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Top>Opinion>The Great East Japan Earthquake: Bringing out the Best and Worst of Japan’s Civic-Mindedness


The Great East Japan Earthquake:

Bringing out the Best and Worst of Japan’s Civic-Mindedness

Hideo Nakazawa
Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Political Sociology, Regional Sociology

Read in Japanese

This is the fifth time I’ve written about the Great East Japan Earthquake for Chuo Online. There were two articles on Chuo University volunteer activities, which I co-authored and were published in 2012 and 2013[1]. In the fall of 2012, I published a two-part essay on the legal and institutional issues that had come up during the recovery process[2]. My article in the summer of 2013 was titled “Reconstruction Stuck at the Recovery Level,” in which I felt I had no choice but to report on the exhaustion and impoverishment facing disaster-stricken regions[3]. I am writing this article with no more optimism, but with the mainstream media falling apart, I believe the only way to get the word out is for individuals to keep repeatedly speaking up about the issues.

Starkly revealing the emptiness of a once civic-minded nation

I often hear people assuming that the areas hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake have already recovered. It’s true that the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction went off splendidly last year in Sendai, and that Tohoku’s principal city is now enjoying renewed prosperity. With a few exceptions, we are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for Iwanuma and other areas of the Sendai Plain in terms of rezoning efforts and collective relocation for disaster management. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the sawtoothed coastal regions that extend northward from the Oshika Peninsula. When I showed some students the situation along National Route 45, where the air churns with an unimaginable amount of dust and dirt, they unanimously cried out at how obvious it was now that the place hadn’t recovered at all. In the Hamadori region along the Fukushima coast, we have a long way to go before the fundamental issues have been resolved—despite the fact that the government has been aggressively pushing through policies to return people to their communities. The residents of Hamadori all seem to be falling silent. Meanwhile, the Tokyo-based mainstream media have lost the ability to put out investigative reports and put important topics in the spotlight, and appear to have filed the Great East Japan Earthquake away with the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 as something that happened long ago. I keep up with daily local reports from sources like the Kahoku Shimpo and the Sanriku Shimpo and rarely look at the national papers or terrestrial broadcasting TV channels, but every once in a while I catch a glimpse of the meaningless patchwork of information they present and am simply at loss for words. It’s as if their neighbors in Tohoku were some far-off country. Certainly the people of Kansai have often noted how Tokyo gave them the cold shoulder after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, but even then the memory has been burned into the minds of the children in Kansai who weren’t even born in 1995. For five years, the people of Niigata who experienced the Chuetsu Earthquake of 2004 have been saying that it’s now their turn to repay the kindnesses that were shown to them. But when it comes to the incoming first-year university students—those who were in junior high school when the March 11 disaster hit—their memories of the Great East Japan Earthquake are nothing more than some vague recollection of a passing event. This is a direct result of the fact that the Tokyo-based media no longer says anything about it. And although the university worked so hard to set up the Chuo University Volunteer Center in 2014, the truth is that even the center staff sometimes wonder whether their efforts are in vain, since every year they have to start all over again trying to get the new students to connect with and think about the areas affected by the disaster. (This is not to say that the students are at fault. It simply illustrates the fact that young people are an honest reflection of society at large.) Today, I feel that the Great East Japan Earthquake was an event that cruelly revealed the modern Japan that has lost the kind of nationwide civic-mindedness that characterized it during the bulk of the 20th century. Looking back now, there were signs that this was happening even immediately after disaster struck. Seemingly well-informed people started appearing left and right with feverish proposals for Japanese reconstruction—saying our country needed to change, or calling for a new “Goto Shinpei of the Heisei era” to come on the scene. Some even went so far as to declare that the event was some sort of punishment from the heavens. In other words, they used the tragedy as a rare opportunity to further their own social agendas—a type of behavior that closely matches what Naomi Klein calls shock doctrine in her book of the same name. Masaru Sato defines anti-intellectualism as an attitude whereby people interpret the world according to how they want to see it, giving little or no credence to objectivity and empiricism. There are concerns that the “experts” spouting the above views are taking a very similar approach. Sadly, Eiji Oguma hit the nail on the head when he delivered this chilly take on the situation in his June 2011 book Reclaiming Tohoku [Tohoku Saisei] (Eastpress pp.19–20): “They say ‘hang in there, Japan’ and talk about a turning point, but ultimately they are only angling for personal gain by feeding into their own agendas.” Meanwhile, the people living along the deeply indented Sanriku coastline are painfully aware of the objective reality of the situation. “Just after the earthquake, everyone—including the local people—talked about ‘the quickest recovery possible.’ Today, nobody utters those words.” (Satoru Imakawa from the Kesannuma Municipal Assembly, speaking at a Japan Society of Civil Engineers symposium in 2015). The “Accelerate Reconstruction” slogan issued by the Japanese government rings hollow across Tohoku, simply bringing into sharp focus the emptiness and superficiality of Japan’s long-cherished commonality and civic-mindedness.

