese people to grow and in their recovery, become leaders in disaster risk reduction, in rebuilding and what recovery means. Their culture and how they help each other in their communities is a beautiful example we can all gain value from understanding more.”
KAWAUCHI, Fukushima Prefecture–Some residents of this village who lived within the 20-kilometer restricted zone surrounding the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant were told on Aug. 17 that they can soon return home, only the second time the right of return has been granted.
The lifting of the evacuation order will allow the return of 275 residents living in 139 households in the eastern area of the village of Kawauchi.
The government made the announcement during a meeting with residents of the village on Aug. 17.
In the meeting in downtown Kawauchi, Kazuyoshi Akaba, a senior vice industry minister who is also chief of the government’s task force handling the Fukushima nuclear disaster, proposed Aug. 26 and Oct. 1 for the dates of lifting the order.
“The evacuation order is forcing people (to stay out of the evacuation zones) despite the Constitution guaranteeing them the right to choose their residence,” Akaba said. “If the zones are no longer life-threatening, then we must consider lifting the evacuation orders.”
Though many residents opposed it, Mayor Yuko Endo accepted the government’s decision.
“Nevertheless, many residents also wish to go back home,” he said. “We have no choice but to accept the decision to lift the evacuation order on Oct. 1.”
Following the crisis at the nuclear power plant after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, the government established three categories of evacuation zones in Fukushima Prefecture. From highest to lowest in intensity of radiation contamination, they are the “difficult-to-return zone,” the “no-residence zone” and the “zone being prepared for the lifting of the evacuation order.”
In addition to the lifting of the evacuation order, an adjacent area with 54 residents in 18 households will also be upgraded to a zone being prepared for the lifting of the evacuation order from a no-residence zone. It is the first such case where a non-resident zone status will be upgraded.
Residents living in the Miyakoji district of the city of Tamura just north of Kawauchi, in April, were the first in the 20-kilometer restricted zone to be allowed to return to their homes.
NATORI, Miyagi Prefecture–Circles of people formed one after another around buckets of flames that illuminated the city’s desolate Yuriage district after dusk on Aug. 16 in the local tradition of the Bon festival.
Former residents of the district that was flattened by tsunami spawned by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 lit the flames, known as Bon-bi, during the festival for the dead.
Children enjoyed steamed manju buns after roasting them over the fires on willow branches during the festival.
One of the former residents, Yusuke Arakawa, was among the crowd building the fires that day. He lost his grandparents in the tsunami.
“They must be yearning to return to the place they grew accustomed to living for years,” he said. “I would like to welcome and send them off by roasting the buns.”
He and his peers worked to reinstate the Bon-bi a year after the disaster. This year’s festival may be the last time it will be held on the vacant land.
Earth-filling work is slated to start in autumn as a step toward building a new community in the district.
“I feel like memories of the old community will be buried with the construction work,” Arakawa said. “Holding the Bon-bi (in this wilderness) may be our last.”
After seeing the rebuilding efforts for the devastation wrought by the triple disaster in March 2011, anthropologist Norio Akasaka said he wondered if the Tohoku region would remain a “colony of Tokyo.”
The 61-year-old Gakushuin University professor, who is also director of the Fukushima Museum in Aizu-Wakamatsu, has long promoted regional developments through cross-disciplinary studies of Tohoku.
The rebuilding projects, he said in a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun, have unveiled an antiquated mind-set that the Tohoku people must depend on the capital.
But Akasaka said the Tohoku region actually has a chance to attain economic and psychological independence–and serve as a role model for all Japanese in adapting to the demographic and environmental changes facing the nation.
Excerpts from the interview follow:
I have advocated the development of “Tohoku studies” for the past quarter century to deepen our knowledge of the region’s culture, history and climatic characteristics, and turn them into resources for regional development. I have walked across the region on my own feet.
Based on what I saw, it was my understanding that Tohoku has fully grown into a richer region. Indeed, the government’s Reconstruction Design Council in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, in which I served as a member, lauded Tohoku as a “manufacturing hub” in Japan.
But I have learned that the reality is different. For instance, in a tsunami-stricken municipality, the operator of an auto-parts factory is forced to work for an hourly payment of 300 yen ($2.94), well below the minimum wage.
Under that system, the factory can earn 2,000 yen by producing an auto part in an hour, but it actually takes an entire day to manufacture it. That means the wage level for the operator is as low as 300 yen per hour.
The municipal government made serious efforts to attract the plant to its area. While nobody is willing to acknowledge it, however, the factory is actually on the bottom end of a chain of subcontractors and is forced to compete with its counterparts in developing countries around Asia.
