Life inside Japan’s disaster shelters following the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima disaster has been revealed by the only researcher to stay alongside evacuees and survivors.

One of the important ways people tried to regain control over their lives after losing their houses was by cleaning both their own bodies and the environment.

Brigitte Steger

Cambridge academic Dr Brigitte Steger’s unique account of shelter life is chronicled in the just-published Japan Copes with Calamity, a collection of articles covering the rebuilding of the disaster area.

Staying in the worst-hit Tohoku region, she witnessed how the Japanese population coped in the aftermath of disaster. Her research focused on how people lived in the shelters months after the crisis, how they cooperated and when they refused to do so.

Dr Steger, an expert on Japanese society, spent almost a month in Yamada, a town where nearly 3,000 buildings were destroyed and 734 people died as the tsunami submerged the town. She stayed in the Ryushoji temple which narrowly escaped the tsunami and subsequent fires and became a shelter for 12-15 residents whose lives Dr Steger shared and recorded.

“The Japanese government response to rebuilding infrastructure has amazed the world, but the human side – how people cope with their losses and rebuild their lives – is equally remarkable,” said Steger. “Where the British might say ‘Keep calm and carry on’, the Japanese survivors’ motto was genuinely consensual: ‘We’re all in this together’. They tried to deal with the little tasks at hand.”

Dr Steger’s work involved recording the intricate patterns of daily life of the shelter inhabitants and their reactions to matters of cleanliness and hygiene, a central issue in avoiding epidemics and disease in large shelters.

She also examined gender roles, the division of labour, and the social hierarchies that emerge when a large number of people from diverse backgrounds suddenly share the same fate and are forced to share the same living spaces.

She said: “Dirty, barely useable toilets affected people’s sense of stability and shame. One of the important ways people tried to regain control over their lives after losing their houses was by cleaning both their own bodies and the environment – recreating social order and stability in overcrowded shelters lacking basic facilities like clean water and toilets.

“On the other hand, in the days immediately after the tsunami, people were surprisingly tolerant of body odour and unwashed clothes. This commonality of human experience created a sense of solidarity.”

One survivor, Yamamoto Tomi, 81, said: “At the beginning there were 180 people staying at the school’s sports hall. There was hardly any space to walk between people and it was very dusty. Many people were coming in from outside with their shoes on (culturally abhorrent in Japan). Nobody changed into slippers; everything became very dirty. We felt very uncomfortable with this and started cleaning.”

During her stays Dr Steger also visited other shelters, including the much larger shelter at Minami Elementary School, which was home to more than 100 evacuees. She recorded more than 30 in-depth interviews, each lasting between one and four hours, and held many informal conversations with people in the town as she accompanied a doctor on house calls.

“Most people suffered from a period of amnesia,” she said.  “Their memories of the first hours during or after the earthquake and tsunami were detailed – but they found their memories of the following days or even weeks had blurred or completely disappeared.

“They had a very unreliable sense of time and filled the gaps in their memories with stories they had heard from others or read in the newspaper. Such reactions are common in people who lived through similar trauma.”

It became quickly apparent to Dr Steger that traditional gender roles were re-emphasised, even in the setting of a disaster shelter - particularly in the family-like household of the temple shelter where it was taken for granted that women had the main responsibility for cooking and cleaning. Men did the jobs that required physical strength and were often group leaders; women only taking a leading role after men started returning to their jobs.

“Gender roles in rural north-eastern Japan were much more clearly divided than in the urban areas, even before the disaster,” added Dr Steger. “Yet after the tsunami, gender relations and social structures reverted to older and deeper-rooted patterns. Far more women than men lost their jobs after 3/11 and found it harder to re-enter employment. Without jobs, women were automatically expected to bear the brunt of household responsibilities, unpaid, including care of children and the elderly – as well as cooking and cleaning.”

Communal living, though, did provide for some unusual techniques to combat the scourge of dirty toilets, a source of great discomfort for many living in the shelters, and a topic that came up frequently in interviews.

Shelter representative, Sato Katsumi, 61, came up with a unique strategy to solve the problem. “Nowadays we all use Western toilets at home but at the school there are no such toilets and the elderly don’t have enough muscle strength to squat so the toilets were really dirty,” he said. “I suggested to a former teacher who had taught sumo wrestling that we might introduce some squatting exercises. The old ladies were really into it; and with stronger thighs, they were able to use the toilets properly.”

One prominent event in survivors’ personal accounts was their first bath after the disaster. The Japanese are known for their love of a daily hot bath and first baths were remembered particularly clearly. It marked the transition from a state of helplessness and anxiety to familiarity; their lives beginning to return to normal.

“Re-establishing cleanliness and orderliness was a central way for evacuees to get a grip of life after the disaster,” added Dr Steger. “Practices demarcating the clean, safe interior from the dirty, dangerous exterior marked the shelter as an – albeit temporary – home. By cleaning their hands, taking off shoes, cleaning the toilets and the bath, and preventing contamination of food, people established clear standards for right and wrong behaviour.”

With increasing levels of cleanliness, social distinctions within the shelter became more pronounced. The sense of solidarity that marked the first phase of life in the shelter began to fade. Many evacuees felt an increasing need to have partitions and eagerly anticipated the move into temporary housing.

Dr Steger’s account sits alongside other chapters by researchers who looked at topics such as the rebuilding of the fishing industry, religious and spiritual continuity as well as how locals in Fukushima struggled with the risk of nuclear contamination and the loss of jobs and communities. There are also discussions of the differences between the reporting of national and international media, the rise of various civil movements and the moral dilemma of survivors receiving aid and support.

The book Japan Copes with Calamity: Ethnographies from the tsunami and nuclear disasters of March 2011 will be launched on November 20 at the Japan Foundation office in London.


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