On June 10, 2019, I had the privilege of visiting the International Research Institute of Disaster Science (IRIDeS) at Tohoku University with the Disaster Prevention & Education Section of the Kahoku Shimpo. There, I met with Profs. Fumihiko Imamura (Tsunami Engineering), Sebastien Boret (Anthropology), and Akihiro Shibayama (Engineering). IRIDeS seeks to use natural disaster science to understand the circumstances around natural disasters and prevent future catastrophes. They do this through a wide variety of different lenses ranging from natural and earth sciences to psychiatry and psychology. During my talk, I received a furoshiki, a traditional Japanese wrapping cloth. However, it was not solely decorative; the furoshiki was also fireproof and contained examples of what to do in various natural disaster situations. I found that this gift encapsulated the kind of work that IRIDeS does in trying to prevent the loss of lives in disasters occurring again. They try to educate people with practical skills as well as raise awareness from an academic perspective.

I also had the opportunity of visiting the ruins of Sendai Castle on June 12. There, I learned about the castle’s long and fascinating history. Sendai Castle was originally constructed in 1600 for the lord Date Masamune, the first daimyo of the Sendai Domain. The castle sits on Mt. Aoba, to the west of the center of modern Sendai City. The castle was built during the last part of the Warring States period. According to my guide, Masamune chose the location of the castle to be on top of a mountain, as it is both easy to defend from enemies as well as attack them from the vantage point of the mountaintop. From the statue of Date Masamune, to the Gokoku Shrine, to the Aoba Castle museum, there are several beautiful and interesting spots on the premises of the castle. Sendai Castle was even named a National Historic Monument in 2003. Moreover, the Aoba Castle Park, containing the statue of Date Masamune, has an amazing view. From there, you can see the entirety of Sendai City, as well as the Hirose River.

Nonetheless, the castle has gone through several tragic events over its long history, starting with numerous fires in 1616 through 1710, the destruction of the keep in the Boshin War, followed by another fire in 1882 and bombings in 1945. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami would become yet another one of these disasters affecting the castle. While water from the tsunami did not reach the city center, tremors from the earthquake destabilized the walls of the castle, causing collapse in 11 places and as well as a landslide. Repairs on the walls began in 2012, but were not fully completed until 2013. Nearly 7000 stones had to be restacked to restore the walls. Moreover, when the stone from the walls fell, they destroyed the Sendai City Sendai Castle Route of the bus system, which was not reopened until 2015. I found the far reach of the damage caused by the disaster shocking. Despite this, as I toured the castle, I noticed that I that I could not discern any of the places where the damage had occurred.

While it took multiple years to rebuild Sendai Castle, in contrast, the rest of Sendai City was relatively quickly rebuilt, with most of the originally flooded and destroyed Sendai Airport and most of Sendai Station restored to functioning within 2 months of the tsunami.
Witnessing Sendai Castle, I felt almost as if it were a symbol of resilience, both historically and in modern times. While the original castle may be “ruined”, its popularity and beauty over the ages demonstrates the hard-working spirit of the people of the Tohoku region in the face of difficulties. No matter how many times the castle has destroyed, it survives. I can only imagine the horror the citizens of Sendai felt when they found their historical monument faced with destruction requiring years of repair. Considering that Sendai Castle is deeply intertwined with the city’s history, given its status as the castle of the city’s founder, I can only imagine how the prospect of losing it must have felt. For something you always thought would be there to just disappear.

However, while Sendai Castle was in a perilous position, it has been restored to its pre-disaster state. While it took a longer time to rebuild the castle than some other structures in the metropolitan area, it was ultimately rebuilt relatively quickly and did not sustain major damage. Unfortunately, other places have not been so lucky. Much of the damage from the disaster in the larger Tohoku region was not from the earthquake, but from the tsunami. Although reconstruction efforts in areas hit by the tsunami have made much progress in the last eight years, many places are still recovering from the disaster even today.
Therefore, to me, Sendai Castle stands both as a reminder of how far restoration efforts have come, as well as how much still needs to be done. Even to this day, many people still live in temporary housing or are otherwise displaced from their homes. While one might think from looking at the appearance of major cities like Sendai that recovery from the triple disaster is over, in many more rural areas, work still continues; for example, parts of the J?ban Line still remain closed in areas affected by the nuclear disaster and are not expected to open until 2020, and some locations in Fukushima are still barely inhabitable. Even then, looking solely at the infrastructural impact fails to take into account the unquantifiable psychological impacts on those affected. If one only looks at major city centers, recovery from the 2011 triple disaster would seem complete, but this underlies a truth that many people, especially internationally, can afford to forget.

Even with local United States disasters, natural or otherwise, things are reported on when they occur and then forgotten. The true scope of recovery from disasters is something most have trouble fathoming, and this is magnified when these disasters occur in foreign countries. This inclination, to my knowledge, arises out of the limits to human empathy. People have been shown to have trouble feeling empathy for large groups of other people. This has been termed the “collapse of compassion”. According to research by Cameron and Payne, the collapse of compassion seems to occur to eliminate feelings of obligation to help large groups of people. In other words, people unconsciously stop feeling as strongly towards the suffering of many because they cannot help all of those people.

However, I believe that through disseminating experiences of those whose lives are still being affected by the disaster to this day, it can be possible to make a change and overcome this phenomenon. After all, the first step to making meaningful change is to be aware of the problem, and research has shown that showing individual stories can help lessen the collapse of compassion. Sharing the stories and faces of individuals can induce emotional reactions in people who would otherwise not be moved to action by simple statistics. This goes especially for those outside Japan, who have no personal connection to the disaster.
I am hoping to go with the professors I have gotten the opportunity to meet to see the sites affected by the disasters and meet with people who are still coping with the destruction wrought eight years ago. I hope that through publicizing their stories that others will be able to connect and understand how real people’s lives have been changed such that they cannot just ignore what happened. If I can learn what they feel they need, perhaps I can do something to advocate for them. If nothing else, as a foreigner, I believe that bringing the knowledge I learn back with me to the United States will allow me to make a change in the awareness of the people around me.

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Hello! My name is Devon Gunter, and I am a rising senior (fourth-year student) at Harvard University studying psychology. This summer I will be working as an intern in the Disaster Prevention & Education Section of the Kahoku Shimpo.

I currently work as research assistant in a lab studying the psychology of moral decision making. In the past, I have also done research on altruism and general pro-social behavior. I am also a member and captain of the Harvard-Radcliffe Kendo Club. This is my second time in Japan; my first was during the Princeton in Ishikawa summer study abroad program in 2017.

While working at the Kahoku Shimpo, I hope to learn more about how the long-term psychological impacts of the 3/11 disaster and how communities were able to recover, how the disaster has been viewed over time, and as learn more about the link between language and psychology?how language affects the way we think.

I hope that this experience will allow me to take what I have learned to help communities in the United States suffering from natural disasters and other traumatic experiences.

In addition, as I have never been to the Tohoku region before, I am looking forward to learning more about the region’s unique culture and sharing it with others who may only know about more well-known places in Japan.