Almost 10 years ago, the Great East Japan Earthquake struck off the coast of Tōhoku, the most powerful earthquake recorded in Japan and 4th most powerful in the world. While the earthquake directly caused little damage, the ensuing tsunami devastated the east coast, leading to a meltdown at the Fukushima power plant which prevented evacuees from returning to their homes years on from the disaster. Almost 16,000 were killed, over 6,000 injured and over 2,500 missing. The numbers do not do the devastation justice, however. The individual impact and legacy of the disaster was most eloquently captured by Richard Lloyd-Parry in his book Ghosts of the Tsunami, where he interviews the broken families and records their stories. The tales of survivors who were spared the fate of their loved ones by a spur-of-the-moment decision, only to go through the horror of searching through mud-soaked bodies for their family members, truly drive home the horror experienced by those on-the-ground. Last year we were joined by Parry himself, as well as the University of Sheffield’s Dr Mark Pendleton, to discuss how memory forms around such disasters as this. You can watch back on the website here.
I remember visiting Sendai 4 years on from the disaster, climbing a hill with a Japanese friend to see the statue of Date Masamune, when the exclusion zone was pointed out to me. It felt strange even then to be looking at a site where such destruction had passed through not too long ago. However, I was also reminded through my stay at Sendai that most urban areas of Japan have seen mass destruction of a variety of causes: the wanton rampaging of samurai in the Warring States period (1467-1615); the firebombing of industrial cities in the final years of the Asia-Pacific War (1937-1945) that laid waste to life and heritage alike; or the many earthquakes, tsunamis, fires and typhoons that have ravaged the archipelago since time immemorial. Many heritage sites in Sendai were dotted with plaques stating the grand structures that had stood there for centuries prior to an indiscriminately dropped firebomb.
With this in mind, I have not been overly surprised to find that there is not a wealth of memorial events planned for the 10th anniversary in Japan; the Imperial family made an online visit to the region this week and there will be a government-sponsored memorial held on the date. In fact, I saw more news reports around a New York Yankee baseball player returning to Japan, citing the 10th anniversary as his reason for leaving. Perhaps this reflects a certain acceptance of the transient nature of things in Japan. I remember how a year prior to my visit to Sendai, I was shocked when the owner of the Yufuin hostel I was volunteering at laughed at how his family had narrowly avoided being assigned to a Fukushima hostel by the YMCA prior to the tsunami, remarking on how instead a friend of his had been killed in his place along with his family. While I know that this hostel owner does not represent a general Japanese attitude, he came to my mind when hearing about the muted response to the anniversary. Perhaps when such destruction can happen at any moment it is easier to accept the temporary nature of things, to forget, or even laugh than to memorialise.
Next week, the Sainsbury Institute will be commemorating the disaster through their Third Thursday Lecture, ‘Cultural Properties Recovered? 10 Years on from the Great East Japan Disaster‘, which revisits an earlier Sainsbury Institute initiative exploring tried to gauge the impact on art and archaeology, and the communities involved in the production and curation of what are termed ‘Cultural Properties’. We hope you will join us then! Other commemorative events on the day include an online commemoration held by the Fukushima Prefectural Association in the UK (11 March 14:30 GMT) and a musical memorial by Naomi Suzuki (11 March 12:00 GMT)
As always, we would love to hear your thoughts. Chime in through the comments section below or get a conversation going on the MAIJS Forum.
“stand tall japan2” by danielsakae is licensed under CC BY 2.0
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