Tag Archives: demographics

Imagining the future

Even in a normal year, a lot of news can happen in 10 days.  Unfortunately for someone with intermittent internet connection, 2011 has been far from a normal year, so the last 10 days have seen almost too many events to process.  The US debt deal was cobbled together at the 11th hour, a flat-out Mubarak went on trial in Egypt and things took a further turn for the worst in the Horn of Africa as sensitivity-deficient columnist Liz Jones was sent to cover the disaster by the Daily Mail.

With the attention being constantly prodded in the manner of a TV remote control button by a bored viewer – Libya! America! Syria! Greece! Egypt! Britain! Somalia! – one country which doesn’t like to shout too loud might have slipped from your field of vision.  Yet help is still needed for those living in Japan’s 2,559 evacuation centres as the five-month anniversary of the earthquake approaches.  That their lives have been altered forever is beyond doubt, but how to make a new start remains unclear when the basics are lacking.  Temporary housing is slowly being built, but water supplies are contaminated and the economic future of many small towns is uncertain.  While survivors such as Jun Suzuki are hopeful that they can rebuild:

I wish I can stay in my hometown.  This is where I was born.

Such hopes may not be easily realised.  The affected areas of Japan were not in a position of strength even before the earthquake, as outlined by Christian Dimmer, an urban design specialist, in this article on Imagining an Alternative Future for Japan.    He notes that,

the Great East Japan Earthquake hit hundreds of kilometers of coastline in mostly rural regions with a population of nearly 7 million, 22% of whom were older than 65.

Even before the catastrophic events of March, many of the younger inhabitants of the area had left for jobs and study in Tokyo, leaving the traditional economic bases of agriculture and fishing diminished.  For some communities, rebuilding may prove an impossible task.  Many may never recover.  For others, the immediate need to provide temporary solutions may crowd out attempts to plan for long-term survival, as it is understandably impossible to try to imagine the future when you are living day-to-day.

Faced with such huge questions, alongside so much additional trauma being inflicted worldwide, it is easy to feel powerless.  However, an alternative view is that many of these problems are the result of a delegation of too much responsibility to politicians and vested interests.  If we are going to find a way around them it will take billions of small efforts, made by each one of us, to try to change our futures for the better.  This is something I want to give more consideration to on ten minutes hate soon, so please let me know what you think in the comments below.

In the meantime, you can also donate to projects like Quakebook, which are supporting the work of the Japanese Red Cross to assist those living in the disaster areas.   The DEC page for donations to East Africa is here.

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Rebuilding Japan under uncertainty

It is depressing but not surprising to learn from those back home that Japan has been largely ignored by the news recently, in favour of stories of footballers doing something somewhere to someone no-one can tell you anything about.

Meanwhile back in reality, as the clear up and relief efforts continue, others wonder what follows for the coastal regions of Tohoku and their vanished communities.  Architectural practice Bakoko this week considered the options for rebuilding available to the Japanese government, asking three critical questions:

  1. Rebuild on higher land at higher cost in a new location?
  2. Rebuild flood-proof buildings on existing plots?
  3. Rebuild as before and put faith in higher sea walls?

Returning to shoreline homes may seem inconceivable to many having seen the devastation inflicted on them on 11 March.  As Bakoku notes, if your life and that of preceding generations has been tied to the ocean, it may not be so simple to turn your back on the shore, even when the ocean has treated you so brutally.  Few people can live close to the sea for long without gaining respect for its power and love for its variability.  Those ties, coupled with the high cost of available land in Japan, are likely to mean that many will choose to return.

That being the case, the architects emphasise the importance of good evacuation procedures and drills.  Many people believed that they were safe on low-lying land because those areas had escaped previous tsunami damage.  Preventable deaths were also caused by a lack of wheelchair access at shelters.  In a country with so many elderly people, this seems little short of murder.  The son of the woman mentioned in the story is likely to have been in his 60s or 70s himself, faced with a terrible choice by the failure of the authorities to provide adequate facilities.

Rebuilding homes and workplaces is of prime importance, yet it will be useless without the regeneration of communities.  Education geared towards a better state of preparedness is also crucial.  It is my hope that in future situations such as this, which appeared in the Daily Yomiuri’s Troubleshooter column last week, can be avoided:

I tried to escape with my grandmother as the earthquake and tsunami hit our town. But at one point she sat down and said she couldn’t run anymore. I wanted to carry her, but she firmly refused, and angrily told me, “Go, go!”

I ran away alone, apologizing for leaving her. Three days later, her body was found some distance from where we had separated.

My heart goes out to all those who had such heartbreaking decisions to make, given brief moments to decide whether to run and save themselves or to stay and perish with their loved ones.  I have heard of and read so many similar stories since 11 March, yet their effects do not diminish.  Rebuilding efforts for towns and buildings must go hand-in-hand with care and support for the less-visible damage to the hearts and minds of the survivors, if it is to achieve anything at all worth having.

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