Higashi Nihon Daishinsai: Observations from Tsuruoka, and Finding the Way Forward

As we approach the one-month mark since the Higashi Nihon Daishinsai (Eastern Japan Great Earthquake Disaster) occurred, the enormity of events is still quite difficult to comprehend.  Relief efforts continue in northeast Honshu, where thousands have been left homeless and continue to be in need of life’s basic necessities. In Fukushima, work continues on cooling the crippled reactor #2 at the Fukushima 1 complex, in tandem with efforts to manage radioactive wastewater and repair plant systems. The consequent environmental damage from the plant situation is being scrutinized, as is the overall damage to Japan’s power systems and infrastructure wrought by the earthquake and tsunami. Uncertainty persists as people do their best to resume their everyday lives, as Japan is returning to a “new normal”. The massive rail system is once again getting people to work and school, store shelves are being restocked, and people are out and about, after an unnervingly quiet period in Tokyo.

I corresponded with my former college roommate, Takuro Ito, Ph.D., a bioenergy researcher at the Institute for Advanced Biosciences, Keio University, to get his perspective on the situation in the north. Mr. Ito lives in Tsuruoka, located in Yamagata prefecture, west of Miyagi prefecture–where much of the significant tsunami damage and casualties occurred.

Tsuruoka, Japan

Tsuruoka, showing proximity to Miyagi prefecture (Google Maps)

We began our conversation with the initial period following the earthquake. Mr. Ito noted that it was really difficult to get gas for a few days after the quake–gas stations closed one after the other.  He looked up which stations were still in operation, learning that people could fill up if they were willing to contend with wating in line for 30 – 60 minutes. In Miyagi prefecture, many people waited in line all night.

He also mentioned that Onigiri and O-Bento (lunchboxes) are still difficult to buy at convenience stores, because the supply chain runs through Sendai–which incurred significant, startling damage as a result of the tsunami. He did say, however, that super market bento boxes are easier to get because they are actually made in the store. “The supply of tobacco is stopped from last week, I welcome it though,” comments Takuro, “Anyway, our life became stable out side of the disaster area now, but it is not normal.”

Mr. Ito had the opportunity to see some of the damaged areas firsthand during relief efforts in Minamisanriku, in Miyagi prefecture, and made the point that it was in fact the tsunami–and not the earthquake–that caused the most harm. Minamisanriku suffered devastating damage from the tsunami, with approximately 95% of the town destroyed and roughly half of its inhabitants missing after the tsunami enveloped the town.

A key bridge as part of the national highway system was damaged, complicating relief efforts, and there are areas that are still underwater, as the tide did not fully recede.

Mr. Ito confirmed that there are refugees in Yamagata, having fled the destruction on the east coast for the stability of the western side of Honshu. Military relief helicopters continue to fly overhead delivering supplies and personnel.

Tsunami Damage in Northern Japan

Tsunami Damage in Northern Japan, Photo by Takuro Ito

I asked Takuro about people’s perception of the government’s handling of the disaster, and he offered this “I think many Japanese, especially in east/north side, feel uncertainty over the future. However, we don’t feel very negative. We believe we can get out from under.”

Mr. Ito also commented that people think the local governments have been responding well, but that some people also feel betrayed by the Diet (Japan’s lawmaking body) over its slow response to the crisis. He also observed that while the overall situation is improving, things are still quite bad in the northeast.

Tsunami Damage in Northern Japan

Tsunami Damage in Northern Japan, Photo by Takuro Ito

How is Japan to move forward given the enormous challenges it faces as a nation? As with any disaster of this scale, there will be the practical, everyday efforts to clean up and repair the damage–there will be struggles and setbacks, and there will be profound soul-searching. As efforts continue to stabilize the badly damaged reactor at Fukushima Daiichi, the future of nuclear power in Japan is already being debated. Analysts are attempting to divine the broad, long-lasting, and sometimes unpredictable economic consequences of this string of disasters as well.  Japan, as a nation, will have to reconcile the immediate, critical needs of the people directly affected by the earthquake, with the desire to allow people and the ecomomy to return to a state of normalcy. The extraordinary patience and strength demonstrated by the people of Japan in the last month points to future where the country can in fact recover, and move forward.

Greg Hignight
Event Promoter and DJ, Tune in Tokyo, and Kawaii Kakkoii Sugoi.com Contributor

I want to personally thank Mr. Takuro Ito for contributing his time and thoughtful comments to this post. It’s vital that those of us reporting on events in Japan following the Higashi Nihon Daishinsai strive for balanced, objective information, and seek out both authentic and varied sources for both news and comment on the situation. Throughout most of the country, things are stabilizing, and thankfully, the unnecessarily alarming, and sometimes exaggerated reports coming from the western media are quieting down. However, it must be noted that for people in Fukushima and on the northeast coast, there is hardship yet to come, and a long process of recovery ahead.

I’ve seen an amazing outpouring of support for Japan from people around the world, including here in Los Angeles, and would urge everyone to continue to help by staying properly informed, while avoiding media sensationalism and misinformation, by being both humble and grateful for what we have, and above all, by being positive. We’ve seen better, but we’ve also seen worse. Japan will get through this.

You can help kawaii kakkoii sugoi.com to help Japan by purchasing one of our t-shirts designed by contributor Nex Takenouchi! All proceeds from the sale of these shirts will go to the Japanese Red Cross.

T-Shirt with Proceeds going to Japan Red Cross

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