Articles Japan Japan Futures

A Tohoku Utopia? Alternative Paths After March 11, 2011

Written by Yuko Nishimura

Yuko Nishimura

Five months and 15 days after the March 11 (3.11) Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Prime Minister Naoto Kan fulfilled his promise to resign from office; in a 15 minute speech, he listed his achievements and praised himself saying “I did what I had to do.”  Kan was the fifth prime minister to step down in the five years preceding 3.11.  The poor performance of his central government left many of the victims in the disaster areas stranded without water, food, and electricity for more than 10 days. One year after the calamity, the Noda cabinet that succeeded Kan’s cabinet was still unable to produce a plan of how to resurrect the affected area.  But few of the electorate would argue that the Liberal Democratic Party or other opposition parties would have fared better: most remembered how an Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-Socialist Party led coalition government was paralyzed in the wake of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995.[1]  Moreover, the LDP was closely associated with the nuclear power industry and was in power when all of Japan’s nuclear energy plants were approved and built.  Although Kan was quick to dispatch the Self Defense Forces (SDF) to Tohoku, his poor handling of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown and the lack of provisions for the affected areas aggravated the situation.  Running out of patience with the slow pace of the government response, just as was the case at the time of the Hanshin Earthquake, civic groups, including yakuza (Japanese gangster) organizations, took to the streets of Tohoku and handed out food packages (Business Insider, 2011).[2]

Highly critical of the central government’s response, foreign media showered praise and expressed admiration for the calm and disciplined, almost resigned attitudes of the Japanese victims themselves.  No vandalizing or looting was reported in the foreign media, which instead focused on how “honest Japanese have returned $78 million in cash found in the earthquake rubble” or “have queued up without complaint for hours at supermarkets and gas stations.”  Even the Chinese media, which is often critical of Japan, praised the cooperation, politeness, calmness and orderliness of the victims ( March 13, 2011).

This perceived sense of calm on the part of people faced with a major calamity contrasts with a deep sense of disappointment that the victims express towards their government.  Ordinarily, these same people might display a high level of trust in their government, as a number of foreign observers noted. One foreign correspondent wondered why the fed-up Japanese don’t take to the streets en masse as Indians, Malaysians and Thais have recently done (Pesek, 2011).  He asked, is it because the Japanese are still remarkably affluent or is it cultural?  As he sees it, “in a nation where decorum and etiquette are obsessively observed, carrying banners and chanting in the streets hold little appeal” (ibid.).

Offers for help from outside Japan were quick and various: on March 12, Ralph Lauren, the renowned fashion house began fundraising with sales of a T-Shirt with a big red sun and logo: ‘Japan Hope’. Others quickly followed. The English newspaper The Independent on March 13 decorated its front page with the Japanese phrase ‘Ganbare Japan, Ganbare Tohoku’, encouraging and wishing Japan good luck in beginning its recovery. Residents of Japan (such as myself) received worried emails and phone calls from outside Japan as many thought the whole of Japan was destroyed. It was touching and moving. Yet many Japanese may have felt self-conscious, embarrassed or even ashamed by the international outpouring of sympathy since it was mostly the Tohokuites of three prefectures in the north who were the victims, and not the Japanese as a whole.

The Tohoku Earthquake and its Global Mediascape

While the internet and media worlds connect us directly to the outside world, the juxtaposition of information and narratives commenting upon “a nation and its people” often ignores deep regional divides and differences. Discussing the globalized disjuncture of economy, politics, and culture, anthropologist Arjun Appadurai lists five ‘scapes’, which consist of fragmented images and narratives, naming them ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, finanscapes, and ideoscapes, (Appadurai, 1990:33). The ‘mediascape’ of the 3.11 tsunami and the subsequent explosions at Fukushima Dai-ichi shaped the perceptions of the tragedy and created heroes and villains that will forever mark the early 21st century in Japan and beyond.  It will also be remembered as a day personifying an era of instant mass-communication when the entire world could directly watch the struggles of the Tohoku victims and share their experiences, albeit in a fragmented manner.

As the only country to experience an atomic bombing, Japan has long viewed itself as a victimized nation that stands for peace, and fights for a world free from nuclear weapons.  But this self-concept ignores Japan’s wholesale embrace of “peaceful” nuclear power reactors, a highly dangerous embrace since most of the reactors are located in seismically active locations.  The “unthinkable” meltdown of Fukushima has made that region a new symbol of “atomic” tragedy, one brought about not by a foreign power, but by a rapacious electric company aided and abetted by malleable politicians, unaccountable bureaucrats and a quiescent public.  Thus, following Fukushima, the Japanese public has been compelled to question the concept of ‘safe nuclear energy’, as well as challenged to define their sense of what holds them together as members of a nation, unaffected and affected regions, and the world as a whole.

