In post-tsunami Japan, Princeton students find hope, despair, and many questions

The ruined remains of a guesthouse and bayfront walkway in Kamaishi, Japan, 16 months after the March 2011 earthquake and ­tsunami that devastated the country’s northeastern coast.
The ruined remains of a guesthouse and bayfront walkway in Kamaishi, Japan, 16 months after the March 2011 earthquake and ­tsunami that devastated the country’s northeastern coast.
PHOTO: W. RAYMOND OLLWERTHER ’71

On a hot July afternoon, Princeton students wearing protective rubber boots, gloves, and paper masks make their way carefully through a broad clearing bounded by hills and tall pine trees about 275 miles north of Tokyo. 

Before the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan’s northeastern coast March 11, 2011, there were dozens of homes in this clearing near Otsuchi Bay, one of four bays of the city of Kamaishi. Now all that remain are concrete foundations overgrown by tall weeds and pockets of wildflowers. Across the road, the gutted ruins of a three-story bayfront guesthouse tilt into a pool of water. Much debris has been removed, but the students are taking part in volunteer efforts to look for personal effects that still might be ­recovered.

“This place is a battlefield,” says a white-goateed man wearing an orange jumpsuit who introduces himself as Monjii. “Seventeen people died where we are right now, and two are still missing. Be aware.” A volunteer himself, he oversees groups who come to lend a hand, and he wants them to know that this is sacred ground.

Princeton students search for personal effects among the foundations of homes swept away by the tsunami near Otsuchi Bay in Kamaishi.
Princeton students search for personal effects among the foundations of homes swept away by the tsunami near Otsuchi Bay in Kamaishi.
PHOTO: W. RAYMOND OLLWERTHER ’71

Jessica McLemore ’15 spots a folding chair jammed between a low stone wall and a tree, and pulls it out — it looks like it belongs in a kitchen. “I was reminded that the area I was standing in used to be someone’s home,” she says. 

Sophie Moskop ’13 spots a water-damaged comic book, and thinks: “Oh God, that was a kid’s.” She is struck by how much was lost in the disaster. “We got a very real sense of what Kamaishi is. A sense of loss — not just houses and material objects, but a sense of place.”

The students are among 14 participants in a Princeton global seminar titled “Hope as the New Normal: Tokyo after the Disaster.” For the first half of the six-week course, the students attend sessions at the University of Tokyo, with daily language instruction preceding discussion of lectures and readings on the issues facing post-tsunami Japan.

But the seminar comes to life during a five-day visit to Tohoku, the region that includes the northeastern coast of Japan that was devastated by the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. It is here that the students come face to face with the hope, resilience, and despair of those who survived the disasters — and those who dream of a onetime opportunity to revitalize a part of Japan that was in decline long before the disasters hit. 

Leading the seminar is David Leheny, a Princeton professor of East Asian studies. Leheny led the global seminar in Hanoi in previous years, but he has a special feeling for Japan: He has spent eight years in the country, written two books and edited a third on Japanese politics, and says he knows Tokyo “better than any large American city.” Leheny was reading a book in a Tokyo coffeehouse when the March 11 earthquake struck, and in the aftermath he worked as a volunteer in Tohoku cleanup efforts. Students praise him as brilliant and funny (a longtime colleague, Professor Mark Beissinger, says Leheny could have had a career in standup comedy), as well as for taking them to a karaoke bar and joining in a duet with McLemore. He is a leading scholar in contemporary Japanese culture and politics, and delights in sprinkling his lectures with pop-culture references — he is teaching a freshman seminar this fall called “Bad A$$ Asians: Crime, Vice, and Morality in East Asia.”

During the course, students hear from national politicians, local officials, relief workers, and scholars on the ­questions confronting Japan today: caring for an aging society; loss of trust in government; questions of what the government can afford to do when faced with a staggering national debt. Inter­twined with these is the ­question of nuclear power’s role in Japan’s future. And perhaps the biggest question of all: Can the country come together once more to meet the challenges of March 11?

