Case Study on the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, Fukushima: ‘How did underlying social, economic and political inequalities in the city shape the disaster and its aftermath?’
On 11 March 2011, Japan’s north-eastern Tohoku region was struck by an unprecedented magnitude 9.0 earthquake, which triggered a massive tsunami and a meltdown at the coastal Fukushima nuclear power plant (Cho 157; Geneva Association 65). Particularly in the region’s Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, this ‘compound disaster’ killed almost 16,000 and displaced hundreds of thousands of individuals (Hasegawa 5). Multiple studies have found that there was no significant correlation between gender and death rates in this event (hereon ‘3.11’; Koyama et al. 5). However, this paper argues that Japan’s underlying gender inequalities shaped the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami disaster and its aftermath. Focusing upon Tohoku, it analyses women’s experiences of the event through the lens of vulnerability thinking. Here, disaster vulnerability is defined as “the measure of the capacity to weather, resist or recover from the impacts of a hazard in the long term as well as the short term” (Mileti 106). The first section demonstrates how initiatives often failed to meet women’s needs, thus compromising their safety. The second section then examines the detrimental economic impacts women faced in the disaster’s aftermath. Finally, the third section presents women as actors despite gender disparities. Altogether, this paper aims to demonstrate the prominent role gender plays throughout a disaster, even in a highly developed nation such as Japan.
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Gender-based violence (GBV) towards women and girls increased significantly following 3.11, particularly concerning domestic violence (DV) (Sakurai 21; F. Saito 270; Zakour and Gillespie 25). This is not uncommon in both women’s everyday lives and in disaster situations. According to Japan’s Gender Equality Bureau (GEB), one in three women over the past 30 years had experienced DV at the hands of someone they knew (Yoshihama et al. 864). These incidences also increased significantly following Japan’s 1997 Hanshin Earthquake, where victims’ voices were suppressed by praises over their patience in light of their hardships as well as anti-feminist condemnations by some (F. Saito 270). Not much had improved by 2012, with a 64% increase in Fukushima alone regarding DV (Yoshihama et al. 866). Many of these cases had some level of warning long before the disaster, only growing in intensity and frequency during the recovery period (Yoshihama et al. 870).
Evacuation centres also did not provide refuge from GBV. Having partitions was a key issue for women, as they provided much-needed privacy to change clothes or breastfeed in an otherwise public area (Y. Saito 101). However, over 25% of shelters chose not to provide any, to encourage evacuees to ‘bond as one’ (Aoki 10; F. Saito 269; Y. Saito 102). As this compromised their safety, many women chose to stay at family or friends’ homes despite the risks of aftershocks (F. Saito 269). Furthermore, some shelter leaders themselves committed GBV, with one woman pressured into sexual relations to avoid being refused service and to protect her daughter from being attacked instead (Yoshihama et al. 871). Many cases also went unreported as women believed that their abusers would murder them and blame their disappearances on the tsunami (Yoshihama et al. 871). Considering that many had to live in shelters and other types of temporary housing for longer than two years, this had detrimental mental and physical impacts for women in the recovery period (Cho 168). A lack of women’s voices in the aftermath of 3.11 hence cornered many into situations where they suffered abuse, and is likely to continue in future disasters if not dealt with promptly.
Disaster governance failed to properly meet women’s needs, thereby risking their safety. The primary purpose of governance was to reduce the disaster’s impacts by managing actors, resources and information flows (Tierney 344; Week 3 lecture; Week 11 lecture). However, 3.11 exhibited the common failures of disaster governance with inefficient actors, little coordination between groups and a lack of knowledge about women’s distinct vulnerabilities (Week 11 lecture). The GEB worked to reduce vulnerabilities to some extent, particularly for women in Tohoku, creating a website with information about hotlines and health services provided by the central government (Ikeda 2; Yoshihama et al. 865). However, these efforts were not consistently implemented in affected areas due to the GEB’s lack of influence in a polycentric system (F. Saito 268). As such, many male evacuation centre leaders were able to prohibit women from circulating flyers about GBV, contending that it did not occur under their authority (F. Saito 270). Governance was therefore unsuccessful in creating an inclusive society that showed “due consideration for those persons unable or less able to speak up” (Gender Equality Bureau 18). This is largely attributable to Japan’s patriarchal system, which was largely overlooked due to its being so deeply-rooted in the nation’s culture (Bradshaw 43; Morrow 8). Considering how vulnerability reduction is the key alternative to mitigating natural hazards themselves, decision-makers’ incapabilities or refusal to properly protect women against GBV ultimately perpetuated or even exacerbated gender inequality in Japan.
