Of Tsunamis and Sea-Change

‘We live tranquilly on a ground whose solid foundations are sometimes shaken. We build without care on vaults whose columns now and then waver and threaten to collapse.’ Kant, ‘On the Causes of the Tremors of the Earth’

‘Perhaps this is a place where belonging now takes place in and through a common sense of loss’ (Judith Butler, Afterword to Loss: The Politics of Mourning, 2003).

We all remember the images. The towering wall of menacing seawater crashing upon the shore; the fragile houses broken into bits or transported by the flood waters far into the land; the debris of cars, trees and broken walls piled up against the ruins; the thousand fragments that could never again be reassembled into a whole. 2011 was a year of great catastrophe, but the images of the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami taught me the true meaning of devastation. In that instant when nature claimed tens of thousands of lives, Japan – and the world – became marked, seared, a mark that is ineffaceable, insuperable. That site of ruination is the point from which arise questions about survival and continuity, shadowed as they are by the irreversibility of loss and the fear of further desolation.


A new kind of thinking and being emerges from annihilation. Or at least we would like to believe so. In the aftermath of 3.11, western media was inundated with stories about Japanese stoicism and collective resilience, stories about heroism and sacrifice, much like those disseminated in the aftermath of the Great Kanto earthquake. The moment of loss was also to be a moment of great change, of rebirth. As in previous disaster narratives, society harbored hopes that from the ruins would spring a more resilient nation. The local community, established in preindustrial society, was strengthened once again in the face of shared suffering, and an image of a ‘disaster utopia’ was projected, superimposed upon the phrase ‘Ganbaro Nippon’ (‘Let’s do our best’), the ubiquitous expression that articulated fortitude and the will to regenerate the nation. As illustrated in the namazue prints produced after the Ansei earthquake, destruction was followed by the yearning for renewal.

But the history of disasters is also the history of fraught reconstruction processes, and socio-political maelstroms follow closely on the heels of natural catastrophe. In the words of scholar Noguchi Takehiko, ‘Natural disaster often serves as a catalyst, accelerating and bringing to the fore problems, contradictions, and tensions below the apparently calm surface of societies.’ 3.11 ignited debates in Japan about the political ineptitude of the central government, the failures of modern society and the dangers of unchecked technological progress. While the Self-Defense Forces were praised for their efficiency in disaster management, the central government was relentlessly denigrated by the press and the public. Even prior to the tsunami, a loss of faith in government was already detectable, exacerbated by ongoing problems such as public debt, low GDP growth, income inequality, unemployment and the rise of poverty (see Samuels). The rural community of Tohoku was further affected by depopulation and the advanced age of citizens. Faced with the catastrophic consequences of the earthquake and tsunami, the bureaucratic system revealed itself to be crippled by convolutedness and inefficiency. Different groups and factions sought to seize the opportunity to shift paradigms, to change the course of the nation, for disasters create moments of ‘punctuated equilibria’ (Samuels), when pre-existing constraints are relaxed temporarily in the face of exogenous factors such as war or natural disaster. The choices made at such a time are consequential and likely irreversible.

Fukushima stands at the centre of all the debates. TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company), with its long history of falsifying safety reports and underestimating risk, became villainized in the public eye. Despite the fact that vulnerabilities were highlighted years before the disaster, not much has been done to address issues in the reactor designs and management system. Lack of transparency regarding these issues, and the prioritization of capital over security, has created a wide rift between the government and the people. The Kurokawa Commission Report, published in July 2012, critiqued the collusion between business and government, and identified 3.11 as a man-made disaster, not entirely unforeseeable (Samuels). As water and soil become contaminated, the ‘human-engineered calamity’ (Huet) has therefore superseded the natural disaster, and through human failings, the event has become destructive in the most totalizing sense.

While the nuclear situation imploded at Fukushima, elsewhere in Tohoku the survivors struggle with the work of rebuilding. Despite the passing of several laws after the 1995 Kobe earthquake to enable more effective disaster response, no national agency has been established. 7 months after March 2011, less than 2/3 of temporary housing had been constructed; nearly a full year later, most of the wreckage was still strewn across the land ravaged by the tsunami (Samuels). The funds allocated for rebuilding were stuck behind a seemingly impermeable barrier of bureaucratic procedures. In spite of the generous outpouring of the international community, the volunteerism and donations, much remains unfinished. Three years on, there is an incremental rise of stress-related deaths amongst the survivors, and escalating rates of suicide and depression. With the unrelenting housing crisis, it is hardly shocking that those who evaded death have found it difficult to live a life fraught with instability, homelessness and bereavement. As the major of Rikuzentakata noted, ‘Disaster victims are disaster victims 24 hours a day’. The persistence of catastrophe means that suffering bleeds beyond the temporal and physical boundaries of the actual seismic shocks and tsunami.


The ideal of community has also been undercut by reports of distrust among new neighbors in the temporary shelters, and amidst talks of tsunagu (‘connection’) political dissatisfaction continued unabated, shown when victim groups sued local authorities for misconduct during the crisis. Social solidarity is thus rent by deep fissures much like the land itself. In other words, not much has changed in the aftermath of 3.11.

Disasters raise questions about leadership, community and the potential for change. We cannot know how great a shock is needed in order to instigate structural and institutional transformation, but we hold onto hope that natural disasters, wars and other cataclysms, by puncturing the stability or stagnancy of normal operations, would be harbingers of a new order. But the state in Japan and the painful process of reconstruction have suggested that change is slow and unclear. According to scholars such as Richard J. Samuels and David Pilling, 3.11 was not a game-changer as many had hoped. Incremental change will occur as a result of myriad small steps and long drawn-out calculations, debates and revisions. Japanese culture, as Pilling argues, is one of evolution, not revolution.

Yet against the political backdrop, in the face of possible nuclear disaster, and amidst ruined hopes for change, groups of people are undertaking the immense work of survival. Theirs is the narrative that holds a politics of possibility, which suggests renewal and a coming-to-terms with what has been lost. People tend to gardens planted where their homes had once been; animals lost amidst the wreckage are being cared for; local monks founded a Café du Monk, to help survivors deal with the aftermath; a stream of volunteer groups still enter the region to assist with reconstruction; Japanese architects have designed new homes for those robbed of their former homes; arts exhibitions and music events are set up to rejuvenate public life; and spiritual guides provide support to thousands of souls lost upon the waves. Such acts exemplify kizuna (‘bond’; 2011 word of the year). If the Fukushima crisis can be controlled, then the reconstruction process can generate social renewal. Or else the only change we can expect is a catastrophic one. Ours is an age where threats of annihilation are omnipresent and disaster seems to be always just around the corner. As the debris from the tsunami travels across the Pacific and reach the shores of North America, we need to stand on the other side of the three-year span and reflect on the meaning of disaster and of community. Much remains to be changed – in Japan and elsewhere – and much can be made of the fragments that we shore against our collective ruin.



Further Readings

Parry, Richard Lloyd, ‘Ghosts of the Tsunami’, 6 February 2014, London Review of Books.

Pilling, David. Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival. Penguin Press, 2014.

Samuels, Richard J. 3.11: Disaster Response and Change in Japan. Cornell University Press, 2013.

Sand, Jordan, ‘In Tokyo’, 28 April 2011, London Review of Books.

Solnit, Rebecca, ‘In Fukushima’, 10 May 2012, London Review of Books.



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