Coping with Disaster: Life in Tsunami Evacuation Shelters in Yamada Town, Iwate Prefecture, Japan
On 11 March 2011 an earthquake of magnitude 9 hit the northeast coast of Japan. The tsunami that followed caused not only one of the biggest nuclear disasters ever, it also destroyed many coastal communities and killed more than 23,000 people.
On 18 April I arrived in Tokyo to start a new research project on notions and practices of cleanliness in the Japanese household. However, because of the disaster I felt that I had to put these plans aside and travel up north. I wanted to find out how people were coping with the situation and to have their stories, thoughts and emotions heard by the world outside. Given my research background (my earlier research dealt with birth, sleep and time-use), I planned to focus on daily life in the non-daily situation of evacuation shelters.
From 1 to 13 June and from 15 to 25 July I went to Yamada, a coastal town of some 18,000 inhabitants in Iwate prefecture. In Yamada more than half of the residential buildings have been destroyed, most of them completely, not only by the tsunami but also by fires that broke out in the aftermath. Many people have moved away, but several thousand stayed in various shelters before eventually being able to move into temporary housing by August 2011. I stayed at Ryushoji (a Soto-shu temple), where about 15 people had found a temporary home. I conducted more than 30 narrative interviews, mainly at the temple itself where I also did participant observation and the sport halls of the Southern Elementary School (Minami shogakko), where at the time about 100 people were living. I also listened to the stories of people whose houses had only been partially destroyed or who had found refuge in other shelters. I supplemented these investigations by accompanying a doctor and two nurses during their home visits, conducting interviews with town hall officials, a public bath house owner and the temple priest and his wife.
In my project I ask: how do people cope with the disaster? How do people deal with traumatic experiences, with the loss of houses and loved ones, with lack of a lifeline? How do people ensure a good night sleep? What are their arrangements for sharing a large room with strangers? What are the worries that come up when people cannot find peaceful slumber day after day? How do people organise mundane issues such as cleaning the place they live in, arranging food or washing their bodies, especially when there is no water or electricity? How do people negotiate social relations, when they have to stay for months in one room with people they hadn’t chosen to live with? How have social relations helped them to get their feet back on the ground?
The study aims at understanding both social issues in rural Northeast Japan as well as people’s mechanisms for coping strategies after a major disaster.
Brigitte Steger is an Early Career Fellow at CRASSH, Michaelmas 2011.