On March 11, 2011, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck off Japan’s northeastern coast, triggering a tsunami that devastated the region. In this collection, some of our current and former students reflect on their experiences supporting recovery efforts and carrying out research in the affected Tōhoku region.

Riverbanks lined with concreteEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

In 2015...

In 2015, the seawall activist (and now Kesennuma city councilor) Miura Tomoyuki published an essay entitled “Amid a Changing Landscape” (kawariyuku keshiki no naka de). Since March 11, 2011, the landscape of northeastern Japan has indeed changed profoundly. What once were rivers now look more like canals, their banks lined with concrete. Many waterfronts have disappeared behind or underneath the bases of seawalls. And it isn’t only the terrain that is different. In towns like Minamisanriku, where I conducted research on reconstruction, the population has fallen precipitously, due perhaps in part to what Nagamatsu Shingo called the “reconstruction paradox,” or link between public works and population decline. Minamisanriku’s local government projects that, absent drastic measures, the number of people living there could fall from 12,400 today to as little as 4000 by 2060.

Reconstruction in ToguraEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

I often worry...

I often worry about a prediction that the sociologist Ōguma Eiji made when surveying this coastline in 2013. “Kobe managed to make progress in rebuilding its urban landscape,” he wrote. But “the Sanriku coast is facing marginalization and an aging population more intensely than Kobe did. At this rate, a ghost town covered by the concrete of public works may arise.” Parts of the coastline do indeed resemble such ghost towns. However, the resilience and indeed optimism of many coastline residents suggest hope remains for the future.

Fishing buoys in ToguraEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

One such resident...

One such resident lives in a hamlet where only 40 of 75 families returned. “The last time we had so few,” he said, “was the beginning of Meiji. If you think about how our ancestors lived then, this is a place where they lived on what nature brought them, on primary industry. So, the number of us human beings that primary industry can support here is 40 households worth.” For him, population decline represented not only a threat but also an opportunity to return to—or discover—more sustainable ways of living.

Reconstruction in ToguraEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

He is not the only person...

He is not the only person I have met who thinks this way. “Maybe before, in the Edo Period, we had a good society,” the head of a local nonprofit told me. “But we have forgotten. We had the industrial revolution…we fought wars for energy, food, metal. We forgot the good society. But in Minamisanriku there are hints for the future. Not capitalism, not energy, not metal. We want to be happy.” My hope is that ten years from now we will look back and say that he, and not Ōguma, was right.

Andrew LittlejohnEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

About the Author

Andrew Littlejohn is an assistant professor at Leiden University’s Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology. The core question motivating his research is how to live sustainably in a world damaged by both intensifying hazards and the technologies that we develop to mitigate them. His book project, based on 16 months of fieldwork funded by the Japan Foundation, examines these issues in the context of Japan’s 2011 tsunami and its aftermath.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Google apps