Reports from Tohoku: Assessing Death, Dislocation, and Flight of the Victims
LATEST UPDATE 3.22 (Japan Time) -- The extent of the destruction caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan has shocked the world. An official report on the 20th listed over 8277 dead and 12722 missing -- a great majority in the hardest hit areas of northern Japan. The "dead" are the number of the bodies found by police and rescue workers. The "missing" are those reported missing by friends and family. With whole communities swallowed by the tsunami, there is a strong chance that many victims simply have no one left to report them missing. The situation for survivors in the quake-hit areas around the stricken Fukushima Daiichi atomic energy plant has been particularly dire as many have been unable to leave their homes.
While the nuclear crisis has tended to monopolize international attention, new information continues to flow from evacuation centers and isolated areas concerning the humanitarian crisis in the Tohoku region. This report brings together a variety of recent Japanese press accounts in order to give a broader picture of the issues facing those in the areas hardest hit by the quake and tsunami. According to Japanese government reports, 392,000 evacuees are housed in over 2200 locations as of the 19th. While numbers as high as 500,000 were reported in the international press in the days following the earthquake, this seems to have been an unconfirmed figure based on a Japanese government estimate of 500,000 homeless shortly after the quake.
Iwate and surrounding prefectures have been hit by snow and unseasonable below freezing temperatures, exacerbating the situation of many in both evacuation centers and homes that lack electric power. The horrifying death toll has led to difficulty in identifying and storing bodies. In major centers with intact infrastructure like Sendai, they are being kept for identification at gymnasiums. Because of a severe shortage of gasoline, city authorities there have began to run a free bus service so that bereaved families can identify loved ones. In harder hit areas of Miyagi, prefectural authorities have given permission for the burial of corpses (cremation is the norm in Japan) in order to prevent a public health crisis.
There are indications of leaps forward in the provision of supplies and infrastructure in towns that were devastated like Iwate's Rikuzen Takada. The assembly of temporary housing (there are plans to complete 300 units that could house 600-900 people in the immediate area and thousands more elsewhere in Iwate prefecture) began there on the 19th. The first units are expected to be completed by the end of March. This is likely to significantly relieve crowding in shelters in the medium term. Some have taken up residence in temples, shops and other locations and there are widespread assertions that local residents, even the elderly, are not waiting to be saved but proactively gathering provisions and firewood in areas without generators. There are also reports of intact kerosene stoves, very common in Japan, being used all over.
The over 100,000 troops who have been mobilized have thus far focused their efforts first on search and rescue and then on evacuation, but are now gearing up for accelerated delivery of food, fuel, and medicine. Large scale relief efforts are moving greater and greater amounts of material into the afflicted areas. Around midday on the 19th, a large Maritime Self Defense Force supply ship arrived in Sendai with essential supplies such as rations and kerosene. The US Navy has also delivered over 100,000 pounds of supplies.
Areas like Rikuzen Takada are described as "towns", but a history of recent amalgamation means that they encompass large areas that until recently included many distinct rural communities. Rikuzen Takada, for example, is an area of 232 square kilometers and while help has gotten to the most densely populated zones, small hamlets remain cut off because of destroyed roads and severed lines of communication. Hopeful messages have been coming from some cut off areas, however. Residents of an isolated area of the Ojika Peninsula in Miyagi, approximately 1200 in number, managed to get word to a passing Fisheries Agency supply ship that they are unhurt. This appeared in the press on the 19th. They have been supplied with food and kerosene.
Isolated groups are also putting up SOS signs and clearing areas for helicopter landing. Around Ishinomaki, survivors report that they had salvaged provisions and dealt with the cold by huddling together at night. Most of these areas are fishing villages. Developed survival skills are the norm. Some areas also have working boats, which have helped to improve the situation for many.
