One Year On: A Symposium Commemorating ‘311’, the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011

29. Mar 2012

On 8th March, the Alexandersalen was the venue for the symposium ‘One Year On: A Symposium Commemorating ‘311’, the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011’. The event was held with Danish scholars on Japan and Japanese scholars working in Denmark, who had the desire to do something from Denmark for Japan as people prepared to commemorate the first anniversary of the catastrophe that claimed so many lives. More than 70 participants with various backgrounds came to the symposium, including those travelling from Japan and Sweden. I participated in the event as one of the organizers as well as the panel discussants.

The goal of the symposium was not to make a ‘grand theory of 311’ but to commemorate the first anniversary of the event. Professor Takashi Suganuma (Rikkyo University & Roskilde University) reflected this by opening the symposium with one-minute’s silence. Dr. Geir Helgesen (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies) followed with his opening speech, referring to the shock the world felt as it watched the footage of the Tsunami on the news, as for many Japan was known to be one of the most prepared nations for natural disasters.

The afternoon’s proceedings begun with Professor Chiharu Takenaka (Rikkyo University, Japan), talking about ‘Reflecting on a year since 311’. Her lecture offered a broad overview of what the Japanese people learned from 311, touching upon the monthly workshop she and her colleagues at Rikkyo University have conducted since 311 to share experiences with students, NGOs, journalists and afflicted local communities. Takenaka mentioned key developments in Japanese society, such as changes in Japan’s relations with US, China and South Korea as people received assistance from them during and after the Great Earthquake. She also pointed out that there were drastic changes in the Japanese people’s views on individuals vis-a-vis communities, democracy, risk, as well as Japan’s position in Asia. She concluded by saying that it is going to be a long process for the people in Japan to integrate the experiences and lessons learned from the Great Earthquake but as Sakura (cherry blossom) in Rikuzen Takata (one of the most severely hit areas) managed to bloom shortly after the Earthquake, people are slowly but surely beginning the process of recovery.

In the first panel discussion, moderated by Professor Toshiya Ozaki (Rikkyo University & Copenhagen Business School), the civil engineering dimension of 311 was taken up. In ‘When one says safe enough and others disagree’, Dr. Kazuyoshi Nishijima (DTU) introduced the basics of risk evaluation. He explained how risks are assessed from an engineering point of view and how that was (or was not) implemented in cases such as Tsunami and Fukushima nuclear plants. Nishijima also explained the thinking called ‘yet still probabilistic thinking’, which he believed should be used much more often to help societies make decisions through calculating how they could optimally allocate limited resources available. Nishijima’s lecture was particularly interesting as it made the audience realize how we, on a day-to-day basis, chose to ignore the possibilities of fatal accidents. Then followed Dr. Anni Greve’s presentation (Roskilde University) ‘Coping with the incalculable: Tokyo after the Great East Japan Earthquake’. Greve spoke about how Tokyo had managed to rebuild itself after several events of massive destruction in the past. Greve found that Tokyo’s unique capabilities to handle serious crises were seen again after the Great Earthquake through her analysis on the professional groups that engaged in the reconstruction process, such as architects, the mayor of Fukushima, school teachers and firemen. She concluded that the effects of 311 are cross-continental, suggesting this as one indication of the process of ‘cosmopolitanization’, as defined by Ulrik Beck.

The second panel discussion was about the civil society dimension of 311, which was moderated by Dr. Mika Yasuoka (ITU & Kyoto University, Japan). In ‘The Great East Japan Earthquake: Japan as an Aid Recipient’, Dr. Aki Tonami (myself) talked about how Japan, which has been mostly known as an aid donor rather than a recipient, experienced and viewed the Great Earthquake, both from the view point of the government and the Japanese NGOs. Overall, the Japanese government and NGOs were very grateful for the assistance offered from abroad. At the same time, they faced operational and institutional difficulties, which could be unique to a developed country that was suddenly put in a position of needing help. Dr. Annette Hansen (Aarhus University) backed this by her notes on postings to the Facebook site for the alumni of AOTS (The Association for Overseas Technical Scholarship) and JICA (The Japan International Cooperation Agency) training courses in Japan in the aftermath of the Earthquake. Her main findings from her presentation ‘Responses to the 2011 Triple Catastrophe on Facebook’ were the number and the nature of messages posted on the Facebook site changed over time as the aftermaths of the Great Earthquake revealed themselves, and Facebook was used as a space for reaching out from and to Japan for those who had once received training in Japan.

Interesting points were raised during discussions among the panellists and with the floor throughout the symposium. One of the audience pointed out the biggest difference between the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 and the Great East Japan Earthquake was that use of the Internet – because of that, people’s accessibility to information was naturally much more improved this time around. Another audience member suggested that, while expats living in Tokyo became much more involved in the Japanese society after the 311, Japan has not yet managed to recover its image as so many foreigners left Japan after the nuclear incident. How the nuclear accident has been dealt with and the future of Japan’s energy policy were also questioned.

This last point was indicative of a symposium, which illuminated that, even though one year has passed, it is not ‘over’ yet and the reconstruction process has just begun. The range of presentations and discussions covered reminded me once more of the variety of issues that Japan faced (or is still facing) as a direct consequence of the events of 311.


Aki Tonami
Researcher, NIAS
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