After a couple of carefree days in Tokyo, today we headed to the Tohoku region which only one year ago was the site of the most powerful known earthquake to ever hit Japan.
The earthquake began at 2:46 PM on March 11, 2011, and was the first in a chain reaction of disasters that went on to affect this region. By 3:30 p.m. that same day, the tsunami came and tore across the land, taking with it all that stood in its path - buildings toppled, cars crushed and, sadly, many lives lost to the power of the ocean.
In the United States, much of the ensuing press coverage was dominated by the final event in the chain - the nuclear accidents at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Complex. Because the media had focused its coverage on the unfolding of the nuclear story, it was hard to get a sense of the impact of the tsunami on the many villages that dotted Japan’s coastline. Today, however, we saw the devestation with our own eyes.
Our first stop was at Ishinomaki Senshu University  where we were honored to meet with the President of the University, Dr. Takashi Sakata, as well as a few of their faculty, including Professor Koichi Ohtsu. We were additionally fortunate enough to be accompanied by our extraordinary tour guide, Mari Luong, who, as one of the thousands of volunteers that poured into the region to assist in the clean-up efforts, was able to provide us with a first-hand account of both the volunteer experience and the extent of the devastation.
Over the course of two hours, Dr. Sakata shared with us the story of the University and its vital role in the recovery effort in the days and months following the tsunami. This article , which quotes extensively from Dr. Sakata and others at the University, provides a good overview of what we learned there.
After a tasty, traditional Japanese lunch in town, we spent the afternoon touring throughout the area, passing through and/or stopping at one devastated area after another: Ayukawa (80% of houses destroyed), Onagawa  (nearly 10% of population dead and/or presumed dead) and Yagawa. Again, we were joined by a knowledgeable guide who could help us to understand and contextualize what we were seeing: Ted Koide from the Ishinomaki Disaster Recovery Assistance Council . Throughout the tour, we witnessed the duality of life over and over again - scenes of devastation and stories of loss coupled with those of recovery and hope. It was only after seeing the devestation through our own eyes, and hearing with our own ears, that could we truly begin to grasp the power of the tsunami, as well as the power of the human response left in its wake.
As a student of public policy, it was clear that amidst all of the destruction, there were lessons to be learned. A big theme that kept coming up was the level of logistical coordination required to successfully implement a relief and recovery effort. With thousands of volunteers and hundreds of NGOs pouring into the region, there had to be one body that was accountable and responsible for the coordination of activities to ensure that projects were appropriately prioritized and relief efforts were equitably distributed. This need is what led to the formation of the Ishinomaki Disaster Recovery Assistance Council, a “Super NGO” created to lead, coordinate and oversee the effort. And, as always, human nature itself needed to be accounted for. For example, how much assistance is enough to ensure people get back on their feet without breeding dependence? Given that many local residents resented their much-needed presence, what is the best way to minimize the impact of thousands of volunteers on a region? These questions remain largely unanswered for now, but are the subject of ongoing study by the faculty at Ishinomaki Senshu University. And, who better to ask and answer these questions than they, who were themselves victims and, more importantly, survivors of this tragic event.
- Courtney Martin, 1st year MPP