Nuclear power plants are more explicit symbols of the “colonial” rule. The Fukushima nuclear disaster has raised a fundamental question as to why Fukushima Prefecture had to host a nuclear power plant that supplies electricity to Tokyo.
I was surprised when people related to the nuclear industry said Tokyo Electric Power Co. has colonies in Tohoku. They meant that TEPCO’s nuclear power plants are all located in Fukushima and Niigata prefectures, outside the region that they supply electricity to.
Tohoku people sarcastically express anger toward the roles the region played before World War II, saying, “men make soldiers, women make prostitutes and farmers make rice” in Tohoku to be supplied to the rest of the country.
Since the end of the war, Tohoku has supplied “electricity, industrial components and rice,” but its economic subordination to Tokyo and other regions apparently continues today.
Countries around the world have been trying to survive the era of globalization by allowing widening disparity within their peoples and regions. Their survival hinges on how they can sacrifice the exploited people within national boundaries.
I believe Tohoku and Tokyo are rebuilding a relationship of structural dominance and exploitation in line with this reality.
Nagao Nishikawa, professor emeritus of comparative cultural studies at Ritsumeikan University, who died last year, caught on the structural woe of globalization, calling it “colonialism without colonies.”
During the campaign to bring the 2020 Olympic Games to Tokyo, the president of the bid committee emphasized Fukushima’s recovery but bluntly added that Tokyo is safe because it is 250 kilometers away from Fukushima. To his eyes, Tohoku is a remote and peripheral region.
But it is utterly heartless to use Fukushima’s tragedy to draw compassion from the rest of the world and then sideline it to give Tokyo the Olympics. Or is that what politics is all about?
Since it was conquered by (legendary general) Sakanoue no Tamuramaro (758-811), forces from Tohoku have lost all decisive battles against forces from other regions.
Its subordinate position in the interregional hierarchy was reinforced in the early modern era with the loss of pro-Tokugawa Shogunate domains in Tohoku in the Boshin War (1868-1869). Tohoku has unique history as a “land kept as a colony for a millennium.”
RECOVERY NOT FOR TOHOKU
Recovery projects that have been under way in tsunami-stricken areas are also Tokyo-oriented.
The disaster effectively advanced the clock by 20 years; today’s Tohoku is much like what it can be two decades later when depopulation and aging will become much more serious problems.
We needed wisdom to rebuild Tohoku into a region that can serve as a model for all Japanese in the future when the population shrinks by one-third to around 80 million 50 years from now.
But what is now under way are antiquated public works projects, as if politicians, bureaucrats and businesses are all rushing to protect vested interests in the name of recovery efforts.
The people affected by the disaster have generally given their silent approval to such projects, underscoring the weakness of the regional economy and people’s mentality–a result of decades of dependence on central government subsidies.
Local governments also lack the imagination and strength to draw future scenarios in the era of depopulation. That is why they are building gigantic concrete tide walls to block in their towns and public housing complexes, which are destined to become like ghost towns as depopulation continues.
In a nutshell, the state, local governments and residents all lack the vision to use recovery projects to create ideal communities.
On March 11, 2011, the tsunami flooded rice fields in coastal areas, turning them into seas of mud. But these rice fields were created on reclaimed lagoons.
Our ancestors divided common-property lagoons and wetlands into personal properties and cultivated the land to produce farm crops to supply to the increasing population in the modern era.
But since the population is set to decline, we should simply let devastated coastal lands return to lagoons. They can attract tourists and become models for environmental reclamation projects.
I wonder whose benefit it will serve to reclaim rice fields that were destined to be abandoned sooner or later–even before the March 11 disaster–with the costs subsidized by the central government.
Debate is now needed to find a realistic answer on how we can lead safe and sustainable lives in the future.
We must review our lives and livelihoods from scratch to redesign our future. In doing so, it is important to listen carefully to voices of young people, especially women.
Wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable energies are the leading technologies of our civilization and co-products of the local natural environment and technology.
If people can produce electricity from these energy sources, we can regain control over our lives.
For example, micro-hydro power generation requires local residents to restore limpid rivers and streams. To keep our rivers clean, we must restore mountain forests, which were our primarily source of energy in the past.
Through actively participating in the energy cycle, we can also give serious consideration to the idea of community autonomy and independence, and we support these ideals.
Residents in the Aizu region of Fukushima Prefecture have already taken action to realize such ideals. Our motto is that we are restarting the freedom and people’s rights movement seen in the Meiji Era (1868-1912).
The prefecture served as a central base for the movement. And residents in the Sanriku coastal area in Iwate Prefecture have also shown a self-governing ability through their successful campaign to oppose construction of a nuclear power plant.
The “colony for a millennium” may not be able to win over other regions, but it has a toughness not to surrender completely.