Many women in Tohoku faced the double burden of social and economic marginalisation both before and after 3.11. Far before the disaster, Tohoku was already experiencing a diminishing economy due to its rapidly aging population and its younger demographics migrating out to cities such as Tokyo in search for work and opportunities (Hasegawa 5). Largely reliant upon agriculture and fishing industries, this region’s average income was 17% lower than that of Japan’s national average (Hasegawa 20; Hasunuma 4). Combined with the fact that women made up over half of the region’s agricultural workforce and almost one-fifth of those working in fisheries, a significant proportion of Tohoku’s female population was thus highly vulnerable even prior to many of their farms being destroyed (F. Saito 267). Adding to this, female farmers and fishers had little power over matters concerning disaster preparation for their industries, comprising only 5% of decision-making cooperatives in the region (F. Saito 267). Due to the patriarchal nature of Japan where men dominate women, this lack of representation resulted in women’s perspectives long being ignored or overlooked despite their equal contributions to the industry (F. Saito 267). This demonstrates the importance of either participating or having connections with those involved in decision-making, to prevent the over-prioritisation of the interests of dominant groups (Morrow 7). In this sense, female farmer’s intersectional positions between being women and their occupations demonstrated the multilayered nature of vulnerabilities.
Women working in the corporate sector also faced significant disadvantages based upon their gender. In the years leading up to 3.11, it had seemed that there was a ‘gender revolution’ taking place as the number of women working in career-track jobs increased from 11% to 17% between 2000-2008 (Nemoto 154). Despite this, most women were relegated to lower-level positions, that were the first to be cut out as firms deemed them less necessary for recovery (Morrow 4). This was once again due to traditional patriarchal view that women were not as ambitious as men, which largely emerged after World War II when women were pressured to become full-time housewives to supporting their breadwinner husbands (Hasunuma 4; Holdgrün and Holthus 5; Nemoto 155; Y. Saito 99). The women who prioritised work then had to sacrifice or delay these feminine roles to gain rapport with their male colleagues (Nemoto 157). By acting somewhat masculine, it was primarily these women who succeeded the most in networking or rising through the ranks of Japan’s corporate ladder (Nemoto 157). With a majority of women remaining in these lower and stereotypically female-dominated positions, the end of 2011 left 58.5% of women in the region unemployed (Y. Saito 104).
This system that allowed primarily women who emulated masculinity to succeed demonstrated that gender was one of the worst socioeconomic divides in Japan, which ultimately shaped 3.11’s aftermath. If one considers vulnerability as a loss of resilience on any scale, inequalities in the Japanese workforce therefore placed working women in a position where they had less of a capacity to endure the hardships involved in large-scale disaster events (Week 2 lecture). Heavily intertwined with the long-term and short-term socio-political processes, these vulnerabilities were therefore not direct consequences of solely the natural hazard (Fisher 904; Takeuchi and Shaw 2; Week 3 lecture; Week 4 lecture; Zakour and Gillespie 19). The wide economic disparities resulting from gender divides in Japan were therefore central to the outcomes of 3.11, extending far beyond the timeframe of the event itself.