These internal struggles to critique and reinvent regional/national/global self-concepts and identities have led to the emergence and re-emergence of both utopian and dystopian “dreamscapes” or imaginaries, diametrically opposed or aligned to the images that the 3.11 mediascape embodied. Created in predominantly urban, rather than the affected rural areas, one such utopian dreamscape envisions a green Tohoku Utopia where people live peacefully with “clean” renewable energy. In contrast, one dystopian dreamscape sees Tohoku as a region used and exploited by global capital and the people of Tokyo. In both cases, the mediascape of the Tohoku Earthquake reinforces images of Japanese citizens, particularly the people of Tohoku, as citizens victimized by tragically poor political governance.  Faced with grave calamities, they react calmly and courageously, helping each other survive even as elected leaders dally and ministerial bureaucrats bumble.

It is also important to note that whilst these internal struggles to come to an understanding of how the national self-concept might deal with reinventing itself in the light of regional inequalities, new “myths” about the “Japanese as a whole” have arisen and were being carried around the world as part of the 3.11 mediascape. These consisted of a core narrative that portrayed Japan as an exemplary nation that values consensus, co-operation and calm and ordered perseverance. Such media reflection on Japan undoubtedly gave a boost to Japanese morale during the weeks and months following 3.11. Yet such myths hide the real power imbalances between Tokyo, the center, and Tohoku, the periphery, and perhaps have inhibited the necessary efforts to regenerate the self-concepts that might address the associated inequalities.

In this paper, I will examine the image of Tohoku as a utopia, which was already a vision in existence some decades before the earthquake, and the image of Tohoku as a dystopia, which also has pre-earthquake roots.  Both sets of images shed light on the history and culture of Tohoku as a periphery region of Japan and of the “cultural colonialism” of Tohoku by Tokyo, the center.  Beginning with a discussion of a novel first published in 1981 called Kirikirijin (people of Kirikiri), written by Hisashi Inoue, who is also a Tohokuite, I will discuss how the images of utopia and dystopia have been intertwined in the land of Tohoku to this day. In both its utopian and dystopian revisions, Tohoku has long been a region where visions of Japan’s possible futures have been tested, and I wish to shed some light on what both the current and historical visions say about the deep internal search for regional, national and global place following 3.11.

Tohoku as Utopia

Since the Great Tohoku Earthquake in March 11 in 2011, and as of this writing, I’ve made four visits to communities in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, in the tsunami-devastated region. My personal “imagined” post-March 11 images of Tohoku began to change just four weeks after the earthquake.  I was talking on the phone to Mr. A, a public official who was in charge of the public sewage system at Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture. The city had been totally devastated by the tsunami.  I had called the prefectural office to offer to help construct “eco-san” toilets (urine-diverted dry toilets). Mr. A asked me to investigate installing the toilets in some of the kindergartens of Iwate Prefecture because the city sewage system was destroyed and the area did not have the electricity service needed to operate the decentralized systems installed in some of the schools. I agreed and asked him how to get to the city.

 “Use the Shinkansen (the bullet train) and come to Ichinoseki.  I’m sure there is Shinkansen service that far.  Then rent a car and drive up to the city office.  Since our office was completely wiped out, we are in a prefabricated building in the uphill residential area.  Ask for the school lunch center.  Our office is nearby. We are supposed to reopen the kindergarten by next Monday and we do not have time. Please install the toilets right away,” he said, and then hung up.

Setting out the next day with my American spouse, I learned that the train rails were damaged and the bullet train could not reach Ichinoseki, the Iwate Prefecture city closest to Rikuzentakata.  By train, we could get only as far as Fukushima, and then we had to drive four hours, past Ichinoseki, to the coastal area. As we drove, I recalled the story of Ichinoseki in Hisashi Inoue’s famous novel, Kirikirijin. The novel is set in Kiriki, a small village in the northern Tohoku area that suddenly declares its independence from the rest of Japan.  Not to have a Shinkansen (bullet train) service for a long period of time is an exceptional experience in Japan, almost as exceptional as the ‘hijacking of a train at Ichinoseki’ as described in Inoue’s novel.

The reality that we encountered as we drove became increasingly unreal: convoys of the SDF military trucks heading to the coast and then, as we reached the crest of a hill overlooking Rikuzentakata, once a beautiful coastal town, we were frozen by a shocking landscape.  “This cannot be Japan,” I thought.  It looked like a battlefield.  My American spouse, who was driving the car, stared in disbelief.  All of the town’s buildings had been wiped out and there was nothing to block our view except a few collapsed concrete buildings, bent or squashed, with iron reinforcement bars exposed.  I felt I was in a nightmare, a surreal story in which the entire planet had been destroyed by the atom bomb. One or two cranes were operating in a vast area covered by debris, with Self-Defense Force soldiers searching through the rubble, apparently looking for bodies.  There were no signed roads, only a few lanes bulldozed between the mountainous piles of debris.  After driving around lost for a half hour, we asked a couple of weary looking SDF personnel for directions.

