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.
Handwritten Ishinomaki Hibi Shimbun for March 12, 2011Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
On March 11th, 2011, I was at home, not in Tokyo where I am now, but in New York. After witnessing through my TV screen 20-foot waves crashing against coastal villages, I promised myself to visit the area someday to help with the recovery.
Handwritten Ishinomaki Hibi Shimbun for March 13, 2011Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
Although it took me eight years, in the summer of 2019 I finally got the chance to volunteer in Ishinomaki, one of the hardest-hit places. Through my time there, I encountered grassroots initiatives started by the residents that were ignited by their heart-wrenching experiences.
Handwritten Ishinomaki Hibi Shimbun for March 14, 2011Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
During my visit to Ishinomaki Shimbun-sha, the local newspaper company, Ms. Hirai showed me around a new exhibition where I looked at handwritten newspapers. Because the printers were broken by the tsunami, the employees had decided to handwrite newspapers. Risking their lives, they waded through waist-deep waters to deliver information concerning food, rescue, and shelters. What the employees did filled me with courage and a sense of selflessness towards the community.
Poet Shun KonoeEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
On another day, I joined a group of poets and musicians who were making an anthology comprised of poems and songs to preserve memories of the earthquake. Through this event, I met Mr. Ohmi, a poet who had come back to Ishinomaki after the earthquake to contribute to his home community. Below is one of his tankas describing the aftermath of the earthquake:
Handwritten Ishinomaki Hibi Shimbun for March 15, 2011Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
Towards the last few days of my stay, I shadowed politician Mr. Yamaguchi. He took me to the coastal villages where I observed a place struck by not just one, but two problems: the aftermath of the earthquake and depopulation. After 3/11, many youths left the region, leaving behind the elderly population who then had no one to whom to pass on their skills and wisdom. I also noticed unfinished construction sites which Mr. Yamaguchi told me were the shadow of the Japanese government’s Olympic policy. All the construction companies were sent to Tokyo to help build infrastructure for the Olympics, leaving Tohoku residents with unfinished roads and temporary houses.
Handwritten Ishinomaki Hibi Shimbun for March 16, 2011Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
While some parts of my trip made me pessimistic, the trip gave me much hope. The teenage tourism ambassador of Ishinomaki who was making YouTube videos to promote Ishinomaki goods and services, the tech companies that had branched out from Tokyo to integrate artificial intelligence with the local fishing and agriculture industries, and the teachers who were working to provide kids with the highest quality education all represented a collective movement to revitalize a region that once faced complete destruction.
Handwritten Ishinomaki Hibi Shimbun for March 17, 2011Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
As the Japanese media stopped portraying the situation of the Tohoku region a few years after the earthquake, the sad reality is that many people are unaware of the change that is happening. I sincerely hope that my essay can spotlight some of the fascinating initiatives and succeed in getting more of you to venture to the Tohoku region and take part in the movement.
About the Author
Shikoh Hirabayashi is a first year at Harvard College. He has previously worked in politics, campaigning for youth empowerment in Japan and attending multiple policy-making conferences. He also has a passion for startups, particularly those related to education, energy, and senior healthcare. Shikoh loves to travel and hear unique stories from people all around the globe.