Some three years after the disaster, there was an increasing number of opportunities to be asked whether the Japanese society had really ended up changing as a result of the Great East Japan Earthquake. It was almost a rhetorical question at that point—a way of underlining the fact that nothing had changed at all. Of course, there is no way that Japanese society would change on a national level, given that true civic-mindedness had already begun eroding before March 11. This was the only way it could logically play out. This situation is what allowed the decisions of people and groups seizing political hegemony rather than the greatest good to alter systems by applying a tremendous amount of leverage unheard of during the Showa years. This was also logically inevitable. Meanwhile, the victims of Tohoku fade into deeper obscurity amidst the confusion.
On the other hand, if we look within the scope of Tohoku and the Sanriku coast, we see that the Great East Japan Earthquake has altered the principles by which local communities are organized. Outside resources from individuals, networks, companies, and more poured into the region on an unprecedented scale, bringing in all kinds of new elements that inspired new comparisons and led the people of Tohoku to objectively and empirically redraw their self-portrait. A part of Japan that had been ruled by seniority systems (pyramid community structures dominated by older men) and where “government dependence” was an oft-uttered phrase was now a place where young people, women, and outsiders were taking a prominent role. Many people from outside the community either relocated to Tohoku or at least moved the locus of their lives northward. With top talent from all kinds of fields moving in and out on a regular basis, some started to wonder if they were experiencing what it would have been like to live in bustling Nagasaki during the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate.
There has also been a marked increase in new businesses. Kesennuma Knitting (which sells hand-knitted luxury sweaters), GANBAARE (which offers canvas products), Tohoku Taberu Tsushin (a platform for promoting community-supported agriculture), and Kesennuma Regional Energy Development (an effort to make use of woody biomass derived from forest thinning) are just a few examples of the non-profit and for-profit organizations that have enjoyed national attention in the wake of the disaster. And though it is not, strictly speaking, a new business, longstanding Kesennuma seafood processor Abecho Shoten has developed new anchovy and other products under its recently established Mermaid brand, and is actively working to expand its sales channels. Company president Yasushiro Abe had the following to say to a group of Chuo University students on February 18 of last year: “Three months after the earthquake, TV Asahi did a live broadcast for their Hodo Station program with our ruined plant in the background. I talked with the newscaster, Ichiro Furutachi, for about two hours, and he said that people must have long been discontented with the way labor had been exploited in Tohoku. I had never once had that idea, but when I thought about it more, I realized that we were in a kind of subcontractor position ourselves. Even my mother had gone to Tokyo with a group seeking employment, and worked here. I figured we could succeed on our own if we really tapped into our knowledge and experience, so we don’t work with companies like Maruha or Nissui anymore. We’ve shifted direction to creating our own brand.” Another long-established company, Saikichi Shouten, carries a product called Namaribushi Rayu (a chili oil made with dried bonito), the brainchild of a group of Kesennuma high school students. The product has now been featured in various media outlets as an example of an entrepreneurial business model put into motion by high school students. We at Chuo University are also delighted to play a role in supporting the new seeds of hope that are sprouting up everywhere across Kesennuma. I have been appointed as an advisor for the Omose District City Planning Council in Kesennuma City, and the students of Chuo remain involved in all kinds of activities in Omose and beyond—helping teach students at elementary schools, bringing activities to temporary housing communities, looking for new resources in the region, editing community periodicals, and more.
Five years after the tragedy, Tohoku is experiencing firsthand the changes in civic-mindedness that are possible when young people take an objective look at themselves and make up their own minds to take action in the community. My hope is that students will pick up on the passion we have at the Chuo University Volunteer Center, and that it will eventually spread throughout Japan as leaders committed to the public good go out and rebuild our sense of public responsibility. Our commitment to providing logistical support for firsthand learning experiences in Tohoku continues to this day.