Kirikirijin, the novel written by Inoue, starts at Ichinoseki as well:  a Shinkansen train is stopped near Ichinoseki and young hijackers wielding toy guns enter and question whether the passengers have obtained ‘visas’ to enter their state, Kirikiri.  Having been declared as illegal immigrants, they are taken as hostages and put in the Kirikiri jail.  The hostages soon realize the queer traits of the hijackers in their names: although they appear to be typically rural country bumpkins, their name orders are un-Japanese: Isamu Abe, Akira Sakuma, or Yosaburo Naito. These hijackers and all the names of residents in Kirikiri were turned upside down, representing their difference from Japanese. People liberally mixed these un-Japanese traits with those of Kirikiri, to make a strong anti-establishment political statement.

In the novel, one of the hostages, a middle-aged writer called Furuhashi, the protagonist in Inoue’s own image, becomes first a citizen of Kirikiri, then the president.  While Furuhashi is roaming around Kirikiri, he remembers his Tohoku heritage and the time and effort he took to “make” standard Japanese his own, and he remembers the excruciating pain he suffered in the process.  He soon becomes a strong sympathizer of the hijackers and of an independent Kirikiri state.

Kirikiri, with its own president, a national nude theatre, a parliament bus, and a national language (zuzu-drawl, the real Tohoku dialect), is proud to be an exemplary country with citizenship and gender equality for all.  Even though it’s a state carved out of Japan in Tohoku, its founders insist they should have parity with the rest of the countries of the world, so they host an international table tennis World Cup tournament, to which all alternative communities that oppose technological authoritarianism and progressive modernization, gather. Led by an old man and a striptease dancer, Kirikiri people sing their national anthem, “Kirikiri people’s eyes are tranquil, their nose line and hearts are straight, their jaws and minds are firm, their lips and manners are warm” (Inoue, 1985; vol.1: 177-8, my translation).  The anthem is sung, not in Japanese, but in the Kirikiri ‘national language.’

Inoue, a native of Tohoku wrote this 1980s bestseller novel mostly in the rural Tohoku dialect. The dialect represents something of a country “bumpkin-ness” in sharp contrast to “standard” Japanese, which represents elitism and sophistication. But, by treating standard Japanese as a ‘foreign language’, and the language of aggressors and intruders of Tohoku, the Kirikiri language was presented as a beautiful and melodious language with unique cultural traits. It represents an agrarian utopia in sharp contrast with a Tokyo-centered modern society.  It is clear that Inoue wanted to sharply criticize the modern state and its aggressive invasion and colonization of the Tohoku people, which included the forced use of the so-called “standard” Japanese created by the modern Meiji government.  As the Meiji state colonized rural areas, particularly Tohoku, Hokkaido and Okinawa, it eradicated dialects and unified the Japanese language into a single standard one through school education which included hogenfuda (punishment plates hung around the necks of students who made the mistake of speaking in the local dialect).

In the novel, as Furuhashi reads Kirikiri language textbooks, tears fall from his eyes.  He was brought up at a school at the foot of Iide Mountain in southern Yamagata where the punishment plate was still used to correct dialect. Furuhashi remembered having 14 to 15 plates around his neck all the time.  Each time he walked, the plates made an unpleasant noise intensifying his feelings of inferiority.  The sound even infiltrated his dreams: he goes to the mountains for mushroom hunting sometimes jumping between small cliffs. But, the cord holding the punishment plates around his neck gets caught by tree branches and he ends up dangling upside down in mid-air.  Feeling excruciating pain, he wakes up sweating from the nightmare, which recurs hundreds of times (Inoue, 1985; vol.1: 107-8).

Inoue’s Kirikirijin became an instant bestseller. In a modern, stressful and hurly-burly Japan, people found their utopia in Kirikiri.  In this imagined world, the zuzu-drawl represents “real” people who possess a real life and a real language, and above all, live in a community of egalitarian relationships.  The elderly are respected as the source of knowledge and experience (an old woman in a traditional shop is the authority of Kirikiri literature). In Kirikiri, prostitution is legal and its ‘practitioners’ respected enough that Yachiyo Karamatsu, a former prostitute can become the minister of finance.  After the release of Kirikirijin, something of a ‘boom’ ensued among small town halls throughout Japan that competed with one another in announcing their ‘independence’ in an effort to attract tourists to their particular utopian ‘mediascape.’ Inoue’s insistence on freedom and autonomy is particularly well expressed in the contrast between standard Japanese as a foreign language and zuzu-drawl.  Kirikirijin insist that all Japanese literature should be translated into zuzu-drawl.

