March is always a time for reflection in Tohoku, for the locals, of course, but also for visitors who come from around Japan and all over the world. Many of these visitors are people who first came as volunteers in the days after the tsunami; so an annual trip to Tohoku in March is something of a homecoming, a visit to catch up with local friends and share some fresh seafood together. Others might be making their first visit to the region, taking the opportunity to learn about what exactly what happened in 2011 and how the locals have worked to get back on their feet since then. This year marks eight years since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, and with each year that passes, it becomes easier to forget that such a disaster ever occurred.
For Japan, however, where natural disasters are an ever-present threat, and especially for the people of the Sanriku Coast, who have been attacked by tsunamis throughout their history, this time of year is a time, not only to remember the people who were lost, but also to reaffirm each other’s preparedness for future disasters.
This month, we were fortunate to have visits from student groups from Aceh (Indonesia) and the United States, the latter focused on learning about the immediate impacts of the tsunami, and the former working to tell the story of the disaster to a generation which never experienced it firsthand.
Aceh is the northernmost province of Sumatra, and it was the worst-affected region in the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and tsunami. The students pictured above were only children when the devastating tsunami struck their homeland.
As time passes, preserving the stories of the tsunami is an important issue in Aceh, as it is in Kesennuma. In the 2004 tsunami, an estimated 170,000 Acehnese lost their lives, the majority of whom had no knowledge that a tsunami would follow the earthquake. Making sure the story of the tsunami is passed on to the next generation is important for remaining prepared to react to future disasters.
Last week, we also had a visit from students from the University of Maryland, who are studying the impact of natural disasters, and learning about how communities bring themselves back to life after such a catastrophic event.
On their trip, the students visited Kesennuma’s Memorial Museum, which is the former site of Koyo High School, which was completely inundated by the 2011 tsunami.
Many of the students are in fields such as Public Policy and International Development, so there was a particular interest in understanding the response of the local and national governments in the wake of the disaster. When I asked one of the students about her thoughts on her experience in Tohoku, she said that while they had studied broadly about the impacts of the tsunami in their course, coming directly to the affected community added a human element to her understanding that she never got in the classroom.
Eight years since 3/11. With time, many of the deepest wounds from the disaster have started to heal. But perhaps now, before we start to forget the stories of that day, it’s important to think about how those experiences will be shared with future generations not only in Japan, but around the world as well.