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Background Information

What were the characteristics of the Tohoku region prior to the 3/11 disaster?

  • The Tohoku region is located in the northeastern part of Honshu (the main island of Japan). It is known for its natural beauty and also its harsh winter weather and heavy snows. Tohoku also has a rich local culture and traditions that attracted considerable tourism.

  • While there are some big cities (e.g., Sendai with over 1 million people; Morioka and Fukushima City with close to 300,000 people), Tohoku as a whole is relatively sparsely populated.

  • The region's population is rapidly aging even by Japanese standards. In Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima—the three prefectures most severely affected by the disaster—over 24% of the population was over 65 years old. (By comparison, people 65 years or older make up 12% of the US population.) As a result, some communities in rural areas in Tohoku were literally on the verge of disappearing.

  • The region's economy was struggling even before the disaster. While it accounted for a major share of nationwide production of seafood, and it was also an important agricultural area, the local economy had been suffering from competition from cheaper imports. The industrial base, meanwhile, had been declining for years. As a result, young people with limited opportunities had been moving away to work and study in bigger cities, further accelerating the aging rate and the decline of the local economy.

How powerful was the initial earthquake and tsunami?

  • With a magnitude of 9.0, the earthquake was the 4th most intense recorded in history. By comparison, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Franciso was 6.9 on the Richter Scale and the 1994 Northridge Earthquake in the Los Angeles area measured 6.7.

  • The region was struck by hundreds of dangerous aftershocks. In the first 90 days, over 580 major aftershocks were recorded. Sixty-nine of these measured 6.0 in magnitude, and five were over 7.0.

  • At its highest point, the tsunami waves reached 131 feet (40.4 meters), roughly the height of a 10-story building. They traveled as far as 9 miles (15 kilometers) inland in some places.

  • The length of the damaged coastline is 420 miles (670 kilometers), roughly equivalent to the distance from Boston to Washington DC. Waves of more than 66 feet (20 meters) were measured over a 180-mile (290 kilometer) swath of coastline.

What was the human toll?

  • As of January 2015, a total of 18,468 people were counted as dead or missing after the earthquake and tsunami; another 3,331 later died from injuries and other factors precipitated by the disaster; and another 6,152 people were injured in the disaster.

  • At the peak, over 470,000 people were registered as displaced from their homes. By January 2015, that number had fallen to 182,000, with some of the displaced living in temporary housing constructed on high land, others in subsidized apartments, and others with family members.

  • Senior citizens comprised an inordinately large number of victims, and people over the age of 60 accounted for 65% of deaths.

  • A total of 240 children were orphaned by the disaster, and more than 1,500 lost at least one parent.

What was the immediate economic toll?

  • The Japanese government has estimated damages to land, buildings, and infrastructure at $216 billion (¥16.9 trillion), making 3/11 the world's costliest natural disaster.

  • World's Costliest Natural Disasters (Since 1965)
    1. Tohoku Earthquake (2011) est. $216~300+ billion
    2. Kobe Earthquake (1995) $100 billion
    3. Hurricane Katrina (2005) $81 billion
    4. Northridge Earthquake (1994) $20 billion

  • The tsunami wiped out the region's fishing industry, which accounted for roughly half of Japan's seafood before the disaster. It damaged or destroyed more than 300 ports and 28,000 boats. The Japanese government estimates the total damage to the fishing industry at $16.8 billion (1.25 trillion yen).

  • According to the Japanese government, damages to the region's agricultural sector were an estimated $10 billion (785 billion yen).

  • Manufacturing accounted for a quarter of economic production in the region. Since the Tohoku region was a major supplier of electronic parts and other industrial items, the disaster caused massive supply chain disruptions, affecting domestic production and exports. For example, most automobile companies with plants in the region had to halt production for much of March 2011.

  • The earthquake took a number of power plants offline and damaged transmission lines, causing rolling blackouts throughout the spring in the Tokyo and Tohoku regions and leading the government to call for a 15% cutback in electricity usage during the summer of 2011. Voluntary cutbacks by consumers prevented the anticipated blackouts during the summer, but power shortages have continued as nuclear power plants have been shut down following the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown.

  • A total of 129,724 buildings were completely destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami, and over 990,000 buildings were badly or partially damaged.

  • The Japan Research Institute estimates that 140,000~200,000 people instantly lost their jobs on March 11, 2011.

What happened to the Fukushima nuclear power plant?

  • When the tsunami hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, it cut electrical lines and disabled the plant's generators, causing a power outage. The plant had six nuclear reactors and the cooling systems for the three that were in use at the time failed, precipitating full meltdowns in these three reactors. This led to radiation leaks into the atmosphere as well as nearby ocean waters.

  • Within 4 days after the tsunami, 140,000 people living in a 12.5 mile (20 kilometer) radius were evacuated. Many others also moved away from Fukushima voluntarily out of concern about radiation.