Discussing Inoue’s work, Napier maintains that Kirikirijin is perhaps the most effective utopian novel to be written in modern Japan, since it possesses a carefully worked out political philosophy that might be called progressive agrarianism, and leaves the reader yearning to visit the utopian community (Napier, 1996: 164-5).  In a prescient parallel to Fukushima, the Kirikiri people discover that their soil has been contaminated by poisonous chemicals manufactured in a nearby foreign factory, Dupont. In response, Kirikiri turns to organic agriculture, nurturing its soil with cow dung and human feces, free from chemical fertilizers.  In this way, it becomes self-sufficient and remote from the dangers of modern technology.  Faced with the environmental disaster of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Reactor, some of the Fukushima people, compelled to evacuate and abandon their farms, may well have later remembered this episode of the Kirikirijin novel.

Tohoku as a culturally distinct periphery

Kirikiri’s powerful narrative, expressing the unique cultural properties of the Tohoku people and depicting a utopian solution to the injustices suffered at the hands of a colonial state bent upon exploitation of the region, can be seen to emerge from real historical cultural distinctiveness and real inequalities between Tohoku the periphery and Tokyo the center. Firstly, with regard to its periphery status, until it came under the control of the central government in the 16th century, Tohoku was viewed as a wilderness where ‘savages’ and Ainu roamed.[3]  There were important practical reasons that may have contributed to this sense of separateness: for example, discussing the history from the late Tokugawa to pre-World War II (WWII) Japan, Cullen argues that it is essential to make a distinction between Tohoku and the rest of Japan in terms of agricultural production, on account of the incessant rain and abnormally low temperatures in Tohoku, which made farmers particularly vulnerable to poor harvests (2003: 92).

Historical narratives emerging from regional power struggles also emphasize Tohoku’s periphery status. At the end of the Tokugawa era (c.1868), Tokugawa defenders, including Tohoku regional lords, fought rebels from Kyushu and Yamaguchi, who sought to restore the emperor to power in a civil war called the Boshin War.  The Tohoku armies led by Aizu clans (the Fukushimas) represented the last core of Tokugawa defenders, and were defeated by the emperor’s army.  Consequently, the Aizu army soldiers who resisted until the end were stigmatized by the emperor’s force as the ‘rebels who fought against the emperor’ (gyakuzoku).  Some elderly in Fukushima still remember the humiliation of being called gyakuzoku and feel antagonistic towards the Kyushus and Yamaguchiites since they represent the ‘conquerors’. [4]

In spite of its periphery status in terms of climate, peasant poverty, and historical power and conquest, Tohoku as a region maintained amazing stability both during and after the Tokugawa era, and this may have to do with some distinct cultural characteristics. There is, for example, much evidence suggesting that such stability was largely due to a special patron-client relationship between the great landlords (Ooya) and their tenants (Nago).  Studying the mass protest movement during pre-WWII Japan, for instance, Lewis (1990) maintains that after the Meiji era, particularly from 1917 to 1931, Tohoku accounted for only 8 percent of the rice riots, while the Kansai and Chubu regions constituted 60 percent of the total number (1990:177).  During the period from 1917 to 1921, Okinawa, Aomori, Iwate, Akita and Yamagata were the only prefectures where not a single tenancy dispute was reported, according to Lewis.

While acknowledging its conservative bias, Lewis (1990) argues that the patron-client, tenant-landlord, Ooya-Nago, relationship is particularly appropriate for understanding the scarcity of civil insurrection in Tohoku.  The stability of the tenant-landlord relationship in Tohoku during the Taisho period was based on the consciously paternalistic efforts of great landlords (who had often been former samurai lords). The Yamagata-based Honma family, Japan’s largest landholders for example, charged as much as 75 percent of the rice harvest in rent, but cultivators accepted these terms until the 1930s.  They even preferred to work for the Honma than for other families who charged lower rents.  Lewis enumerates four major reasons for the popularity of Tohoku landlords. First, the conservative great landlords tended to concentrate their energies on farming rather than on other business or political activities.  While many landlords in central Japan became absentee landlords, Tohoku landlords engaged more aggressively in agriculture.  They willingly invested time and money to improve the soil, and let the peasants keep the increase in profits.  Secondly, the major Tohoku landlords entered into formal written or verbal contracts with their tenants.  Under normal circumstances, these agreements assured the cultivator’s right to work the holding for as long as he desired.   Thirdly, the Tohoku landlords were generally more willing than their counterparts in central and southern Japan to decrease rents voluntarily during periods of reduced harvests, or during periods of steep consumer prices for rice.  Fourthly, the great Tohoku landlords, unlike their counterparts in western and central Japan, did not involve themselves in direct competition with landowning tenants for access to rice markets.