Professor David Leheny describes the “Kamaishi ­miracle,” in which students at the school in the ­background were saved.
Professor David Leheny describes the “Kamaishi ­miracle,” in which students at the school in the ­background were saved.
PHOTO: W. RAYMOND OLLWERTHER ’71

The seminar — funded by an endowment from Mr. and Mrs. Henry Wendt ’55 and a gift from Michael Lerch ’93 — has attracted students from a variety of backgrounds. Ken Jean-Baptiste ’15 is a molecular biology major who first learned Japanese while watching anime — Japanese film and TV animation. Vincent Castaneda ’14 is a computer science major who hopes for a social-gaming job in Japan after graduating. Juliette Levine ’15 became fascinated by Japanese culture when she took a fifth-grade Japanese language class in England. Sophie Moskop, the class’s only rising senior, is a politics major who had thought she would never see a natural disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina — where her aunt’s home was uprooted from its foundation — until she arrived in northern Japan. 

The Great East Japan Earthquake, as the March 11 events are referred to officially, left more than 19,000 dead and missing and more than 6,000 injured. More than 100,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed; some towns simply disappeared. If the numbers seem too big to comprehend, three stops in Tohoku — the cities of Kamaishi and Ishinomaki, and the smaller town of Onagawa — bring the tragedy home to the students. 

They get a sense of the special role that the region plays in present-day Japan — Leheny explains that Tohoku is often understood as the heart of “old Japan”. Agriculture and fishing are economic mainstays. But the students also see evidence of the region’s sharp decline before the tsunami. In Kamaishi, local officials describe how the city’s population plummeted from 90,000 to less than 40,000 in five decades as the steel plant, long the major employer, shed all but a few hundred of the 8,000 jobs once provided there. Mirroring many other towns in Tohoku, Kamaishi has been losing its young people to the cities, while the population that remains gets older.

The region’s economic woes provide a grim backdrop to the raw reality that the students experience. Onagawa was a town of about 10,000 people, stretching inland about three miles along a narrow valley bounded by steep hills. It was known for its fish-processing plants and a small nuclear plant that, while closer to the epicenter of the offshore earthquake than the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, was largely undamaged by it. Now Onagawa is known for what is missing: Much of the town was wiped off the map by the tsunami. The earthquake and tsunami took 595 lives here; another 340 people are missing. More than 3,200 homes and other structures were damaged or destroyed. What was once the thriving town center near the inlet is a vast field of gray gravel and small pieces of ­concrete. 

The bus carrying the Princeton students stops to take in an eerie sight: a small three-story building that was pushed off its foundation and onto its side, its steelwork mangled by the force of the tsunami. Though countless ruined structures have been cleared away, this one remains as a kind of stark memorial. The students gaze quietly at the building, then walk over to a small grouping of flowers in memory of 12 bank workers who died at the site.

Global Seminar participants gather with residents, local officials, and relief workers at a temporary housing complex for elderly evacuees in Onagawa.
Global Seminar participants gather with residents, local officials, and relief workers at a temporary housing complex for elderly evacuees in Onagawa.
PHOTO: W. RAYMOND OLLWERTHER ’71

To accommodate residents who lost their homes, the government built nearly 53,000 temporary housing units across the region. Onagawa alone has more than 1,300 units in 30 complexes, and the students are on their way to visit a group of elderly residents who live in temporary housing. 

The road winds past long mounds of debris that follow both sides of the road. The piles of trash are found throughout Tohoku — the disaster created an estimated 25 million tons of refuse. About 15 feet high and hundreds of yards long, these somber man-made hills are a constant reminder of the scale of the destruction. The neat piles are in stark contrast to Leheny’s visits to the region in the weeks following the disaster: “It feels empty and it’s clear that something terrible happened, but the big difference is that you are not confronted with the shell shock of complete disorder and devastation. It was just overwhelming,” he says. 

After rounding a couple of broad curves as the road rises, the bus turns left into a clearing that houses the Shinden and Shimizu housing complexes — about 230 apartments made from converted shipping containers with white exteriors, gray roofs, and windows shaded by small overhangs, arranged in neat rows. Close by, a portion of a gravel field strewn with rocks has been turned into a small oasis: The seniors are cultivating a thriving garden, with a bamboo framework supporting climbing vines. The Princeton students lend a hand — some dig rocks from the next portion of the field to be cultivated and cart them away by wheelbarrow, while others help plant rows of flowers.

