Vulnerability and Empowerment after the Great East Japan Earthquake

  • 2012•12•17     Tokyo

    Prof. Andrew DeWit Photo: Stephan Schmidt/UNU

    Prof. Andrew DeWit, Rikkyo University. Photo: Stephan Schmidt/UNU

    In a public symposium on 30 November, UNU-ISP brought together a group of leading scholars to explore some of the most significant challenges and opportunities that have arisen following Japan’s “triple disasters” of 11 March 2011. This was the latest in a series of events related to the UNU-ISP research project Human Security and Natural Disasters.

    The symposium, “Rebuilding after 3/11: Vulnerability and Empowerment”, examined the ways in which some groups of people have suffered disproportionately from the disaster, and how we can respond to this in a more positive fashion. It also considered the implications of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear crisis for Japan’s future energy policy and the way its democracy functions.

    Opening the symposium, Prof. Kazuhiko Takeuchi (Director, UNU-ISP) underlined UNU-ISP’s commitment to contributing to the rebuilding of Japan through its research, and suggested that “we should carefully examine whether within Tohoku’s hardships we can find the seeds of a more sustainable future for Japan”.

    Dr. Christopher Hobson (Research Associate, UNU-ISP) introduced the Human Security and Natural Disasters project, highlighting the need to move beyond a simplistic understanding that sees people affected by the disasters as simply passive victims.

    Dr. Daniel Aldrich (Purdue University) examined the critical role of “social capital”—the degree of interpersonal connections that exist in a society—in recovering from natural disasters. Noting that “physical infrastructure by itself will not be sufficient to build long-term resilience,” Dr. Aldrich suggested that we should invest more in social infrastructure—building trust, reciprocity and long-term connections.

    Prof. Akiko Nakajima (Wayo Women’s University) described how shelters and temporary housing established after March 11 failed to address the needs of women, particularly in terms of privacy and safety. She noted that the December 2011 revision of Japan’s national disaster management plan introduced several recommendations to better reflect women’s requirements, and that there was now an urgent need for local authorities to incorporate women’s perspectives into disaster plans and manuals.

    Dr. David Slater (Sophia University) provided an anthropological account of how people have responded to the disaster. He noted that there was a level of distrust among local people of plans imposed by Tokyo, with relatively little knowledge of local needs. There was also a strong generational divide concerning the goals of reconstruction, with younger people placing much higher priority on the need for jobs, but older members of the community having the louder voice within the decision-making process.

    Dr. Jun Shigemura (Waseda University) introduced his research on the mental health consequences for workers at the Fukushima nuclear plants following the crisis of March 2011. He found that the workers showed myriad post-traumatic stress responses. They have also faced severe discrimination, which Dr. Shigemura suggested was due to people projecting their anger with TEPCO and their fear of radiation onto visible enemies. He argued that society should give more appreciation and support for the difficult work they are doing.

    Prof. Andrew DeWit (Rikkyo University) focused on distributed energy, which he argued presents an excellent opportunity for sustainable growth in Japan, a country faced by the serious challenges of ageing, a shrinking economy, and poor job prospects for women and younger workers. He suggested that the nuclear crisis at Fukushima Dai-ichi has the potential to accelerate a domestic movement towards distributed and renewable energy, but the results of the upcoming election may lead to this opportunity being missed.

    Prof. Yasunori Sone (Keio University) described the use of “deliberative polling” by the Japanese government for recent public consultations on its future energy policy. The exercise showed that the more participants learned about nuclear power, the more likely they were to favour the 0% nuclear option. Prof. Sone noted the potential of deliberative polling to enhance the democratic process, as an effective tool in promoting dialogue, and encouraging respect for other opinions and readiness to compromise.