Whereas outside Tohoku, formal written agreements were rare during the Taisho period (Lewis, 1990: 181), family documents written in the pre-WWII period show that the primary concern of the landlords was with their social duties, especially their concern for the welfare of the tenants.  While oyabun-kobun or ooya-nago relationships were weakening in central and western Japan due to rapid urbanization, the hierarchical landlord tenant relationship, fixed in contract, gave the agricultural tenants of Tohoku more protection. The ‘moral duty’ engendered in such a relationship also motivated the Tohoku landlords to challenge the local or central authority on behalf of their peasants.  When high rice prices threatened the livelihood of Tohoku tenant farmers (they could no longer eat the rice they produced), the landlords reaffirmed their role as good providers by refusing to release the rice into the market on the grounds that rice retained in stock should be reserved for their tenant farmers.  Landlords and farmers also defied a Meiji government policy that called for diversification of their agricultural products, insisting on rice-only cultivation.  The defiance of local authority went against the short-term interest of the Tohoku landlords, but in doing so the great landlords’ loyally maintained and fostered their bond with the peasants, perhaps even helping to establish a sense of regional and ethnic collectivity as “Tohokuites” that persists to this day.

The social relationships that were fostered between landowners and tenants and the degree of protection, union, and perhaps, later, regional solidarity that they engendered, can be paralleled with a related pre-modern socio-economic innovation—the Yui system. According to Ariga (1970) and Lewis (1990), Yui is a system of traditional agricultural labor exchange established in Tohoku during the Edo Period as a means of survival in difficult times. Yui has continued into the present as a principle of neighborhood self-help (Saito, 2003).  Though historically Yui was based on hierarchical relationships, e.g. between a patron landlord and client (ooya and nago), it was nonetheless reciprocal, according to Ariga and Lewis.  Based on my post-March 11 observations, I argue that the ‘social management’ exemplified as skills of jiei (self-help) that the Meiji Government introduced (Hadad, 2007), found confluence with pre-existing Yui systems, since the neighborhood unit (chonaikai) that the Meiji bureaucrats promoted was expected to be self-sufficient and reciprocal.  Perhaps, the strength and endurance of Yui derives from the Tohoku region’s sense of being marginalized by the “center” in Tokyo and labeled a “backward” region.  It may continue to help to explain why even in the face of the befuddled response of the central government to the March 11 disaster and the evocation of a sense of victimization and marginalization among the Tohokuites, the people still bonded together in solidarity and “self-help”.

Lastly, in terms of cultural regional distinctiveness, it is important to revisit the solidarity-building Tohoku dialect, or zuzu drawl, which I suggest still evokes a sense of resistance and strength in the face of marginalization. According to government data, excepting Okinawa and Hokkaido (which are also marginalized regions in Japan), all of Tohoku’s six prefectures are at the bottom of the university entrance rate, indicating a below-average rate of youngsters going to colleges (Ministry of General Affairs, 2010; chapters 18-22).  In fact, people who speak with Tohoku accents in Tokyo are mostly engaged in non-white collar jobs and those who are educated tend to hide their trace of Tohoku accents. That is in stark contrast from those who are from Kansai (Osaka, Kyoto) or Chubu.   Perhaps, to Tokyoites, the zuzu drawl is not, as Inoue portrayed in Kirikirijin, a symbol of traditional simplicity and cultural distinctiveness, but rather a mark of backwardness and inferiority.

After the Meiji Restoration, Tohokuites, along with Okinawans, were treated differently, since they were considered to be beyond the control of the central government, and to represent a backwardness that included the speaking of unintelligible and unsophisticated dialects.  These thick Tohoku accents were considered to be aberrations compared to standard Japanese.  Thus Tohokuites, along with Okinawans and Ainus, were targeted by the central government as people who needed ‘corrective education.’  Many Tohoku teachers eagerly participated in campaigns to force the use of standard Japanese since they believed that speaking ‘correct’ Japanese was the key to becoming part of the well-educated elite.  In various forms, the movement to standardize Japanese speech continued into the 1960s (Kokuni, 2004), and serious efforts were made ‘to wipe out dialects as an evil in the education system’ (Twine, 1991: 209).