Working with elderly evacuees is a priority of the Association for Aid and Relief in Japan (AAR Japan), which organized the students’ visit; one of the nonprofit’s projects is called The Heart-Warming Flower-Delivery Campaign, which encourages residents of other parts of Japan to donate flowers, purchased from local shops in the hard-hit areas, with a personal message to Tohoku residents. “I hope these flowers will bring peace to your heart,” says one message. “Be strong. We always will be watching over you,” reads another. “Please be happy” is the simple message of a third. 

The students and residents sit down together for lunch on a large tarp spread over a gravel parking area; the residents share fresh produce from their garden. Before the students leave, they sing “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Lean on Me” — songs with uplifting lyrics that they had performed a day ­earlier at a senior day-care center in Ishinomaki. While the residents of the complex may not understand much English, their smiles and occasional handclaps convey their pleasure. After the songs, they offer each student a handmade gift — a wooden back-scratcher, created as part of a project to get residents out of their apartments to work ­together. 

Tohoku has a higher percentage of elderly residents than the rest of Japan, but the aging issue faces the country as a whole. Japan’s population began falling in 2004; studies show that it is getting older more quickly than any other nation. A recent report estimates that the current population of about 128 million will drop to about 87 million by 2060, and nearly 40 percent will be 65 or older — changes that would bring major economic and social consequences. 

Kamaishi officials hope to reverse the downward spiral by remaking their city as “an environmental city of the future, where people live in harmony with the natural environment.” The students meet with officials on the top floor of a downtown office building; 20 percent of the city center was inundated by the tsunami, and among the buildings that survived are a mix of weed-strewn lots where buildings have been removed, scaffold-covered buildings under repair, and ruined structures being dismantled by workers. 

The city officials are pushing energy self-sufficiency and technology that would help the elderly remain in their homes, but also have hopes for a new shopping mall and a new stadium. Leheny later helps put the plans in perspective: The three areas visited by the students have received government support, and that’s likely to continue. But small towns in the region — that are harder to reach, and with worse infrastructure — may not be rebuilt substantially, and their residents may be encouraged to move to larger areas. 

After Kamaishi’s mile-long breakwater, completed in 2008 at a cost of $1.5 billion, broke apart in the tsunami, the national government quickly announced that it would commit as much as $650 million to its rebuilding. But for many other towns seeking funds, the result has been frustration. 

“Everyone here has hope, and is doing their best to move forward,” an Onagawa city councilman tells the students, “but it will take time.” Asked about conditions in the temporary housing, he responds with the term gaman: perseverance. The students ask if local officials generally are happy with the support they have received. He replies firmly: “Not satisfied.” But he adds that he understands the magnitude of the tasks ahead and the needs of other communities.

Inn owner Akiko Iwasaki describes her plans to replace a ­tsunami evacuation path with a broad stairway for outdoor performances.
Inn owner Akiko Iwasaki describes her plans to replace a ­tsunami evacuation path with a broad stairway for outdoor performances.
PHOTO: W. RAYMOND OLLWERTHER ’71
“Tell the future generations that a Tsunami once reached this point,” says a memorial stone near Otsuchi Bay, “and that those who survived were those who ran.”
“Tell the future generations that a Tsunami once reached this point,” says a memorial stone near Otsuchi Bay, “and that those who survived were those who ran.”
PHOTO: W. RAYMOND OLLWERTHER ’71

“The forests are embracing a wounded ocean.” Akiko Iwasaki is talking to the students in front of her Houraikan inn in Kamaishi, where the students are spending two nights. The inn, just a few hundred feet from the edge of Otsuchi Bay, is an evacuation center in case of a tsunami alert; Iwasaki’s message is that natural disasters will come from the ocean, and that the people of Tohoku must accept and embrace them as part of their environment.

On March 11, Iwasaki had climbed with other evacuees to safety up the hillside behind the inn, but she came back down when she saw neighbors below. A brief video taken by the manager of the inn with his cell phone shows the frightening scene that followed. The water from the bay suddenly appears on the road in front of the inn; there are screams; cars and a bus are swept up by the surge of water and slammed against the hillside. The images become chaotic as the phone’s owner runs for his life. Iwasaki was swallowed by the rush of water, but found an air pocket under a capsized boat and was pulled to safety by neighbors.

