Tsunami erodes Japanese
'superiority' By Christopher
OTSUCHI, Japan - To propagate the
notion that Japanese are innately superior to less
wealthy Asian nations, many nationalists and
Japanophiles point to the tsunami disaster zone.
As terrible as it was on March 11, Japan's
National Police Agency has confirmed 20,889 people
as dead or missing (as of July 13) after the 9.0
magnitude quake and tsunami. That figure is about
one-tenth the estimated death toll of 220,000
across the Indian Ocean after an earthquake of
similar size off Sumatra, Indonesia on December
But many victims and observers
have strong reasons to question the official death
toll, Japan's disaster preparations, and the basic
assumptions behind the popular version of events
after 2:46 pm on March 11.
As horrific TV
images emerged on and after that day, many
observers noted that Japan,
the world's most quake-prone country, was at least
well-prepared for disasters. Many officials also
noted the 9.0 quake's relative lack of damage to
infrastructure proved that quake preparations made
after the Kobe earthquake in 1995 were working.
The problem, however, was that the
Japanese state was preparing for earthquakes, not
tsunamis, even though historians figure that at
least 195 tsunamis have hit Japan since 400 AD,
including three recent killers - off Akita in
1983, Okushiri near Hokkaido in 1993, and this
winter in Tohoku. Tsunamis devastated roughly the
same areas of Tohoku in 1896 and 1933, and many
times before as well.
On Sunday, officials
of the Cabinet Office revealed that at least 21
communities that had moved to higher grounds after
past disasters were once again swamped by tsunami
waves on March 11, which often reached 15 meters
in height and encroached several kilometers
Yoshiaki Kawata, a Kansai
University professor who heads the government's
Central Disaster Prevention Council, said most of
the relocated towns were only 10 meters above sea
level - too low for the massive waves of March 11,
according to Kyodo news.
A Kyodo News
survey in the weeks after the disaster also
revealed more than 100 cases where surging
seawaters wiped out government-designated
evacuation shelters, often packed with people who
believed official assurances that they would be
At one elementary school in
Higashi-Matsushima city in Miyagi prefecture,
school officials, who were following official
procedures instead of their instincts, marched
residents into a school gym - which was eventually
turned into a killing zone - instead of up a hill
behind the school. Many school officials made
similar decisions across the tsunami zone, with
Despite these reports,
most media in Japan are instead focusing instead
on the government's reaction to the nuclear
crisis. Many tsunami survivors, however, are
calling for public inquiries into what happened in
the tsunami zones.
In the hardest-hit town
of Otsuchi in Iwate prefecture, the numbers don't
add up. According to the last national census in
October 2010, Otsuchi, located in a narrow valley
between high mountains, had 15,277 residents. More
than three months after the disaster, local
officials in Otsuchi could only verify the
whereabouts of 6,466 survivors: 1,969 people in 34
shelters, and 4,497 staying in homes on higher
ground around the edges of the obliteration zone.
Does that mean almost 9,000 people, more
than half the town, died on March 11?
Officials say they aren't sure. They had
counted 771 dead bodies, enough to fill 14 pages
of a death list displayed at evacuation centers.
Survivors had also filled out forms to officially
report 952 people as missing.
about the other 7,000 people, neither listed as
dead, missing or living? "We don't know anything
about where these people are," said Manabu
Kikuchi, a local administrator from nearby
Kamaishi city who has come to Otsuchi to
temporarily work in the place of 31 officials who
died at their posts on March 11. "Maybe they went
away from here, to stay with families in Morioka
or perhaps Tokyo. Or maybe they are missing and
dead. We want to know where they are. We still
have to keep searching for them."
cases, he says, whole families were swept away,
leaving nobody to report them as missing. Japan
also has a high proportion of people, especially
seniors, who live alone without many friends or
Kikuchi says the national
police agency, which alone has the authority to
tabulate the official nationwide death toll, can
only report what they know for sure, rather than
making rough estimates. They are very precise, he
says. The death list in Otsuchi shows numbers for
recovered bodies identified and not identified,
due to disfiguration.
The tsunami was
highest in Iwate prefecture, completely
obliterating most of Otsuchi, Yamata,
Rikuzen-Takata and other towns. But Iwate's
official toll of 4,588 dead and 2,237 missing is
roughly half that of Miyagi province's toll,
according to the National Police Agency's website.
The site lists only 186 injured in Iwate, compared
with 3,777 in Miyagi - a glaring discrepancy.
Exhausted government officials, who lost
family members and co-workers in many cases, say
their initial priority has been to take care of
the living, rather than investigating the true
number of dead. Only a new nationwide census can
determine the final death toll, they say.
Local officials in Otsuchi, however, say
they would like to know exactly who is alive or
dead. They need this information to prepare a
voter's registration list in order to conduct an
election to replace the town's mayor and 31
officials who were killed in the town hall, a
two-storey building swamped by 15-meter high waves
on March 11.
"Perhaps a normal city hall
could count the numbers of dead and living," says
Susumu Fujiwara, 35, a soccer coach and high
school teacher of economics, politics and world
history. "In our case in Otsuchi, there's no data.
All the records were washed away, so we can't
The New York Times reported in May
that Otsuchi's chamber of commerce could only
contact 114 out of about 400 members. Japanese
journalists, and aid workers, arriving in Otsuchi
immediately after the tsunami, initially estimated
that perhaps 10,000 were dead or missing in
Otsuchi, and also in other devastated towns such
as Rikuzen-Takata and Minami-Sanriku. They based
their estimates on the relatively small numbers of
survivors in evacuation shelters, and the
obliteration of nearly every residential or
commercial building in densely-populated areas.
Takaaki Goto, 74, a city councilor in
Otsuchi and respected former geography teacher and
soccer coach, estimates the real figure may be
about three times the official toll.
"There are many people who had no
families, so nobody was left to report them as
missing," he says, sitting at a desk near his
space on the floor of a local gym. "There are also
families who were all swept away together, and
there's nobody left to report them as well."
He says it's possible that, as Kikuchi
suggests, some people left to stay with relatives,
and didn't tell the authorities where they are.
But he says it's also highly likely that many
people ignored warnings or couldn't escape in
time. "I think the government should tell us more
quickly the real story of what happened here."
Tokyo-based journalist Christopher
Johnson (www.globalite.posterous.com) is
author of Siamese Dreams and Kobe Blue
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