Friday Food For Thought: What is a ‘natural’ disaster?

Following the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, or ‘3/11’ as it is known colloquially, it is no wonder that the nature of natural disasters should be on our mind. The Centre for Japanese Studies and the Sainsbury Institute have already held webinars and lectures on the topic around 3/11, but this week I had a Beyond Japan recording with Dr Andrew Littlejohn of Leiden University exploring the idea of ‘disaster heritage’ (the episode will be out on 25th March). During the episode, the question was raised as to whether there could be such a thing as a ‘natural’ disaster given that it is precisely the human element that makes an otherwise ordinary natural phenomenon – landslide, earthquake, eruption, etc. – into a disaster.

According to Dr Littlejohn, the human element is extremely prevalent in the context of 3/11. In his article on ‘Dividing Worlds: Tsunamis, Seawalls, and Ontological Politics in Northeast Japan‘, he points to how, in the context of the postwar population and construction boom, people had begun to build and settle in areas low on the coastline which historically had been vulnerable to tsunamis. The development of coastal defences such as sea walls had created an illusion of security which saw people ignore the common sense of their predecessors, an illusion which was swiftly shattered by 3/11. As such, the branding of 3/11 as a ‘natural disaster’ removes the responsibility of human choices that led to such a tragic loss of life.

A curious aside which came from the recording was the comparison of disaster heritage of Fukushima with that of the A-bomb dome in Hiroshima. Many local residents had appealed for the heritagisation of ruins from the tsunami on the grounds that it was “our A-bomb dome”. It was alluded in the episode that this was in reference to the affective power of these sites of mass death – to some this was important for its commemorative power, for others its power to draw in tourists (we explored the power of affect in an earlier episode with Andrea De Antoni for those interested). In this sense, perhaps when it comes to heritagisation it is irrelevant whether a disaster can be called ‘natural’ or not; what matters is the affective power of the mass loss of life.

Do you think the tsunami ruins of Fukushima can be put in the same category as the A-bomb dome of Hiroshima? Do you believe that natural disasters must be kept distinctly separate from man-made disasters? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Image credits:

“高橋淳一Nippon Jin写真展-085” by gwai is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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