Two Years After the Great Eastern Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan

Takeshi Komino | March 11, 2013

CWS works with partner Peace Boat to support Japan's rehabilitation, including community regeneration in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, where local residents and volunteers celebrated the opening of the Temporary Shopping Avenue. Photo: Peace Boat

CWS works with partner Peace Boat to support Japan’s rehabilitation, including community regeneration in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, where local residents and volunteers celebrated the opening of the Temporary Shopping Avenue. Photo: Peace Boat

The past two years since the March 11 tsunami have both been a challenge as well as a blessing for the CWS team in Japan.  Back in March 2011, when our first team arrived to the affected areas in north-eastern Japan, all we could see were scattered mountains of debris in coastal cities. That made it hard to imagine that a recovery would actually begin.  Huge ships landed on top of apartment buildings; cars were piled on top of each other; most of the coastal areas of the cities became submerged as the ground sunk at the time of the earthquake.

When the earthquake and tsunami struck, it was one of the coldest times of the year. That made conditions at evacuation centers even more challenging.  And then on top of all of these considerable challenges, the destabilized nuclear power plant at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant added to an already horrible situation.

But from then on, the CWS team and our partners on the ground began providing emergency relief and recovery support for the survivors of this quadruple disaster in Japan.

Some of the things we are still working on are enhancing capacity of local communities to manage emergency programs in the future; protecting children from over-exposure to radiation; capturing lessons learned from Japan to communicate to the world; advocating for assistance to nuclear accident victims; enhancing the quality and accountability of aid operations by Japanese agencies; and helping with the evaluation among Japanese NGOs and taking those “learnings” to the wider world.

For myself, this disaster was one of the most complex and difficult I have had to navigate in my career as an aid worker.  It was the first time I had to respond to a disaster in my home country. Up until then, I had always been a foreigner on a disaster management team.

What did I learn? One of the hardest things being the local person in the disaster management mission is that you understand everything, including the misery and hopelessness people express in many different ways.  Of course, this is something our staff and colleagues do all the time, but it was something very difficult to understand unless you’ve done it yourself.

On a positive side, I could make our assistance strategy fully in line with local culture and context, which was definitely a positive aspect of being a local.

Even for a country like Japan, with top- notch technology and infrastructure, there is always a risk for unprecedented disaster.  Some of the risk reduction measures undertaken by Japan prior to the event, such as a tsunami protection wall and hazard maps, led to over-confidence among the coastal communities. That, in turn, led to a delay in evacuations, which obviously resulted in more casualties.

I pay a huge respect for those of you who kindly offered support towards relief and recovery for this disaster.  The support was timely, and it allowed much-needed assistance to be delivered for those who needed the most.

I would also like to pay respect for those heroes who sacrificed their lives for others during the initial days of that disaster.  There were those went to search and rescue the neighbors and family members even if it meant going towards a 40.5 meter (133 feet) high tsunami.

We know there were people who bravely tackled the destabilized nuclear power plant knowing that they were going to receive a fatal amount of radiation in a very short time.  We know of families in the Self-Defense Forces and rescue teams who swallowed their tears and allowed their loved ones to go and help others even if it meant not being able to see them again.

Because of all that they’ve done, and all that you’ve done, Japan is where it is.  I am extremely proud of that. At the same time, I commit myself to do the same for future disaster survivors for whom I and others serve.

Takeshi Komino, Head of Emergencies, CWS-Asia/Pacific