Far from centers of commerce in the best of times, most of the isolated areas are small fishing or farming communities. During the crisis, women have cooked for large groups while men collect firewood and gather supplies, as described here. Strong rural community ties are seeing many through the crisis. While there is no doubt a measure of media spin involved, stories of residents in cut off areas describing themselves as "one big family" in the face of crisis are numerous across the accounts of reporters who have made it to isolated areas.
While we can only speculate about the full picture at this point, some reports of dead and missing coming out of tiny hamlets are far lower than in larger centers. For example, 20 of 200 are reported dead or missing in tiny Todogasaki compared to over half of the population of Minami Sanriku's 17,000 people. Todogasaki, a hamlet about 30km from Miyako in Iwate, was hit hard. Even the primary school designated as an evacuation site was destroyed. Roads and bridges linking with Miyako were washed out. The tragic but still strikingly low toll, however, speaks to the strength of ties and corresponding speed of action in a place where literally everybody knows everybody. After an organized response to tragedy, the people there set up search parties to look for the missing and to gather provisions and necessary resources. When the road was reopened five days after the quake, kerosene for heating and other supplies began to make their way in. Nevertheless, as of the 18th, reports describe over 15,000 people cut off around the region, without electricity or transportation and presumably in dire need of basic supplies.
Priority has been placed on reaching isolated hospitals. An emergency medical rescue team from Osaka managed to move 100 patients from a hospital in Miyagi's Ishinomaki on the 18th. Stories from devastated hospitals like this one include accounts of patients dying in the immediate aftermath of the quake, but also of doctors and nurses working frantically to save lives.
The areas devastated on the 11th are also some of the most rapidly aging in Japan. The presence of large numbers of elderly, including bedridden survivors, has made rescue efforts all the more difficult. Near Fukushima, dialysis patients were moved out first, followed by a general effort to evacuate the oldest victims from quake hit areas. Unfortunately, because of limited resources, their families are unable to accompany them.
Offers to assist the displaced are coming from all over Japan. Ordinary people have offered rooms in their homes. But a critical problem in many cases is transportation. Okinawa has said that it can take tens of thousands, although this may be unrealistic, given the logistics. Kanagawa prefecture plans to take thousands and is currently preparing high school gymnasiums and other facilities as a temporary solution for housing refugees. Akita prefecture has already started taking people. Gunma prefecture is using local hotels as well as public facilities. Niigata is focusing on the relocation of dialysis patients from the Fukushima area. Thousands are being evacuated from Fukushima to Saitama. While we do not yet have a clear picture of the movement of people, an area as far off as Kumamoto in Kyushu is undergoing preparations to take 20 pregnant women and their families from the quake hit zone. Prefectures across quake-spared Western Japan are preparing to take tens of thousands of evacuees. Public housing, hotels, public facilities, gymnasiums, and stadiums are all being considered as short and long term solutions according to various reports.
Finally, there are indications that the supply situation across the entire region has improved. With fuel, basic provisions, and essential medicines arriving in major evacuation centers, efforts are being stepped up to complement them with vegetables as well as other daily items such as diapers and cold medicine. Reports of supplies being moved in continue to come from the most isolated areas.
UPDATE 1: 2:30 AM, March 21 (Japan) / 1:30 PM, March 20 (EST)
Food and other supplies are being sent from as far away as Oita, approximately 1000 kilometers to the south west of the quake hit region. Urgent repairs are going on at quake hit ports. Repairs to infrastructure will make it easier to land supplies. The Sankei Newspaper is reporting widespread repairs to roads and other infrastructure, making it far easier to get supplies into quake-hit zones.
The Sankei raises another problem, however: "People have been able to endure life in evacuation shelters because they are with people they know, people who speak the same way [a reference to the unique dialect of the quake hit areas as well as shared experience], their community." Moving them "willy nilly" to different parts of the country, the Sankei editors hold, could compound trauma, and they call on the government to carefully coordinate the coming nationwide movement of survivors.
These concerns can be contrasted with a more urgent tone earlier in the week when the Sankei reported bitter cold in shelters, even water freezing inside pipes in a shelter around Sendai.