As late as the mid-1950s, a piece of wood on which was inscribed ‘hogen fuda’ (dialect plate) was used in some schools of Tohoku to correct spoken dialects.  As Inoue mentioned in his novel, the wooden piece was hung around the neck of a child who was overheard speaking in the local dialect (hogen).  He was not allowed to remove it unless he could pass it to another child overheard speaking hogen.  The last child often had to remain in school even after classes were finished.[5]

Complex feelings towards standard Japanese are observable today in the belief that those who speak Japanese with a “proper” accent (i.e., as spoken in Tokyo) are considered to be better educated than those who don’t.  Although, for instance, I myself am from Tohoku, I have no trace of a Tohoku accent, since my Tohoku accent was strictly corrected when I was at school in Akita and I have resided in Tokyo for many years.  But my observation is that many Tohokuites, especially those with a strong regional accent, have a sense of inferiority mixed with a sense of anger at their economic subservience to Tokyo.  On the other hand, people from the western regions, i.e. Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and Nagoya, are not ashamed of their Kansai/Chubu accents to the same degree.  In other words, Tohoku zuzu drawl is a symbolic representation of cultural colonialism and an inferior status in Japan. And yet, this same marker of cultural marginalization may also allow Tohokuites a sense of solidarity within that marginalization.

A brief and personal anecdote that may help to give some flavor of the possible inferiority, resentment and resulting solidarity-of-the-marginalized experienced by Tohokuites towards Tokyoites is as follows: not long after my first post-tsunami trip to Tohoku in early April in 2011, I engaged a neighborhood gardener to prune the trees in our Tokyo garden.  I noticed when this gentleman began to speak he did so with a strong Tohoku accent.  When the work was finished, he mentioned that he knew my next-door neighbors, a young German couple with a two-year-old child.  “Yes, but they returned to Germany, soon after the Fukushima Daiichi explosion”, I told him.  His eyes seemed to beam mischievously.  “Yes, but look at you guys, Tokyoites!” (“Za ma miro Tokyo no hito!”), he chuckled, with a Tohoku accent, “You have nowhere else to go!” (“Dokomo ikutoko nai daro!”).  From his perspective, even though none of us are originally from Tokyo, my neighbors and I all sounded like ‘native’ and elite Tokyoites, and in this he seemed to take some satisfaction that Tokyoites, fearful of the then spreading radiation, must share the burden of the people of Fukushima.

Tohoku and the West

It is important within a discussion on the cultural distinctiveness and marginal status (historical and contemporary) of the Tohoku region, to understand that the discourses setting Tohoku apart from other regions of Japan (stressing intra-cultural differences) have given way to larger inter-cultural (or international) conceptualizations of how Tohoku ought to interface with the world-at-large. Since the Meiji Era, Japanese elites tried to absorb the Western ideals of science, technology, and cultural superiority.  Many intellectuals believed that western science and technology, adapted to Japanese culture, would benefit the poor and create a utopian society.  For many, the West represented a utopia of sorts and catching up and overtaking it was the goal. For some, however, attitudes towards the Japanese state itself remained ambivalent, and they looked to bypass the nation in order to envision their own versions of utopias, “directly-fed” from the best the world had to offer. This was especially so in the case of the intellectuals from Tohoku.

Kenji Miyazawa (1896 – 1933), a Tohoku-born poet and author-activist, is one example. Like Hisashi Inoue’s Kirikiri, he visualizes a utopia in his native Iwate Prefecture in Tohoku.  A staunch believer of the Nichiren Buddhist sect, practitioner of agronomy and a community activist helping peasants overcome poverty, he was also an internationalist who studied Esperanto. He believed western-style education and technology were the tools to save the people. Anti-establishment and deeply rooted in the local culture, his utopian paradigm would have western characteristics but be “universal.”

One of his most famous fantasy novels, The Night to the Galaxy, well illustrates this: although the setting seems to be in Japan like Inoue’s Kirikirijin, all characters have non-Japanese names and non-Japanese characteristics.  Giovanni, a poor boy who works in a small factory (not in the paddy field), in a rural village of Japan, goes to get milk (not fish or rice), for his sick mother, and acquires knowledge about the world and galaxy from an encyclopedia in the library of a ‘professor’ who is the father of his friend Campanella.  One night, Giovanni, joined by Campannella, sets out on a journey to the stars, taking a train on the Galactic Railroad.  But he finds that all passengers on the Galactic railroad, except him, are dead. As the story unfolds, Galaxy Utopia becomes a crumbling dystopia. Giovanni wakes up from the dream to discover that his friend Campanella has drowned.  Even so, he understands that his future is to study and live in the real world; utopia might be attainable through education.