Women as Actors
Many women who went through 3.11 did not perceive themselves as passive victims of the disaster, but rather actors working to rebuild their cities and communities (Cho 169; Hasunuma 5; Takeuchi and Shaw 44). Volunteering played a major role in this, with almost 935,000 people throughout Japan contributing through various means in response to the compound disaster (Cho 167). This was especially needed due to significant labour shortages as a combined consequence of the high mortality rates, aging population and the sheer scale of the disaster (Fujitani 39; Hasunuma 4; Sato 1225). As most of the paying jobs in the post-disaster climate were male oriented as they primarily focused upon cleaning debris and construction work to restore communities, this left women with limited opportunities to restore their livelihoods without external assistance (Cho 169; Gender Equality Bureau 17; Ikeda 2; Morrow 4; Saito 1, 101; Saito 2, 269). As gender roles were particularly relevant to the rural Tohoku region, women were thus expected to fulfil caregiving roles for both their families and their communities at large (Hasunuma 5; Morrow 9; Saito 2, 268; Yu 228). Most of this volunteer work involved cooking meals for all those living in evacuation centres, whilst the men who had enough time to also contribute were not expected to (F. Saito 269). This was an extension of the domestic work most were responsible even prior to 3.11, with wives completing 90% of chores regardless of whether they were equal breadwinners as their husbands (Bradshaw 43; Ganapati and Iuchi 420; North 33; Y. Saito 103). Women were therefore more likely to suffer from burnouts than men in the aftermath of the disaster, but continuously prioritised others over their own health (Fujitani 43; Holdgrün and Holthus 5).
This effectively helped bridge social capital between people as trust was built with people outside of women’s families or friendship circles, thereby helping to reduce vulnerabilities to a small but significant extent (Ganapati and Iuchi 419; Morrow 7; Week 1 lecture). This was not a new phenomenon: records remaining from the Great Hanshin Earthquake almost a century prior, in which women used their skills and knowledge to help support others in their community (Aoki 19). Women’s voluntary contributions should therefore not be overlooked in analyses of the recovery processes of 3.11, as they turned their “vulnerabilities into capabilities” (Ganapati and Iuchi 425). However, it should not be the sole means of recovery, as people only have control over a city’s dynamics to a certain level and it may result in governance negligence (Week 3 lecture; Week 10 lecture).
Despite these contributions, many women did not want to be seen as political activists (Hasunuma 5). Both Japan’s governmental system and wider society prefer a public that is not heavily engaged in political affairs, and thus deem women who publicly voice their political views as conducting inappropriate behaviour (Cho 169; Holdgrün and Holthus 6). Rather, women’s political participation in Japan is widely regarded as a “private luxury” (Hasunuma 2; Holdgrün and Holthus 6). Volunteering was therefore a means for women to contribute to disaster recovery in a way that did not create conflict with decision-makers, and was thus a strategy women used to help themselves and others recover from the devastation caused on 3.11 (Hasunuma 5). Though this lack of civic participation may be considered as keeping women from properly participating in democratic processes that alleviate their vulnerabilities, women’s cooperative involvement through caregiving nevertheless played a central role in the aftermath of the disaster.
3.11 exemplifies how disasters are not entirely natural processes, with Japan’s pre-existing social vulnerabilities effectively making it one of the costliest perturbations in the nation’s memory (Tierney 346). Gender in this case was a central socio-political divide throughout preparation, response and recovery processes, even despite Japan’s position as one of the world’s most developed countries. This paper has argued that the vulnerabilities which disadvantaged women in their daily lives were not properly acknowledged and acted upon prior to the earthquake and tsunami, and this was therefore exacerbated and even perpetuated in the aftermath. As Tohoku’s industries were largely based on agriculture and fishing, economic inequalities both rooted in Japan’s history and caused by the disaster itself impacted the women of the region more than men. Lacking resources and multiple failures in governance to effectively meet women’s needs then created a situation where they lacked safety, particularly regarding GBV. Contrastingly, women still navigated traditional gender norms to actively help their communities both prepare for and recover from the disaster through volunteering and leadership. These three aspects demonstrate the importance of women’s voices in reducing a natural disaster’s severity. Though 3.11 occurred almost a decade ago, understanding and reducing these vulnerabilities thus presents ways in which decision-makers and communities alike can work towards creating more disaster resilient cities.
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