One year on

Exactly one year ago, the March 11th Tohoku Earthquake shook me to the core. Over 100 miles away from the epicentre, the asphalt beneath my feet drifted like flotsam on the tide while the sound of hundreds of glasses and bottles could be heard from the bar above. It is now long after the quiet panic that accompanied every nauseating aftershock, during which it felt like so much had changed, and we are left to ponder the existence and extent of that change.

For so many, of course, that day changed everything – taking 19,009 loved ones and property, throwing them into homelessness while still dealing with the shock that even the unaffected found hard to shake. For them, we can assume that the change was fundamental and deep-reaching, but what about the wider implications, that of the rescuers, the government and civil society that moved to support them in the aftermath?


The Government: Ineffective and Doomed?

The government has continued along the same pattern of decline as we saw in the run up to the earthquake – Kan fell, just as Hatoyama had before him, another ineffective leader lost to the erosion of public opinion.

Kan will be remembered best for his seeming lack of presence following the earthquake and growth of the nuclear fears, also for playing politics with disaster, a charge easily leveled at those pushing him out both within the party and within the opposition.

The nuclear crisis, which so quickly overshadowed the tsunami within both the media’s reporting and the concerns of the people, continues to drive public opinion. A highly vocal anti-nuclear civil society movement has developed at the grassroots, a movement that has stalled nuclear power in Japan indefinitely.

Tens of thousands of protesters pack a park during the anti-nuclear demonstration in Tokyo. Source: AP

Tens of thousands of protesters pack a park during the anti-nuclear demonstration in Tokyo. (Source: AP)

A small army of armchair nuclear physicists, backed by a network of privately-owned dosimeters and Geiger counters have backed this movement in a way unseen since the leftist movements of the 1960s, or at least in the organized ultra-right. An impressive feat in a country whose civil society has previously been described as ‘weak’.

With Japan’s nuclear power plants shutdown and likely to remain so for the considerable future, Japan has found itself with an even more pressing need for energy supplies at a time when turmoil in the Straits of Hormuz threatens to throttle oil and LNG supplies.

At the same time, the seeming ineptitude of the DPJ has driven down confidence in the political system, at a time when the Japanese people needed strong and decisive leadership, they were let down. What this means for the still relatively new-to-power DPJ remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely they’ll be given a second chance to continue their brand of politics, which remains indistinguishable from the long-reigning LDP.


The SDF: Deserving Heroes

The conduct of the SDF in Japan’s time of need has been excellent. They have completely endeared themselves with the public and have shown their worth turning back memories of their stunted performance in the 1995 Hansin Earthquake and building on their experiences in the 2006 Niigata Earthquake. The public’s approval of the SDF has never been higher, and that is likely to lend itself to greater trust in their ability to grow and manage a wider security role, which must not be overshadowed by their recent disaster focus.

A child salutes SDF relief workers in Tohoku

A child salutes SDF relief workers in Tohoku (Source: MoD)

The Tohoku Earthquake disaster response missions has left the SDF with an extremely pressing problem of how to deal with post-traumatic stress and other mental issues arising from having to deal not only with those whose bodies were immediately recovered, but also working in horrendous conditions (they were mostly based in tented camps rather than hard-standing structures) without access to proper sanitary facilities for most of the initial response. The SDF’s attempts to deal with these problems have been comprehensive, but at the same time lacking in real understanding of how to help those affected, mostly due to the lack of specialists in PTSD in Japan.

The disaster relief mission, the first practical use of joint operational headquarters for the SDF, was a great success. The US disaster relief mission, Operation Tomodachi, was also an important expression of the ties between the two nations, as well as a key logistical support mission for the SDF. The lessons learned from these two sides of the disaster relief mission will be an important tool for improving interaction between the self-defense forces themselves as well as utilizing US military skills and experience.


The Future: Madamada Gambarou!

With the nuclear crisis continuing to make life uncertain throughout the Tohoku region and over 340,000 people living in cold and cramped temporary housing, the disaster effects are still being felt a year on. Local authorities have yet to address where to rebuild in consideration of a the possibility of a future tsunami – many families risk losing once valuable land and any chance at rebuilding, towns have been forced to rebuild away from the coast. As the nuclear crisis remains in our minds, it is important that we do not lose sight of those who have lost almost everything to the tsunami, the nuclear exclusion zone or the earthquake.

It is also important to strengthen disaster defenses. While the earthquake proved the strength of Japan’s current earthquake-resistant building codes, there is still room for improvement. This is especially true of tsunami defenses, and particularly around facilities like Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant which pose a great risk to the population and threaten to compound disaster relief and recovery. This means rebuilding and relocating evacuation centers, improved warning systems and public disaster drills, as well as strengthening and raising sea walls and vulnerable infrastructure. The government must also address the evacuation prospects of the elderly, young and infirmed, who suffered the brunt of the losses in the Tohoku Earthquake (see below).

It is this lingering uncertainty that will be on many minds once the memorial services wrap up: for the considerable future, the people of the Tohoku Earthquake disaster zone will continue to need our support as the whole country continues to improve their conditions and prepare for future, possibly equally destructive, disasters. This is a fight for the future and the present, and it is far from over.

For more of Japan Security Watch‘s coverage of the disaster, click here.

People dead or missing in the 3 prefectures devastated in March 11 disaster, by age group

(Source: Yomiuri Shimbun)

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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch