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Japan Copes with Calamity

Tom Gill, Brigitte Steger and David H. Slater

Four years after the 3.11 disaster in Japan, this acclaimed collection of ethnographies in English on the Japanese communities affected by the giant Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters continues to be the only one of its kind. With a new preface offering an update on the affected communities, this volume brings together studies by experienced researchers of Japan from field sites around the disaster zone. The contributors present the survivors’ struggles in their own words: from enduring life in shelters and temporary housing, through re-creating the fishing industry, to rebuilding life-ways and relationships bruised by bereavement. They contrast the sudden brutal loss of life from the tsunami with the protracted anxiety about exposure to radiation and study the battle to protect children, family and a way of life from the effects of destruction, displacement and discrimination. The local communities’ encounters with volunteers and journalists who poured into Tohoku after the disaster and the campaign to win compensation from the state and nuclear industry are also explored. This volume offers insights into the social fabric of rural communities in north-eastern Japan and suggests how the human response to disaster may be improved in the future.
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The 3.11 Disasters


The earthquake

On Friday, 11 March 2011, at 2.46pm, an earthquake of magnitude 9 occurred 70 kilometres off Japan’s north-eastern coast. It was the strongest ever recorded in Japan.1 All over eastern Japan buildings shuddered violently, clearing bookshelves, knocking over tables and counters, and ripping out built-in furniture. Those who fled found the pavements buckling and crumbling beneath their feet, the asphalt undulating strongly enough to knock them to the ground. The earthquake knocked out electricity, gas and water supplies, and severely disrupted telecommunications. Even in Tokyo, several hundred kilometres away from the epicentre, high-rise buildings swayed and public transportation was paralyzed, forcing millions of people to walk home in the small hours. At a major landfill project in Urayasu, just east of Tokyo, the earth was liquidized, leaving hundreds of houses tilting alarmingly. In nearby Ichihara an oil refinery caught fire and blazed for days.

Remarkably, the earthquake itself caused relatively few fatalities. A precise count of how many houses were destroyed by the earthquake and how many by the tsunami is impossible, but one estimate2 suggests that 268 people were killed by the shaking, mostly crushed in collapsed buildings, and another 165 died in fires and landslides. Though bad enough, these death tolls are very low for such a major earthquake. With a long history ← 3 | 4 → of earthquakes and sophisticated technology and infrastructure to resist them, Japan was well prepared. Most buildings remained standing; all the bullet trains had built-in earthquake...

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