For me, Miyazawa’s message is that utopia is achievable in an agrarian village of Tohoku, but only with the help of knowledge attained from the West.  This absolute trust in the superiority of science and technology of the West is, in my view, quite common among the intellectuals of Tohoku. Indeed, I see a close parallel of Miyazawa’s utopian concept and that of my great-uncle who died at the age of 90.  Graduating from the prestigious Tokyo University medical school, he chose to go back to Akita where he was to take over his father’s medical practice.  Organizing a nature lovers’ club and a haiku poets’ club, he was, like Miyazawa, a kind of community cultural ‘activist.’  And, like Miyazawa, his aesthetics were rooted in local culture, but he tried to be a ‘universalist’ as an intellectual.  His library was full of English and German books, science journals from abroad. He was keen to be up to date with the latest western medical science.

Given the special honor of meeting the Emperor in person while attending a function held in the palace, my uncle said he was not particularly enthusiastic about the meeting as the Emperor was not one of his role models. His role models and heroes were predominately western, not Japanese. When asked who his most important role model was, he answered, “St. Francis of Assisi”, the saint for the poor and the destitute.  A few years before his death, he said to me that he had one big regret in his life: he did not go to Germany where he had been offered a scholarship to study.  “If only my father had not stopped me,” he said.

 “Father was ill at the time and told me that he would not live long so I should stay until his death, but could go anywhere after.  But he did not die for many years, and I missed the chance forever,” he continued.

Although many Japanese seemed to share such utopian images of the West at least until the 1980s, the rapid transformation of the world particularly after the introduction of the internet has made such a ‘dreamscape’ one of the past. Even Inoue’s version of agrarian utopia in Kirikiri is critical of western technology:  the villagers discover that chemical contamination of their soil by a foreign chemical company has made their land no longer cultivable. Thus, the advancement of technology and science once believed to be the tool to create utopias, could also show “the dark side of Utopia” (Napier, 1996: 177).  Inoue’s Kirikirijin ends up showing such a sinister side as Furuhashi, the protagonist, is shot dead, after he carelessly revealed the state secret of Kirikiri and the coup d’état of Kirikiri fails.   And, it turns out, the narrator of the whole story is not Furuhashi but a ghost spirit of a riot peasant who was killed by the Meiji government.  The story thus ends up ominously and in a sinister manner, implying that the real ‘normal’ world could in fact be the dystopia while the utopian dream of Kirikiri might be unattainable.

Intersections of Regional, National and Global Discourses

The historical and contemporary inter-regional discourses of superiority-inferiority and tradition-modernity intersect in complex ways with views of what should constitute the nation and membership of the world at large. Embedded in these discourses and their intersections are moral certitudes and a lexicon of cultural meanings and values all of which are now being stirred and stimulated by the events of 3.11 and its aftermath. Perhaps most starkly, we can see reinvented and regenerated intersections of identity in a number of news articles and weblogs that have portrayed Tohoku as a future utopia.  These visions are themselves mediascapes, nurtured in urban environments like Tokyo, where people from Tohoku congregate and talk about their hometown (furusato, i.e., celebration of ‘homeland’) and environmental activists and authors picture a sustainable green future free of nuclear power.

Congregations such as the large annual event titled ‘genki sakasoo Fukushima Dai kooryu ten’ (Finding the Spirit: The Big Fukushima Exchange’)(Fukushima Prefectural Office, 2012) are a good example. The event takes place in a huge exhibition hall in the heart of the city. In addition to many ‘furusato’ events performed by people from Fukushima, more than one hundred Fukushima food producers and restaurateurs offer food products, along with idealistic images of a Fukushima land rich in fresh vegetables, rice, fish, meat, and fruit, as well as populated with generous, nice and hospitable people. Having lost tourists from Tokyo after 3.11, these exhibiters and producers seem actively engaged in trying to regenerate a Tohoku imaginary of nostalgia-producing ‘green furusato’ to both sell goods and to posit and encourage a sustainable alternative environmental model of modern Japanese regionalism.

However, this nostalgic and populist dream of an ideal Tohoku can take a completely different turn in contexts outside such promotional and celebratory events. Many Tokyoites fear the radioactive contamination of agricultural products and fish from Tohoku and refuse to buy these, thereby threatening the livelihood of the Tohoku farmers and fishermen that populate their utopian dreamscape.  Fear of contamination seems to be at the heart of a wave of discrimination too. As of writing, there are still over 290,000 ‘evacuees’ from the Tohoku earthquake affected zone who are settled outside of Tohoku. Harmful rumors that these Fukushima-evacuees are contaminating those around them have resulted in evacuated children being bullied at school and adults finding it difficult to secure jobs (Shukan Asahi, 2011). Some Red Cross mobile blood banks have even refused Fukushima-evacuee donors as the staff believed their blood was contaminated with radiation and therefore their DNA damaged (AERA, 2011).