  • As of November 2014, over 124,000 Fukushima residents still have not been able to return to their homes. Among the displaced, approximately 46,000 residents remain outside of the prefecture.

What was the immediate response like?

  • There was a massive response by all sectors of Japanese society. For example, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces underwent its largest mobilization since World War II, deploying 106,250 troops, 541 aircrafts, and 50 vessels at the peak of operations.

  • Each city and town in Japan has a social welfare council, a nonprofit public service provider that is linked to the local government, and they played a central role in helping to coordinate the initial relief efforts. Among other things, the social welfare councils quickly established volunteer centers to match volunteers with community needs.

  • Dozens of nonprofit organizations with experience in disaster relief sprang into action, delivering goods and medical services and caring for the evacuees. The activities of many of them were supported by coordination initiatives carried out by Japan Platform as well as JANIC (Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation). As the emergency progressed, hundreds of nonprofit organizations became involved, and the Japan Civil Network for Disaster Relief in East Japan initiative was launched to help represent them and coordinate and share information among them.

  • There was an unprecedented increase in domestic charitable giving to help the victims of the disaster. As of August 2012, a total of $4.6 billion (360 billion yen) had been donated to traditional gienkin funds that provide cash grants-in-aid to victims, and billions of dollars more were made in donations to local government agencies, nonprofit organizations working in the disaster area, and special charitable funds created to support the disaster response.

  • Corporations launched a massive mobilization of in-kind donations and technical assistance. Coordination roles were played by Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) and individual industry associations. To limit the impact of electricity shortages, major businesses also undertook a large scale effort to cut their energy usage, for example shifting production away from peak hours on weekdays to weekends.

  • Countries around the world also offered aid to Japan. For example, more than 20,000 US troops were mobilized to help in the disaster zone through Operation Tomodachi, and 163 countries offered official assistance.

What were the challenges in the immediate emergency relief stage?

  • The extent of the casualties and damage was impossible to assess in the immediate aftermath because of the massive scale of the disaster. Communications and transportation infrastructure were destroyed, making access to the outside world extremely difficult.

  • Community leaders and many local government staff tended to stay at their posts to direct the evacuation prior to the tsunami, and an inordinate number of them lost their lives when the waves hit. The damage to local government systems made it especially difficult to collect information from the disaster zone and to implement relief and recovery efforts.

  • More than 450,000 evacuees sought shelter, often in school auditoriums and public halls, where many of them stayed through the summer. With such massive damage to the infrastructure in a vast area, many shelters did not have access to sufficient food, water, and medication, in some cases for over a week, causing illness and the further loss of lives, especially among seniors who needed special care. Meanwhile, those who stayed in small shelters and private houses in the disaster zone often did not have adequate access to even the relief supplies going to the larger shelters.

  • There was a severe shortage of fuel, making it difficult for people and supplies to move around within the disaster zone and surrounding areas.

  • The unfolding nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant caused confusion around the country and complicated evacuation and relief efforts in Fukushima Prefecture and southern Miyagi Prefecture.

What has the Tohoku region's transition from relief to recovery been like?

  • The transition from the initial relief stage to the long-term recovery stage took several months and varied significantly from place to place. In some areas, the transition had started by late spring 2011, while in other places it was still continuing well into autumn.

  • Evacuees were initially housed in evacuation centers—typically school gymnasiums and other public halls—but, in mid-April 2011, construction began on temporary housing units that families could use for several years while rebuilding their homes. However, in coastal areas, difficulties in obtaining suitable land on high enough ground to be safe from another tsunami slowed construction, and it took until September, 6 months after the earthquake, to build 50,000 units. As a result, the last evacuation centers had to be kept open until October in Iwate Prefecture, December in Miyagi Prefecture, and February 2012 in Fukushima Prefecture.

  • By November 2012, more than 1,150,000 people had volunteered through the region's disaster volunteer centers, undertaking tasks such as picking up rubble, cleaning mud washed into homes by the tsunami, and restoring photographs and other mementos salvaged from the mud and debris. The number of volunteers was lower than after the 1995 Kobe Earthquake, when 1.4 million people volunteered in the initial 3 months. However this has been a natural consequence of the relative inaccessibility of the disaster zone, which is at least a day's travel from most major population centers, as well as the immense size of the disaster area and fears surrounding radiation in and around Fukushima Prefecture. Currently, volunteers are engaged in activities such as tutoring schoolchildren and organizing social activities for survivors living in temporary housing.

  • Some people wish to rebuild on the same land where their homes were before, but at the same time there are calls for relocating residences to higher ground that will be safe from future tsunamis while rezoning low-lying areas for commercial usage only. However, most municipal governments have had difficulties in finalizing their rebuilding policies and zoning regulations, which has delayed rebuilding. These difficulties have been exacerbated by the lack of sufficient flat land on high ground that is suitable for residential building and staffing shortages in the overtaxed municipal offices.