The tsunami heavily damaged the first two floors of the four-story hotel, which reopened in January after a complete renovation. The Houraikan is a traditional Japanese inn: Students leave their street shoes by the door and wear slippers throughout the inn, sleep on bedding on the floor, and dress for dinner in casual summer kimonos called yukata. 

Kneeling on a concrete platform in front of the hotel, Iwasaki tells the students that before the tsunami, there were 64 homes and other structures in the area around the hotel. All but a single store washed away.

Why, then, remain and rebuild? Iwasaki speaks of a deep connection with the region and its people. “Our ancestors living on the land, a life energy in this land — all that supported us after the disaster. So it’s very important to stay there. Even though the disaster took so many lives, it’s not just death, but a rebirthing,” she says. Those who live in Tohoku are part of nature, and nature is part of them. “We have to live on; we will live on. Disasters are inevitable.” Her message resonates with the students.

Iwasaki sees the recovery efforts as a way to create opportunities for the next generation. She holds up a rendering of her dream project: to replace the narrow pathway used as an evacuation route behind the hotel with a broad stairway that could be used for concerts and children’s performances. “Because so many houses washed away,” she says, “we wanted to make this a place where people could come to pray, to relax their souls.” 

Nestled in the sand among the tall pines in front of the Houraikan inn, a few yards from the seawall that rises up from the edge of the bay, is a tall black stone monument carved in both Japanese and English. The following is inscribed: 

Memorial Stone of the Tsunami

Just run! Run uphill!
Don’t worry about the others. Save yourself first.
And tell the future generations
that a Tsunami once reached this point.
And that those who survived were those who ran. Uphill.
So run! Run uphill!

The message at first reading seems cold and self-centered, and the students debate its meaning. One says that in the wake of the failure of Kamaishi’s sea wall, it’s a warning not to be so confident in technological and safety mechanisms. So the message is not so much to be selfish, but rather to do something to actively protect yourself. Another student offers two interpretations: Don’t rely on others; and don’t be a burden on others. A third student reads the inscription as similar to the message that airline passengers hear at the beginning of every flight: In case of emergency, put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. It means save yourself first, she suggests, or you can’t help anyone else. 

The original Japanese on the monument is more caring than the English translation, Leheny says: “Take care of yourself; it’s coming — run away.” He says the term tendenko (save yourself) was applied to tsunamis after a major tsunami 400 years ago; it still is emphasized because in each tsunami, people die because they try to save others or don’t get out fast enough. Confirmation of this is seen in the March 11 “Kamaishi miracle.” After hearing the tsunami alert, students at the junior high school just up the road from the Houraikan convinced elementary schoolchildren not to wait for their parents near the school but to climb up the nearby hillside. The school was destroyed, but all the children were saved.

A brightly painted sign in a heavily damaged area reads, “Let’s do our best – we can do it, Ishinomaki!”
A brightly painted sign in a heavily damaged area reads, “Let’s do our best – we can do it, Ishinomaki!”
PHOTO: W. RAYMOND OLLWERTHER ’71

During the first week of the seminar, the Japanese government announces that it has approved the restarting of two nuclear power plants for the first time since all of the country’s 50 operating plants were shut down in the wake of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi disaster. Two weeks later, in the third-floor classroom of the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, a Princeton student wants to know what a spokesman in the prime minister’s office has to say about the Japanese people’s lost trust in government.

The core issue relating to the government, says Noriyuki Shikata, the deputy cabinet secretary for public affairs, “relates to the issue of lack of transparency and lack of accountability.” Many Japanese people are concerned about radiation issues, he says: “We have gone through Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Food safety is a particular concern, he says. The “very difficult” decision to restart two reactors was made by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda himself, Shikata says, and there is the risk of blackouts without bringing nuclear reactors back online. He admits that the question is divisive. 

The government is considering three options for nuclear power by 2030: providing 20 to 25 percent of the country’s energy needs; 15 percent; or a complete phase-out of all nuclear plants. National polls have shown that a majority of Japanese oppose a return to full use of the reactors.

Well-known for his anti-nuclear stance is Kono Taro, a member of Parliament who speaks with the students over dinner. Kono opposes a rush to restart nuclear plants before thorough safety checks are completed, and advocates getting rid of all nuclear energy by 2030 and replacing it with renewable energy sources. 

