The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan


March 2014
After the Disaster
A collection of fresh insights into 3/11
By Vicki L. Beyer

No one living in Japan or associated with the country can be unaware of the events of March 11, 2011. Many felt the force of the earthquake that triggered the tsunami and nuclear explosions. Many have made financial or in-kind contributions, and even volunteered in the region, to aid in relief and recovery efforts. Yet most of us remain curious about how these efforts are progressing and how this disaster has impacted local residents.

In one sense, this is probably the most widely reported disaster of our time. National and international media have filed numerous reports, from live television footage of the tsunami that was beamed across the world to recent reports of a visit to the area by United States Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy. Social media have also contributed significantly to our knowledge of the events and their aftermath, as both victims and volunteers have shared their experiences through videos and blogs. Now, nearly three years on, it’s time for a more systematic analysis.

Japan Copes with Calamity: Ethnographies of the Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Disasters of March 2011 is a collection of works by scholars and journalists intended to begin that process. The editors stress that the work is based on a “point in time” snapshot, providing analysis using immediate post-disaster observations and reactions that might otherwise be lost, while recognizing that the analysis will be superseded by other work as time passes. In that regard, this valuable and informative work is “urgent ethnography.”

The book is divided into three sections: life after the tsunami, life after the nuclear disaster, and encounters between locals and volunteers.

In examining life after the tsunami, three chapters explore ways in which victims try to bring normalcy to their lives in evacuation centers; the role of religion and religious practices in the recovery process; and the evolution of the local fisheries industry of Miyagi Prefecture in the wake of the disaster.

Overall, the insights into the ways in which victims are adapting themselves to their situations leave the reader hopeful and upbeat about human resilience.

Unfortunately, the section that addresses the nuclear disaster isn’t as positive. Doubtless this relates to the ongoing uncertainty about its true impact. Indeed, it may be decades before the extent of the damage from the nuclear disaster can be known. In the meantime, many people are left in a state of helpless limbo with little or no control over their circumstances.

The chapters in this section address initial reactions to the reporting of the disaster; the ways in which people in more distant, arguably safe, parts of Fukushima have coped with the general stigmatization of the entire prefecture; and the protective responses of mothers that led to the emergence of activism; as well as the frustration and manipulation in a farming community sitting on the edge of the 30-kilometer exclusion zone.

The last section explores volunteerism, beginning with university student volunteers and bemoaning the perceived institutionalized discouragement of their involvement.

The other chapter on volunteerism deals with the cultural impact of Japan’s gift giving and receiving practices on the comfort levels of victims when volunteers arrive to help them. This chapter amply demonstrates how difficult it can be for traditionalists to accept the actions of others when there is neither a pre-existing relationship nor an expectation that an ongoing relationship will be formed. The altruism of the volunteers can actually be an impediment in this context.

As one of the editors observes, “surviving disaster requires compromise [and] navigating between diverse uncertainties and risks.” In these ethnographies we find both hope and hopelessness, as well as a sense that any return to normal is, actually, a journey to a new normal. This leaves us to ponder the implications for those directly impacted by the disaster and others in Tohoku, as well as, more broadly, for Japan itself.


DividerVicki L. Beyer is a vice president of the ACCJ.