ASIA - Japan Braving the Quake and Tsunami Debris

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By Ramesh Jaura and Katsuhiro Asagiri
IDN-InDepth NewsFeature

SENDAI (IDN) - While the Fukushima nuclear disaster marks yet another wake-up call to re-think energy policy, the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit Tohoku, the north-eastern region of Japan, has not only left behind a trail of pain and suffering but also an indefatigable resolve of survivors to abandon despair and transform their agony into strength.

In the last days of September, IDN and IPS Japan were witness to determination of young and elderly women and men not to get bogged down in mourning the loss of near and dear ones and their homes and businesses that were swept off by titanic tidal waves, but devote themselves to rebuilding activities.

Some two weeks later, finance and development ministers from around the world gathered for the Sendai Dialogue on October 9-10, which was co-organised by the Japanese government and the World Bank ahead of the IMF-World Bank Annual Meetings in Tokyo.

Considering that it was the costliest earthquake in world history – the direct economic cost estimated at 16.9 trillion Yen or $210 billion, and 650 kilometres of Japan’s northeast coastline devastated, several towns and villages along the shore washed away, and 20,000 people left dead or missing – the Sendai Dialogue was held in the largest city of the worst hit region.

Together with global policymakers the Dialogue organisers called for greater efforts to integrate disaster risk management into national development planning and international development assistance. A joint statement urges national governments and development partners to accelerate efforts to pro-actively manage growing disaster risks by incorporating disaster risk management in all development policy and investment programs.

"We need a culture of prevention," said World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim. "No country can fully insulate itself from disaster risk, but every country can reduce its vulnerability. Better planning can help reduce damage – and loss of life – from disasters, and prevention can be far less costly than disaster relief and response."

Japan's Finance Minister Koriki Jojima expressed the hope that "lessons derived from Japan's long-established disaster management culture, as well as the Great East Japan Earthquake and its reconstruction process, will be globally shared," and that the Sendai Dialogue would help reach "a consensus on the need to mainstream disaster risk management in all aspects of development processes".

Governments should indeed be obliged to set the rescue and reconstruction machinery into motion with the least bureaucracy. However, reconstruction work under way some 46 kilometres northeast of Sendai emphasises the importance of citizens being proactive in the face of heavy odds.

From beneath the mountain of debris

One of them, IDN and IPS Japan talk to during a tour organised by the lay Buddhist organisation Soka Gakkai (SG), is Kenichi Kurosawa. The story of his ordeal – shared by about 164,000 inhabitants of the city, approximately 46% of which was inundated by the tsunami – strikes deep into bones.

He was driving back to his hometown Ishinomaki, when tsunami struck right after the earthquake on March 11, 2011. Gigantic tidal waves of up to ten meters high that pounded the inland as far as five kilometres away from the Pacific coast, nearly overpowered him.

"The tsunami waves came with such a terrific speed and thrust that I could not drive any further. Fortunately there was a pine tree nearby to which I clung on and thus managed to survive," Kenichi says.

"The snow fell continuously on that dark moonless night, and I endured the freezing cold throughout the night. At the break of day, the waters started to recede. I began searching for my wife, Kayoko. I kept slipping and falling in the black sludge. The ground was covered with debris. Smoke from the fires that had broken out after the tsunami blinded me. My eyes filled with tears of frustration as I searched. At last I found her. She was alive!"

Ten days later, Kenichi went to search for his belongings where his house-cum-showroom once stood. He could see a familiar black handle under the debris. "I found my handheld drill which I had been using for a long time in my work as a plumber, its case cracked and the drill inside covered with mud. I held it in my hand with deep emotion and wiped off the mud. I felt as if hope had begun to rise from beneath the mountain of debris."

Declining to be crushed by the feeling of helplessness, he decided to make a large signboard as proof of his determination to get back on his feet. "Two friends joined me in assembling scrap wood with some screws we found in the rubble. With a sincere prayer for reconstruction, we began painting the words, 'Ganbaro! Ishinomaki' (Let’s keep going, Ishinomaki!).

On April 11, 2011, exactly a month after that fateful day, the 11-meter long signboard could be seen in the devastated city, standing in the ruins of his home.

Several newspapers around the country have meanwhile printed photos of the 'Ganbaro! Ishinomaki' signboard, notes Kenichi with obvious satisfaction – a signboard that has come to symbolise the indomitable spirit that permeates the survivors of the earthquake and tsunami, who started to rebuild their city and homes, providing succour to their co-citizens still in a state of stupor as their eyes wander over eerie desolate landscapes.

Kenichi, like hundreds among survivors is determined not to continue to reel under the debris of pain and suffering left by the killer tidal waves. "I will definitely transform suffering into strength. That is my mission," he says.

'Rebuilding lives'

A widely circulated daily Seikyo Shimbun has been reporting on 'rebuilding lives' initiatives of several SG members in the Tohoku and earthquake and tsunami areas. The organisation itself has mobilised enormous financial and manpower resources in post-disaster recovery support activities immediately in the aftermath of March 11, 2011 by providing accommodation to evacuees, distributing food and other relief goods, search and rescue to ensure the safety of members, neighbours and friends.

Many volunteer task forces were spontaneously formed in the affected areas by local SG members, primarily led by those of the Youth Division.

SG student members in Tohoku displayed innovativeness some four months after the earthquake and tsunami, as they organised on July 31, 2011 a music festival titled 'Rock the Heart' in Sendai City. The festival sent a message of courage and hope to the many evacuees living in shelters and to those who were still struggling in the aftermath of the massive earthquake and tsunami.

Messages to participants at the event were sent by jazz legend Herbie Hancock and famed Brazilian pianist José Carlos Amaral Vieira. Hancock offered his heartfelt sympathy and support to all those who lost loved ones and whose lives have been affected by the disaster. He also lauded the power of music to inspire people to courageously move forward and overcome any situation.

An outstanding example of the commitment of civil engineers employed by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) is the Ishinomaki District disaster debris disposal project which began on September 17, 2011, and is not expected to be complete until March 25, 2014. By then, 430,000 cubic meters of tsunami sediment along with 3.1 million tons of debris will have been sorted, cleaned, and disposed of in the most thorough and expeditious manner possible.

The anticipated cost for the project – just one of several in the vicinity of Sendai – is 148.2 billion Japanese yen ($185.25 million). "As staggering as these figures are, and as exhaustive the level of effort in addressing the debris, they don't begin to approach the cost in human misery where more than 5,000 of Ishinomaki’s residents died, and where lives of the survivors will never be the same," John Trotti, the Editor of U.S. 'Grading and Excavation Contractor magazine' rightly points out as every visitor to the site would confirm. [IDN-InDepthNews – October 12, 2012]

Image: Signboard | Credit: SGI

2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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