New hope springs from the disaster

Some three years after the disaster, there was an increasing number of opportunities to be asked whether the Japanese society had really ended up changing as a result of the Great East Japan Earthquake. It was almost a rhetorical question at that point—a way of underlining the fact that nothing had changed at all. Of course, there is no way that Japanese society would change on a national level, given that true civic-mindedness had already begun eroding before March 11. This was the only way it could logically play out. This situation is what allowed the decisions of people and groups seizing political hegemony rather than the greatest good to alter systems by applying a tremendous amount of leverage unheard of during the Showa years. This was also logically inevitable. Meanwhile, the victims of Tohoku fade into deeper obscurity amidst the confusion.

On the other hand, if we look within the scope of Tohoku and the Sanriku coast, we see that the Great East Japan Earthquake has altered the principles by which local communities are organized. Outside resources from individuals, networks, companies, and more poured into the region on an unprecedented scale, bringing in all kinds of new elements that inspired new comparisons and led the people of Tohoku to objectively and empirically redraw their self-portrait. A part of Japan that had been ruled by seniority systems (pyramid community structures dominated by older men) and where “government dependence” was an oft-uttered phrase was now a place where young people, women, and outsiders were taking a prominent role. Many people from outside the community either relocated to Tohoku or at least moved the locus of their lives northward. With top talent from all kinds of fields moving in and out on a regular basis, some started to wonder if they were experiencing what it would have been like to live in bustling Nagasaki during the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate.

There has also been a marked increase in new businesses. Kesennuma Knitting (which sells hand-knitted luxury sweaters), GANBAARE (which offers canvas products), Tohoku Taberu Tsushin (a platform for promoting community-supported agriculture), and Kesennuma Regional Energy Development (an effort to make use of woody biomass derived from forest thinning) are just a few examples of the non-profit and for-profit organizations that have enjoyed national attention in the wake of the disaster[4]. And though it is not, strictly speaking, a new business, longstanding Kesennuma seafood processor Abecho Shoten has developed new anchovy and other products under its recently established Mermaid brand, and is actively working to expand its sales channels. Company president Yasushiro Abe had the following to say to a group of Chuo University students on February 18 of last year: “Three months after the earthquake, TV Asahi did a live broadcast for their Hodo Station program with our ruined plant in the background. I talked with the newscaster, Ichiro Furutachi, for about two hours, and he said that people must have long been discontented with the way labor had been exploited in Tohoku. I had never once had that idea, but when I thought about it more, I realized that we were in a kind of subcontractor position ourselves. Even my mother had gone to Tokyo with a group seeking employment, and worked here. I figured we could succeed on our own if we really tapped into our knowledge and experience, so we don’t work with companies like Maruha or Nissui anymore. We’ve shifted direction to creating our own brand.” Another long-established company, Saikichi Shouten, carries a product called Namaribushi Rayu (a chili oil made with dried bonito), the brainchild of a group of Kesennuma high school students. The product has now been featured in various media outlets as an example of an entrepreneurial business model put into motion by high school students. We at Chuo University are also delighted to play a role in supporting the new seeds of hope that are sprouting up everywhere across Kesennuma. I have been appointed as an advisor for the Omose District City Planning Council in Kesennuma City, and the students of Chuo remain involved in all kinds of activities in Omose and beyond—helping teach students at elementary schools, bringing activities to temporary housing communities, looking for new resources in the region, editing community periodicals, and more.

