Japan’s struggle: Identity versus adversity

After the earthquake, families in Iwate prefecture are trying to plan their next move, and the choices aren’t easy.

Japanese officials are having a hard time calculating the death toll from the earthquake [GALLO/GETTY]

MORIOKA – Japan’s second-largest prefecture continues to take a disproportionate number of body-blows from the earthquake and tsunami that hit its coastlines on March 11.

Not only did it lose at least 2,650 – by last count – of its roughly 1.3 million population (with another 5,022 missing), local authorities in Iwate prefecture must now determine the level of aid needed and how to mobilise resources in one of the poorest and least densely-populated prefectures in Japan.

Kazuo Shimizu, spokesperson for Iwate’s office of government disaster response, told Al Jazeera that there are 387 shelters and evacuation centres in Iwate, where transporting water, food, powdered milk, gas, heating oil and gasoline has become the top challenge.

Even the gasoline needed to transport the goods has to be transported into the region now, on trains and ships, arriving daily through Aomori, north of Iwate – which makes for a tedious chain for coordinating the humanitarian response.

“We are giving priority to rescue vehicles and to the defense forces,” said Shimizu. Ultimately, the prefecture aims to provide temporary housing for those displaced by the recent events, and eventually, the national government will provide those who have lost their homes with money to purchase or build new ones, said Shimizu.

Death toll

There is a massive gap between the number of confirmed dead nation-wide (around 9,000) and projected dead (18,000) – and that is largely because of how those numbers are calculated here.

“The police, they collect the information on who is dead and they publish the information once a day. As far as who is missing, all they have are the reports from the families,” said Shimizu. This proves problematic, he concedes, in cases where entire families or communities are wiped out and there is no one left to file a report.
While Japanese law allows for someone to be legally considered dead after missing for seven years, in the post-tsunami situation, he said, the timeline would change to one year.

But for the time being, the prefectural registry – a local census of sorts – will not be used to determine who is missing or dead.

Officials and emergency coordinators are not the only ones making tough calls. People here are making the very difficult decision to leave what they know behind, at least temporarily, in hopes that they can return when things normalise.

One such family is the Okamoto family from Sendai, which was hard-hit by the earthquake and tsunami.

Ariyah Okamoto moved to Sendai from Miami five months ago to help look after his 83-year-old mother who he said is suffering from “a myriad” of health concerns.

“It’s getting towards the end,” he said of his mother’s failing health, adding that she wept during the earthquake and that she wished to be taken to the US to be buried next to her husband.

It became clear in the days immediately following the quake to Okamoto, a former music executive, and his older brother, Shemaiah, 52, who lives in Japan, that they need to get their mother out of Sendai.

“For three days, there was a total black-out, no water, no electricity, no nothing, only aftershocks, no phone –  just choppers in the air, sirens going on,” said Okamoto.

So the three, along with Shemaiah’s wife, mother-in-law and seven-year-old daughter packed into a car with three-quarters of a tank of petrol and hit the road. They wanted to go straight to Hanamki airport, but flights were sold out for four days.

They made it to Morioka and camped out at a budget hotel where the brothers tried to decide what to do next. At that moment, it was clear to them that the decision to leave would not be unanimous among their family, leaving the brothers – and thousands of families like them – at a crossroads: Making the crucial decision to split up or to stick together.

Bound by tradition

Many in the hardest-hit areas in the north are staying put, because in some cases, they feel that they are a safe distance from the worrisome nuclear plants – several times the 30 km evacuation zone recommended by the Japanese government and even the 80km recommended by the US.

That is one factor prohibiting movement for some. But there are others.

With 47 prefectures, Japan is an agrarian country in some respects. Shemaiah Okamoto, a language instructor, says that each prefecture is such a tight unit that it has its owns dialect, and that many small communities have been so self-contained for so long that it’s not unusual for someone from Aomori not be able to communicate with someone from Tokyo, the capital.

“It’s okay now,” said Ariyah, clearly uneasy with staying. “If there is a problem, 1 million people cannot leave [through] one window… you have to leave before something happens… I have seen this happen before,” he said, referring to the scenes he saw unfolding after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the US in 2005.

While some are leaving Japan temporarily, or at least going far north or west to stay with relatives, most will not take those options, toughing it out in the tradition of gaman – to endure.

Three hours away from the Okamotos, in a shelter in Miyako, Hiroko Tatehora, 45, sits on the floor with her two teenage children, a son, 19 and a daughter, 17. They are surrounded by a pile of clothes and random household items.

“Right now, we’re separating what we need from what we don’t need,” she said, referring to the heap of items donated to them by friends and family.

Tetahora’s home, 500m away from the shore, has been badly damaged by the tsunami and is not safe. Despite not knowing when she will be able to move into the temporary housing the prefecture will build for those who lost their homes – at least 10,000 units are on order – Tatehora is reluctant to leave the shelter.

Her family lives in the area, and her younger brother has a home inland, in Kitakami, where she knows she could stay.

Of course, she has other friends whose homes were not damaged and with whom she could stay.
But her daughter is still in school and, besides, she said she doesn’t “want to be a bother” to others.

“Also, they don’t have a lot of things themselves,” said Tatehora, which sounds rather remarkable, coming from someone who has been spending nights on the floor of a cold school gym.

“They’re running out of food themselves – they don’t have a lot of things.”

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Source: Al Jazeera