During the seminar’s final week, anti-nuclear protestors organize the largest demonstration in Japan since 1960 — estimates of the turnout range from 75,000 to 170,000. The protest spotlights the debate over Japan’s energy future and raises the question of whether dissatisfaction with the government’s response to the events of March 11 will bring a resurgence in civic activism, an area in which Japan has trailed other industrial nations. “The big anti-nuclear demonstration in Tokyo was an impressive showing of public discontent,” says Ken Jean-Baptiste. “The question is, will this last?”

For Asumi Shibata ’14, the seminar has a strong personal dimension. Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a Chinese father, she moved with her family to the United States when she was 4, but Japanese was spoken at home. On March 11 she watched the Japanese newscasts, hearing the alerts in real time, and saw the videos of huge waves rolling across the land. “I felt like I was watching the country disappear,” she says. “I hated the feeling of helplessness.” 

Many Americans were familiar with the Japanese legend of the thousand cranes: If you fold a thousand origami cranes, you will have a wish granted. Shibata, vice president of Princeton’s Japanese Student Association, launched an effort to collect one million paper cranes from across America as a show of support for the people of Japan. 

Princeton alone created more than 20,000 cranes. When cranes from all locations were counted, the total was more than 250,000. Classes had ended; the cranes were sent to a festival in Sendai, the largest city in Tohoku, and then distributed to local homes and businesses. “In the end, if it makes one person smile, it’s worth it,” Shibata says.

While she returns to visit with family in Japan each summer, Shibata never has been to the Tohoku region before participating in the Princeton seminar. Because of her fluency in Japanese, she acts as translator several times for residents who talk with the students. “I can’t hope to understand what these people have gone through,” she says. “It’s not over at all.” 

Especially moving, she says, is a conversation she had with the owner of a small shop that sells fried noodles and ice cream in downtown Kamaishi. Before March 11, the woman had planned a trip for her daughter to the United States, but after the family lost their home in the tsunami, that plan seemed out of reach. Now, the woman told Shibata, her daughter’s trip has been scheduled. “I was really moved by how they overcame everything and were continuing to move toward the dreams they had prior to the disaster,” she says. 

Noting her parents’ heritage, Shibata says she likes to say “I’m a mix of everything, and proud of that.” But the seminar has helped to reinforce her feeling that “if I had to identify one, I would say definitely Japanese. It’s a huge part of me.”

Is hope the “new normal” in Japan, as the seminar title suggests? “With hope comes struggle,” says Jean-Baptiste, adding that the course is “not a fairy tale of a country experiencing its happily-ever-after.” Vu Chau ’15 finds that “Japan as a nation is willing and has the ability to overcome any disaster.” Moskop says that she sensed disappointment “from a lot of people who are too tired, or too old, to be hopeful.” 

But Shibata says “endurance” might be a better word. 

For McLemore, the people of Tohoku give meaning to the seminar’s title: “In situations like these, hope becomes the new normal. It’s all that most victims have, and it sustains,” she says. “Believing that getting through the present will lead to an ultimately better future became the norm; it gave people courage, determination, and a purpose.”

University of Tokyo professor Jin Sato cautions the students that there is a great diversity of experience among Tohoku’s residents. Visitors tend to meet people who have hope, who want to talk about their future plans, he says, but he describes a Japanese word, karagenki, for someone who puts on a brave face.

Leheny is working on a book that deals with Japan’s use of emotion in national political rhetoric. In the wake of March 11, he is analyzing the “contested and troubled efforts to construct the disaster as a national rather than a local one.” One example of this was the banners and signs that sprang up across Japan reading “Ganbarou! Nippon” — which means roughly “Let’s do our best — we can do it!” and uses the more nationalistic term for the country of Japan. 

But soon it became clear that certain needs could not be met, Leheny says. “The frustrations of the people in the disaster zone were going to start to turn against the other people in the country for not helping enough,” he says. “That was going to make it harder to maintain this idea that we’re all in this together.”

The students see the changing attitude in Tohoku as their bus passes a large sign, painted in bright blue and black characters, that stands among concrete foundations and sprouting weeds not far from the water. In the distance behind the sign are long rows of debris, waiting for disposal. The sign says: “Ganbarou!” But the “we” that follows no longer is Nippon, but the name of the local community. The sign reads: “Ganbarou! Ishinomaki.” 

W. Raymond Ollwerther ’71 is PAW’s managing editor.