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Japan Copes with Calamity

Ethnographies of the Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Disasters of March 2011

Edited By Tom Gill, Brigitte Steger and David H. Slater

This book is the first collection of ethnographies in English on the Japanese communities affected by the giant Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011 and the ensuing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. It 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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Still Missing …


5 June 2011: Yamada bay is beautiful, but you cannot see it from the town because of the tsunami protection wall. So I walk around the harbour; it is almost empty. Two men are measuring how much the harbour has sunk. At one of the fishing buildings, a worn-out middle-aged man with a tight and hypertensive red face is looking under the debris. I ask whether he is a fisherman. He says ‘Yes’, adding ‘kā-chan dete konai’ (literally, ‘mummy hasn’t come out’; meaning ‘my wife is still missing’). He speaks as if he does not actually notice me, but neither does he seem surprised that a stranger is talking to him; he appears completely detached from his feelings.

He tells me that his house was destroyed and he now lives with his sister. During the tsunami, he stayed out in the open sea to keep the boat safe. I comment that it is a relief that he still has his boat, but, ‘No’, he says, ‘it belongs to a relative’. He explains that in a week from now, people who are missing will be declared dead. He keeps looking around and explains that he is searching for something that might be of use. I wonder whether there is still anything to be found. He answers that there is still useful stuff under the debris, though he wouldn’t know where to store it. He repeats ‘kā-chan dete konai’, and it is clear that it is...

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