This has not been an easy year for Japan. On 11 March 2011 – 3/11, as it’s become known – one of the largest earthquakes in the history of the country was followed by a tsunami that swallowed 500km of the coastline of the Tohoku region.
As Japan grapples with the recovery process, the demographic and financial problems that existed prior to 3/11 have accelerated. And although hardly anything positive can be said about the largest disaster in Japan since the second world war, it did unite the nation and sounded a much needed wake-up call. A strong sense of national compassion and gratitude for what people still had emerged.
In Tokyo, where citizens are known never to converse with strangers, greetings were exchanged more often. In the subway, when an earthquake alarm sounded, strangers would offer each other reassurance. However, while initially everyone in Japan rushed to volunteer and help the people of Tohoku, things are a little different now.
One can’t help but wonder if the discourse would be different had it been Tokyo that was washed away. The fact is Tohoku’s economy and industries were already in severe decline prior to 3/11. It was one of the most isolated regions of Japan, and young people were leaving in vast numbers, seeking better opportunities elsewhere. Hospitals were in debt and farmers and fisheries suffered from increased competition. In all honesty I had never been to, or thought of Tohoku before 3/11.
While all of Japan felt sorry for the citizens of Tohoku and remained concerned about the condition of the nuclear plant in Fukushima, the rest of the country began to resume its normal way of life in the months following 3/11, and the plight of Tohoku started to recede in people’s minds. The media focuses on it less, people talk about it less frequently – even though the recovery there has been extremely slow, especially in comparison with cities like Kobe, Japan’s port city that bore the brunt of a massive earthquake in 1995.
I work for Impact Japan, an organisation that develops new projects to help the area. Many of the youngsters from Tohoku that I work with lost their friends and families to the tsunami.
I met a boy named Masahiro Kikuchi. Although only 17, his head is covered with grey hair from shock and stress. I know two 16-year-old girls who faced the horrible decision of saving themselves from the tsunami or staying behind with their injured mothers and dying. They chose life, and it haunts them.
As you listen to them, dry your own tears and struggle to offer them some meaningful words of comfort, they try to ease the process for you by smiling and laughing. I wonder at how these kids can still smile. They do, however, and it is inspiring to listen to them as they calmly say that, despite everything, they are not the most unfortunate children in the world. Hope lies in their compassion and bravery, and we cannot abandon them.
It is most painful when I hear young adults express their feelings of guilt, for daring to hope that their dreams will become a reality when their home-towns are suffering. They say that they should keep their goals smaller and focused on helping their communities.
Sustainable aid, such as providing better housing for those displaced, re-employing nurses who lost their jobs due to the destruction of hospitals in newly established clinics, improving and generating new industries, or helping young people maximise their potential, is now more important than immediate, short-term aid. To help in the long-term, we must create an environment where the people can thrive, build, and feel free to aspire.
By Elena Omura, who works on IMPACT Japan’s development project in Tohoku, Japan.