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.

Miraculous RecoveryEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

The last event of the Nomaoi (horse chasing) Festival takes place in Odaka, a town that was part of Fukushima’s evacuation zone until July 2016. Men in white clothes chase a horse to offer to the shrine. During the chase, one of the men becomes injured and falls to the ground. One of his companions pours sacred water on his wounds, and the man miraculously revives. This scene, enacted in exaggeration, brings laughter to the audience.

Recovery from the nuclear accident, however, has been far from miraculous. For many, life following the 3.11 disaster has been about piecing together the social and material fabric, one by one, moment by moment, in hopes that it might lead to something, somewhere, at some point in time.

Making Miso on 3.11Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

On the morning of March 11, 2018, a group of women gathered in Odaka to make miso. Seven years before, on March 11, 2011, these women were doing the same—steaming soybeans, mixing them with salt and malted rice, mincing them, pressing them into large buckets, and looking forward to the fall when the miso would mature.

Just a couple of hours later, however, everything changed. They no longer knew what lay ahead, or if there was even a future worth living for…. A batch of miso from 2011 is still left untouched in this small workshop. It took years until the women could gather again or could count on the arrival of summer when they would share the miso with family and neighbors.

The Home in Our HeartsEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

At a mental healthcare center in coastal Fukushima, staff members were compiling local recipes to “recover the home in our hearts.” They pieced together the seasonal flavors, festivals, and sceneries that were remembered by community members who lost access to these places, food, memories, and the relationships that accompanied them. They brought community members together to cook and share meals together, often across generations and across various divides created in the political aftermath of the nuclear accident. By bringing back shared seasonal flavors and activities, they hoped to bring back a sense of continuity, shared experience, and shared memories that might shape what lies ahead.

Carving Out a Place of BelongingEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Reaching residents who have fallen through the cracks of public support has been a crucial part of community mental health response after 3.11. Now, with COVID-19, many of them have further retreated to their homes. A nurse has been holding wood crafting workshops to bring together people who have become socially isolated, giving them opportunities to express themselves and form relations with others. As they give new form and role to wood, they also carve out a place of belonging for themselves in the community. This small playful act has gone a long way.

Living the Mundane/ExtraordinaryEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

These are not spectacular images of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, or recovery from them. They might not be recognizable as stories of the 3.11 disaster at all. However, as we stand at the ten-year mark, they challenge us to attend to the experience of 3.11 in its unsettling ambiguity, as the mundane and the extraordinary are ever-tightly woven together.

Hiroko KumakiEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

About the Author

Hiroko Kumaki is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College and an Associate in Research at the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies. She is an anthropologist interested in how health and well-being are negotiated in the face of slow and drastic socioecological change. Her current research focuses on the ongoing aftermath of the nuclear accident in Fukushima. It asks how knowledge and practices of health, environment, and science interact to create divergent political and ethical responses to the nuclear fallout. As a member of the Harvard Class of 2011, she launched the Harvard for Japan initiative with friends and colleagues in the wake of 3.11 and was also part of Harvard’s Sanriku Project during the summer of 2012.

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Hiroko Kumaki
Kazuma Yonekura
NPO Care for the Heart Center of the Wider - Soma Region

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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.
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