Apr 10

JQ Magazine: 3/11 — Where We Stand Five Years Later

Bahia discusses the earthquake that struck Japan on March 11, 2011 at Florida International University, March 8, 2016. (Courtesy of Bahia Simons-Lane)

Bahia discusses the earthquake that struck Japan on March 11, 2011 at Florida International University, March 8, 2016. (Courtesy of Bahia Simons-Lane)

By Bahia Simons-Lane (Gunma-ken, 2005-07) for JQ magazine. Bahia taught at an all-girls’ high school on JET, and following her time on the program she held the position of ALT Advisor for the Gunma Board of Education from 2007-08. Bahia earned her master’s degree in International and Intercultural Education and certificate in Asian Studies from Florida International University in 2014, and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction, Language, Literacy, and Culture. She is president of the Florida chapter of the JET Alumni Association.

On March 11, 2011, I woke up like it was any other day, but minutes after I walked downstairs I realized it wasn’t. Two of my friends were staying with me at the time. When we came downstairs the first thing they said to us was, “Did you hear about what happened in Japan?” We spent the rest of the day glued to the Internet and TV, horrified and shaken by the devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami. That was five years ago.

This March 11 marked the five-year anniversary of the triple disaster that devastated the Tohoku region of Japan. The earthquake and subsequent tsunami killed thousands of people with many more displaced from their homes. Yet, like with many disasters over time, people stop thinking about what happened and it fades into the background. With the five-year anniversary approaching, I realized that I hadn’t heard a lot about how the Tohoku recovery was progressing. I knew that those without strong ties to Japan had probably forgotten all about the disaster entirely. It was time to look into how the recovery had progressed and share it with students at Florida International University who may not know much about the disaster, so I pitched the idea to the organizer of the Tuesdays Times Roundtables (TTRs) and it was agreed that it would be a great addition to the spring lineup.

FIU’s Office of Global Learning presents TTRs every week in conjunction with the New York Times. I proposed the talk for the March 8 roundtable, which seemed like perfect timing to discuss the 3/11 earthquake. The TTRs are a series of talks that focus on news items published in the New York Times and offers a closer look at some of the articles and the issues they address. The TTRs are usually well attended, and my talk was no exception, with approximately 40 people in attendance. Mostly students, they were avid listeners who asked interesting questions and made insightful comments (view the video of the complete presentation for more).

I based my talk loosely on “Japanese Coastal Town Still Struggling to Rebuild From 2011 Tsunami,” a 2015 New York Times article about residents of Otsuchi who are still living in temporary housing, and the slow recovery in their area with a long recovery still ahead. Otsuchi residents feel that people outside of their region think that things have returned to normal and that they are forgotten. Rebuilding has been stalled by lack of available contractors due to rebuilding in other disaster-struck areas, as well as competition from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Residents lament the fact that government subsidies just aren’t enough to support the rebuilding.

In the talk, I start from the beginning and first cover what happened in the triple disaster and the immediate news portrayal and recovery efforts. When asked about what they knew about the disaster, many of the students attending the talk mentioned the Fukushima meltdown, but seemed to know little about the broader impact of the earthquake and tsunami. I explained that on March 11, 2011, the 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck the coast of Japan, about 17 miles below the surface of the earth (New York Times, March 11, 2011). This triggered tsunami waves taller than buildings that swept across the Tohoku region, downing buildings and overcoming the safeguards at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The official numbers by the National Police Agency of Japan (Feb 10, 2016) state that 15,894 people were killed and 2,562 people went missing.

To give a sense of the scale of the disaster, I shared a video of the tsunami caught by CCTV cameras along with before and after pictures that illustrate the true extent of the devastation (New York Times, March 13, 2011). I took this as an opportunity to promote the March 30 screening of Tohoku Tomo, sponsored by the Florida JET Alumni Association, the FIU Office of Global Learning, and FIU’s Asian Studies Department, which generously funded the screening and brought director Wesley Julian (Miyagi-ken, 2008-2010) to FIU to speak. Tohoku Tomo is an uplifting film about volunteers who mobilized in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami to help in the immediate recovery.

As nuclear issues were a topic of conversation for many of the attendees, we also discussed the change in nuclear sentiment following the disaster. Before the Fukushima meltdown, 30% of the energy in Japan was generated by nuclear power, but anti-nuclear sentiment in the wake of the disaster caused Japan to shut down their reactors. Only recently has Japan reopened some nuclear power plants.

The photos I shared from one year after the disaster showed both the lasting devastation and the spirit of hope felt by those left standing after the disaster (Taylor, March 9, 2012). Five years after the disaster, rebuilding has progressed greatly, but many residents still live in temporary housing. I shared a video showing the progress five years after the recovery and the efforts made by a group of Singaporean students to help with the recovery.

While the human cost of the tragedy was the focus of my talk, as I was researching I learned that there are a number of long-term environmental effects of the tragedy (Oskin, May 7, 2015). These included the shifting of the earth on its axis along with a drop in two feet of a large portion of the northern Honshu coastline. The whole island of Honshu was moved east by eight feet, among other permanent environmental effects (the full list can be found here).

Lastly, I addressed the current status of the recovery and the ongoing charity and recovery efforts. The government reconstruction plan is split into two phases, the concentrated reconstruction period (which was just completed) and the reconstruction and revitalization period, which will take place over the next five years (Reconstruction Agency, n.d.).

Currently, Miyagi and Iwate have been cleared of debris, though cleanup is still continuing in Fukushima. By December of 2015, the number of evacuees has been reduced from 470,000 to 180,000 as people have moved into more permanent housing. The government is providing social workers and welfare support for those in the area. Fukushima is also almost back to normal, with most of the evacuation orders lifted and levels of radioactivity in produce back to normal levels.

There were many organizations that supported the recovery in the Tohoku region, including the Japanese Red Cross, Peace Boat, JETAA USA Earthquake Relief Fund, the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund, Central Community Chest of Japan, Kizuna Project, Second Harvest (Japanese food bank), Peace Winds Japan, and many others.

Thanks to the efforts of these organizations and the government, the recovery is well underway. Hopefully, residents such as those in Otsuchi won’t continue to be left behind.

For the complete Prezi and transcript of Bahia’s presentation, click here.

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