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The Great East Japan Earthquake

Reconstructing Afflicted Areas: Combining All Kinds of <Wisdom>

Osamu Soda
Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

World-shaking "3.11"

On March 11, 2011, a great earthquake and tsunamis hit the Pacific coast of the Tohoku region in Japan. The earthquake had a magnitude of 9.0 in its size, the tsunamis reached higher than 10 meters, the sites that were struck cover an area of 56,000 hectares, and the total number of dead or missing people is expected to reach 30,000. This is one of the biggest disasters in the 21st century in the world, next to the Haiti earthquake (2010), the Sumatra earthquake (2004), the Pakistan earthquake (2005), and the Sichuan earthquake in China (2008). Among other things, the damaged nuclear power plant shocked the world profoundly.

Technology for building disaster-reducing cities

As an archipelago of disasters, Japan has been working on building disaster-resistant cities for quite some time. Fudai Village, for example, spent 11 years building a 15.5-meter-high coastal levee, learning from past experiences with a great tsunami. Owing to these experiences, they were able to protect themselves from tsunamis. This is a ray of hope, though it is the only case of success in the coastal area.

The power of nature is awesome. What we need is technology for environmental coexistence that fends off the fierceness of the nature, instead of civil engineering technology that tries to resist it. Since the Edo era, people in Sendai have maintained space in the Sendai Plain by building levees along canals, placing paddy field zones along the coast to control urbanization, and constructing residential settings for environmental coexistence with homestead woodlands. In doing so they were able to minimize the damage of the tsunamis even though Sendai is a metropolis with a population of one million. As a fundamental concept for reconstructing cities going forward, the key is to construct disaster-reducing cities with more redundancy in the region.

A developed and mature country facing a challenge: draw on civil power

A characteristic of this disaster is that it devastated the social and economic infrastructure in Tohoku, which is the most deteriorated in Japan-a developed and mature country. Japan has already undergone a decline in population since 2005. As represented by the phrase Japanese islands from coast to coast, Tohoku had thrived on fishing ports and manufacturing in the past. The region has, however, suffered from change in the industrial structure, aging population, and more young people moving away from the region. Many of the small harbors there retired from the front line. We must give up expecting that they will be restored to their state of the past.

Japan has enriched its mature society by using advanced technology: examples include the Shinkansen bullet trains, automobiles, fisheries, and other high technologies. Their production lines, logistics routes, sources of electricity, and communication infrastructure were devastated by this disaster. The government estimates that the total amount of the direct damage will reach 16 - 25 trillion yen. Factoring in the damage in the private sector multiplies this amount many times over. Recovery with public bonds would have a limitation. The key is how to leverage individual financial assets that are said to be 1,000 trillion yen in total, and civic power.

Grand reconstruction design and mid- and long-term strategies for social, economic, and environmental reconstruction

One challenge is to foster a powerful economy and industry in Tohoku worthy of new fiscal investment and loans. First of all, it is necessary to identify to what extent the social and economic capital was damaged in the private sector, and what routes can be taken to its reconstruction. Taking this opportunity, we should accelerate discussion between the government and the private sector about concentration and selection, such as industrial reorganization and the establishment of new local industrial clusters. After that, a promising route to recovery would emerge by developing a mid- and long-term comprehensive strategy for social, economic, and environmental reconstruction, as well as drawing a new grand design for the Tohoku region.

Only the Pacific coast suffers the extensive damage, and the Shinkansen network - the backbone of Tohoku - and inland cities are on a track of recovery. The areas along the Sea of Japan should be developed so that they have a presence in Asia. In addition, we should utilize this opportunity to reconsider the fundamental form and structure of this country, such as the regional system, national land planning, and the taxation system.

New ways of collaboration among diverse communities

The new communities emerging around the country are another form of civil power. As represented by the collective evacuation of an entire municipality, there are diverse choices of lifestyle. New types of relationships and supportive communities among people and places centered on afflicted areas have emerged around the country which are different from any existing relationships based on land, blood, or occupation have emerged around the country. Information sharing in the Internet society, such as Twitter, accelerates the speed of collaboration beyond the boundaries of local governments, NPOs, and the private sector, multiplying layers in the pattern of assistance and issue resolution. Responding to this trend, aid and contributions are coming in from all over the world. In afflicted areas, on the other hand, there are many evacuees who are less familiar with social networks and the Internet, especially the elderly, being left behind. I expect that these issues will be resolved through the new civil power.

Rush to establish a new knowledge-intensive infrastructure

Reconstruction that attracts sympathy and understanding from people would require <intelligence> that moves <people>, <goods> and <money>. Mobilizing the total civil power would require visualized discussion, instead of erratic responses. This depends on concentration and selection in economy and industry, construction of safety nets in the society and community, and consistent reconstruction strategies for local and environmental recovery.

To achieve them, the knowledge community infrastructure (knowledge-intensive social infrastructure) must be established as soon as possible for sharing information interactively across fields or ages among policy makers, experts, and citizens in the areas of economy, society, and the environment. We should combine all kinds of wisdom beyond the borders of industry, government, academia, and the private sector, through close collaboration among industries, NPOs, universities, academic societies, and specialized institutions. We can accelerate reconstruction if Japan enters a new phase of communication for knowledge production using the Eastern Japan Earthquake Disaster as a stepping-stone.

Osamu Soda
Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Soda was born in 1966. He is a Professor on the Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University, specializing in urban regeneration and collaborative urban development. Major publications include Sciences of Local Collaboration [Chiiki Kyodo no Kagaku] (Seibundo). Professor Soda is carrying out activities on a study team concerning mid- and long-term strategies for social, economic, and environmental reconstruction, mainly at his lab.

For the activities of this study team, please click here.