Five years after the tragedy, Tohoku is experiencing firsthand the changes in civic-mindedness that are possible when young people take an objective look at themselves and make up their own minds to take action in the community. My hope is that students will pick up on the passion we have at the Chuo University Volunteer Center, and that it will eventually spread throughout Japan as leaders committed to the public good go out and rebuild our sense of public responsibility. Our commitment to providing logistical support for firsthand learning experiences in Tohoku continues to this day[5].

  1. ^ 1. Disaster area volunteers from Chuo University: Winter Volunteer Report [Chuo Daigaku no hisaichi boranteia “Fuyu Bora” hokoku: Nyumon-hen wo koete keizoku e] new window(January 26, 2012) and
    What the Sanriku disaster area needs now: Challenges made by students as outsiders [Sanriku hisaichi ni ima hitsuyo na koto: Daigaku (sei) to iu “Tabi no Mono” no chosen] new window(February 12, 2013)
  2. ^ 2. Legal issues in disaster reconstruction seen from cases on the Sanriku Coast (Part I) [Sanriku engan kara miru saigai chiiki saisei no hoteki mondai (zenpen)]new window(September 27, 2012) and
    Legal issues in disaster reconstruction seen from cases on the Sanriku Coast (Part II) [Sanriku engan kara miru saigai chiiki saisei no hoteki mondai (kohen)] new window(October 4, 2012)
  3. ^ 3. Reconstruction Stuck at the Recovery Level [Fukkyu ni kaishu sareru fukko]new window (July 8, 2013)
  4. ^Individual links are given below.
    Kesennuma Knittingnew window
    GANBAAREnew window
    Tohoku Taberu Tsushinnew window
    Kesennuma Regional Energy Developmentnew window
  5. ^ You can find out more about activities at the Chuo University Volunteer Center by visiting the official university websitenew windowand following the link to the center’s Facebook pagenew window for regular updates. Please also see the two Chuo Online articles posted by the volunteer coordinators at( window and window). The students are constantly running short of funds for their activities in Tohoku, and would be tremendously grateful for any support you are able to provide. They are currently going through the process of getting university clearance for a volunteer fundraising channel, but in the meantime, donations are being accepted through the bank account listed below. (Donations will become tax deductible once Chuo University begins accepting donations on behalf of the group, but please note that there are no deductions available at this time).
    Please remit donations to: Chuo University Volunteer Network [Chuo Daigaku borantia nettowaku] Post Office Savings Transfer Account 00160-3-449355
Hideo Nakazawa
Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Political Sociology, Regional Sociology
Hideo Nakazawa was born in Tokyo and graduated from the University of Tokyo in 1994, obtaining his PhD in sociology from the same university in 2001. He served as an Instructor at the School of Social Information, Sapporo Gakuin University and as Assistant Professor at the School of Literature, Chiba University before assuming his current position in 2009. Nakazawa is affiliated with the Japan Sociological Society and the Japan Association of Regional and Community Studies. His written works include Referendum Movements and Local Regimes [Jumin tohyo undo to rokaru rejimu] (Harvest-sha Publishing), Environmental Sociology [Kankyo no shakaigaku] (co-author; Yuhikaku Publishing), and A History of Heisei [Heiseishi] (co-author; Kawade Shobo Shinsho). Referendum Movements and Local Regimes was awarded the 5th Japan Sociological Society Prize, the 32nd Fujita Prize from the Tokyo Institute for Municipal Research, and the 1st Young Sociologist Award from the Japan Association for Urban Sociology.