Major papers reported the threat of an influenza outbreak on the 15th and 16th. The lack of follow-up reporting suggests that this has not taken place. Reports had several cases diagnosed as of the 15th in Iwate's Kamaishi, but patients were isolated and the outbreak appears to have been contained. Reports also suggest that masks are being widely distributed.
As the provision of necessary supplies to the north has improved, other important measures are being taken. The website of NHK is hosting a searchable database of all evacuees in Japanese and six other languages.
As of the 20th, thousands of residents of the area around the damaged Fukushima plant have been evacuated to Saitama, Tokyo, and Kanagawa (here, here, and here). Hundreds of local volunteers are assisting and evacuees are reporting far better food and general conditions.
Companies have donated over 2000 drums of heating oil to add to government supplies. This is currently being delivered to shelters and evacuation areas by the JSDF.
PR or a sign of stable supply? The Yomiuri reports that female JSDF troops are supplying women in cut off areas with hygiene products by helicopter.
UPDATE 2: 8:00 AM, March 21 (Japan) / 7:00 PM, March 20 (EST)
Tweets from the afflicted regions provide a different point of view from the mainstream press:
dj_azumi in Sendai: (around midnight on the 20th) Suggests that those who have chosen to stay in their homes rather than evacuate are not able to receive food or heating fuel as the shelters are being given priority.
clavius (Ichikawa Yuichi) currently in the disaster area: (evening of the 20th) Reports stories of robberies and at least one sexual assault in Ofunato. Also reports that Docomo cellular phone service has been restored over large areas.
According to Tokyo University scholar and feminist Ueno Chizuko's twitter (ueno_wan; evening of the 20th) she has received reports from doctors working in the quake-hit areas of deaths of elderly in shelters that do not appear to have been reported in the press yet. Ueno opened her account fewer than 12 hours ago and already has over 2000 followers.
Compiling the results of interviews on the evening of the 20th, the Yomiuri has put together a list of the items that evacuees most want. The list includes:
- Shoes (many arrived at shelters with shoes that were soaked through)
- Phones and satellite connections to arrange the movement of patients to other hospitals
- Help distributing the supplies that are arriving
- Gasoline or assistance in getting to areas where bodies are being kept for identification
- Dry ice to preserve bodies so that they can be properly cremated later
A Mainichi survey of the individuals in charge of evacuation sites in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima highlights persistent problems. Stress, nausea, and colds are prevalent. Toilets are unclean and evacuees lack changes of clothes and underwear. Diarrhea is also spreading while medicines of all types are in short supply. There are worries about food poisoning because of difficulty cleaning. While food is getting through, people at many shelters have only received hot food once every few days. There are reports of fights (no indication if these are verbal or physical) because of tight space and difficulty sleeping at some shelters.
The Tokyo Shimbun reports that in Miyagi, bodies that have not been identified are being buried for later identificaiton. Personal items will be kept seperately to facilitate the process. Miyagi authorities have over 5000 bodies, approximately 80% of which have not been identified. The newspaper has also run an interview with Takeuchi Naoto, Miyagi's chieft of police. He reports that approximately 1000 bodies are being recovered every day. He estimates the number of dead in Miyagi prefecture alone to be more than 15,000.
At the same time that this grim news appeared, however, the Nikkei (3.21) offered a detailed look at life in a primary school turned shelter in Miyagi's Higashi Matsushima. Electricity has been reconnected but not water. Food is described as poor. Despite this, however, evacuees have come together to make the best of their situation. Evacuees are divided by classroom (20-30 to a room) and have elected leaders as well as representatives in charge of distribution of food and cleaning. Older children have organized workshops to make toys for the younger. The evacuees are supported by volunteers from the surrounding area which was largely untouched by the tsunami. Across the region, conditions appear to vary dramatically between different shelters.