  • Organizations called renkei fukko centers (literally "recovery cooperation centers"), which facilitate coordination between nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and businesses, have been established in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima, the three prefectures affected most by the disaster. These are serving as hubs for information sharing and coordination efforts in each prefecture.

  • What have been some of the main needs and challenges in the recovery stage?

    • There is great diversity within the disaster zone. Some seaside hamlets were shielded from the full force of the tsunami, while the waters travelled miles inland in nearby areas. Even within hard hit towns, there are stark differences between the neighborhoods that were severely damaged and those on higher ground that were untouched by the wave but are suffering due to the impact on the broader community and economy. Meanwhile, the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima Prefecture has created an additional, entirely different crisis, emptying towns that visibly seemed to be unaffected by the disaster. The diverse needs in the disaster zone have meant that different approaches are appropriate in different places.

    • The disaster has displaced hundreds of thousands of residents, breaking up communities and disrupting traditional networks and ties. The region was already grappling with the effects of an aging population and economic stagnation and migration out of the region after the disaster has exacerbated this, so rebuilding community ties has been an even greater challenge.

    • Many area residents, particularly senior citizens who have moved to temporary housing and other locations, are having difficulty adjusting to their new life. Social isolation has been a serious problem, particularly for senior citizens as well as for middle-aged men, putting additional strains on their psychological and physical health. After the 1995 Kobe Earthquake, social isolation was seen as a factor in the rash of so-called "solitary deaths" among evacuees in temporary housing—in three years, 240 residents in temporary housing died alone and unnoticed, only to be discovered many days or weeks later. There have been many concerns about a similar phenomenon occurring in the Tohoku region.

    • Unemployment is high in the region and there are also many imbalances in employment. While some businesses have resumed their operations, it will take years for many local industries to recover fully, and many may never be able to do so. For men, there has been an increase in employment in certain sectors, such as construction, which do not necessarily match skills of those who lost jobs as the result of the disaster. Meanwhile, unemployment among women has been especially high.

    • Survivors of the disaster are coping with grief, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other psychological issues. Mental health experts have been worried about the potential for a spike in suicide rates. Japan has long had one of the highest suicide rates in the world (in 2009 someone committed suicide every 15 minutes). Prior to the disaster, suicide rates in the economically depressed Tohoku region were substantially higher than the national average for Japan. For example, in Iwate Prefecture, the rate stood at 32 suicides annually per 100,000 people prior to the earthquake, compared with the national average of 23 per 100,000 people (and twice the global rate of 16 per 100,000). Experts are also concerned about possible increases in "solitary deaths" involving neglected people dying alone and unnoticed in their homes, as noted above.

    • The Fukushima nuclear accident has brought its own special challenges. Decontaminating the vast area affected by leaking radiation will take years and the government estimates that the cost will reach at least $13 billion. There is a great deal of uncertainty about the long-term health effects on people living near the site of the accident. Parents are worried about the possible effects of radiation on their children and some are keeping their children inside for much of the day. Meanwhile, farmers and fisherman are suffering as vegetables, seafood, dairy products, and meat test positive for radioactivity and consumers steer away from any food produced near Fukushima Prefecture.

    • Nonprofit organizations are expected to play an important role in the recovery. However, compared to urban areas in Japan, the nonprofit sector has weak roots in the Tohoku region. As a result, many of the local nonprofits that are responding to the disaster are newly established and lack sufficient financial and human resources.

    What was the response from overseas?

    • In all, 163 countries and 43 international organizations offered official assistance to the Japanese government. Of these, 24 countries and regions sent rescue and medical support teams, and the United Nations (including the UN World Food Programme) and the International Atomic Energy Agency also dispatched expert teams. Meanwhile, 126 countries and international organizations sent supplies and $219 million (17.5 billion yen) in monetary assistance. Their in-kind assistance ranged from relief supplies such as tents, blankets, and food to radiation detection equipment.

    • The US military supported the Japan Self-Defense Forces by engaging in one of the largest humanitarian relief efforts it has ever undertaken, Operation Tomodachi (tomodachi means "friends"). At the peak, 24,500 personnel, 24 ships—including two aircraft carriers—and 189 aircraft participated in the operation. US troops transported 280 tons of food and other relief supplies, 7.7 million liters of water, and 45,000 liters of fuel to the disaster zone. They also engaged in large-scale search and rescue operations in the coastal areas.

    • There was a massive outpouring of donations from people around the world. Japan's neighbors, most notably Taiwan and Korea, raised unprecedented amounts of money for the 3/11 response. The largest overseas source of private philanthropy was the United States. By March 2015, Americans have donated more than $737 million for the disaster, the most they have ever contributed for a disaster in a developed country.

    How long will the recovery take?

    • A full recovery will take many years—probably more than a decade. As a first step, many municipal planners in the Tohoku region have been preparing 7- or 8-year plans for the rebuilding of their cities.

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