UPDATE 3: 9:00 PM, March 21 (Japan) / 8:00 AM, March 21 (EST)
According to the Nikkei on the evening of the 21st, Iwate prefectural authorities have announced that lines of contact and supply have been established with all isolated communities along the tsunami hit coast. Through last week, over 10,000 people in 194 locations were cut off. Most were supplied by helicopter and now all are reachable by road. In addition, nearly all areas of Miyagi, the hardest hit prefecture, have been reached. The Japan Press Network is reporting that with roads cleared or repaired, the biggest issue facing area residents is a lack of gasoline, making civilians reliant on JSDF support for food and other necessities. They also report, however, that the movement of fuel into the quake-hit region has accelerated considerably over the weekend, raising the possibility that many civilians will soon be able to move about on their own. In particular, repairs to ports, roads, and rail networks are making the large scale movement of fuel and other supplies much easier.
On the evening of the 21st the Yomiuri presented a full picture of the evacuation of Fukushima residents from the radiation danger zone. A total of 22,700 have been evacuated. 7800 are housed in 77 locations in Niigata, 3700 in 57 locations in Yamagata, 3600 in 36 locations in Saitama, and 3000 in 56 locations in Tochigi.
Reports from Otsuchi in Iwate in the Asahi on the 21st suggest a region-wide problem. Shelters are full and some refugees are forced to sleep in their cars. While they receive food at the shelter, one family of four reports huddling together under blankets in the night, only occasionally able to use the heater because of a lack of fuel. The paper also reports that during the Niigata quake of 2004, there were deaths due to blood clots (the same "Economy Class Syndrome" sometimes seen on airplanes) and warns that countermeasures are necessary.
On Twitter, hinoki123, a Juku manager from Osaka with over 20,000 followers, is launching a campaign to send picture books and manga as well as school supplies to children in shelters. Through the crisis, Twitter has not only been a source of alternative information, but a site of mobilization. Peace Boat has been using Twitter to call for volunteers. American Ambassador Roos (AmbassadorRoos) has announced on twitter that the Marine Toys for Tots foundation has already delivered 1500 toys to children in shelters.
UPDATE 4: 9:00 AM, March 22 (Japan) / 8:00 PM, March 21 (EST)
"Please contact me", "I'm okay", "I evacuated to a relative's house". The thousands of messages posted around Tohoku have been the only way that many victims were able to get word to loved ones. This has reminded many of similarly dramatic images of shelter walls covered with hastily written, often desparate appeals in the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe quake. The Manichi asks why, in 2011, cellular phones were not reliable in the emergency and reports that damage to infrastructure as well as an explosion of use immediately after the quake simply overwhelmed the three major carriers -- Docomo, AU, and Softbank. Service has now been restored over much of the region, but the Mainichi asks whether the rapid decline in the number of public telephones over the last decade -- from 730,600 in 2000 to only 283,000 in 2010 -- created a vulnerbility that added to confusion and heartache in the aftermath of the quake.
The medical team from Israel is describing an acute shotage of "ordinary" medicine for the common cold, flu, and fever. They report that most seriously ill or injured patients have been evacuated from the quake-hit region, but that new medical challenges -- such as staving off cold and flu in crowded and chilly shelters -- have yet to be adequately met. The Asahi also plays up how ordinary medical problems can become acute. Doctors report patients complaining of severe constipation because of poor food and stress, Dehydration and a lack of exercise are making this and other similar problems more serious for some.
Meanwhile, the Sankei is reporting that evacuees to less hard hit areas like Mito are enjoying their first baths in 10 days. A 62 year old salaryman describes it as "like coming back to life."
In an editorial, the Mainichi plays up just how much of the support in the north is not coming from centrally directed initiatives but rather prefectural and municipal governments and local organizations mobilizating all of Japan. They call, however, for central organization to make sure that the right aid goes to the right place -- especially in the provision of medicine and evacuation for emergency treatment.
Matthew Penney is an Assistant Professor of History at Concordia University, Montreal. He is a Japan Focus associate who researches contemporary Japanese cultural history.