Exploitation often accompanies fear and discrimination and here we find several dystopian threads reemerging from the historical narratives of the same theme. Even as communities in the tsunami zone struggled to come up with relocation and rebuilding plans, a massive effort went into clearing the debris.  And, in larger communities affected only by the earthquake, government funded building boom brings contractors from outside of Tohoku flooding into the area, almost like another tsunami.  Companies complain they must pay high wages but can’t find local workers so must import workers from outside the region.  Likewise, the refusal to even consider recycling and reusing the huge amount of “waste” from the tsunami zone to rebuild, created an economic opportunity not for Tohoku, but for members of the Japan Prefabricated Construction Suppliers and Manufacturers Association, based in Tokyo.  They were the ones who manufactured temporary modular housing units elsewhere and transported them to Tohoku.  Meanwhile, Tohoku construction businesses suffered a continuing threat of bankruptcy (AJW, 2011) and Tohoku’s already aging industries, nearly wiped out by the combined might of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, might never recover.

Moreover, the Tohoku disaster is a good business opportunity for multi-national corporations, creating a different kind of utopia for some.  For example, days after the disaster, AREVA, the French nuclear reactor manufacturer, announced it was ready to send equipment to aid TEPCO to gain control of the Fukushima Daiichi plant by helping “clean” the enormous amount of radioactive water used to cool the reactors.  Although it was offered as part of France’s desire to help out the nuclear disaster relief, the removal of highly radioactive water is also a lucrative big business; AREVA ended up persuading the Japanese government to contract them to clean the highly contaminated water, but at an astronomical cost.

As well as a financial appropriation, cultural appropriations are also in evidence. The mediascape that resulted in all the outpouring of international support has, as I have noted, led to the international image of “the Japanese” as being stoic, co-operative and orderly in the face of disaster. Ironically, there is significant evidence that these kinds of stereotypes (group-oriented, patient, hard-working, polite, and honest), may have originated from the presence of mutual help systems in rural Japan such as the Yui. Historically, therefore, it is likely that the Tohoku region’s social and economic systems exemplify what Japanese and foreigners alike think of as a core marker of “Japanese culture” and that these mediascapes of “Japanese” responding to the disaster actually reveal particular cultural forms that continue to be consciously and unconsciously appropriated into the mainstream.


I began this paper with the aim of shedding some light on the ways in which 3.11 has paved the way for new visions of Japan (utopian and dystopian) to emerge or be reinvented. What stands out immediately is that the events of 3.11 have simply allowed new sets of imagery to be associated with discourses that pre-dated 3.11. The utopian imagery characterized by Kirikirijin has been bolstered and strengthened by 3.11 with the immediacy and intensity of the events and their real and symbolic creation of Tohoku disaster victims. The victim/marginal narrative inspires visions of resistance against the state, and consequently a regeneration of regionally-specific cultural forms whose practical and moral power and appropriateness to modern life seems undeniable in the face of such state misjudgment of nuclear energy risks. Such imagery also finds a new international connection, utilizing a now highly globalized environmental movement and just like the Tohoku intellectuals of the Meiji era, looks to bypass Japan-specific technologies and knowledge for a direct-link to international and western trends and communities. The resulting meta-narrative is utopian in that it combines the best of all these local cultural forms with a global ideology and posits the future existence of “real” face-to-face communities and institutions that could make a life that encompasses also an “ideal life”.

Yet 3.11 has also served to provide imageries that simultaneously reinforce and regenerate dystopian visions. Historical themes of cultural and economic exploitation and marginalization of the Tohoku region have been made, through the lens of 3.11, indelibly characteristic of the 21st century. Where the clans of Aizu once fought against the majority of those seeking to conquer its lands, today Tohoku’s narrative is of being conquered by invasions of government-corporate coalitions. Having suffered this humiliation, its people are still destined to a life of marginalization where even their fleeing children find discrimination in their new schools because of their physical (and biological/ethnic?) contamination. All the while, the Tohoku region’s subservience to its colonial masters (Tokyo) to the south is reinforced as, despite its exposure to the disasters and its obvious and glaring (internationally recognized in terms of Japan-at-large) victimhood, economic and cultural exploitation continues and meets no serious resistance.

Indeed, conflated with the “rest-of-Japan” in the international mediascape of 3.11, this Tohoku dystopia is fuelled by the lack of (specific regional) international social and moral recognition that may otherwise have provided it with the beginnings of intra-cultural social justice process.  Here, a neutral observer might have predicted 3.11 to have achieved the opening of new discourses on the contemporary and future share of Japanese society, in that many millions inside and outside Japan followed the disasters and their aftermath in real time. However, the resulting mediascape merely served to conflate diverse regional cultural forms and differences and inadvertently promoted the inequalities and cultural appropriations that had already historically marked the disenfranchisement of the Tohoku peoples by their Tokyo counterparts. The world did not see the Tohoku people, but “the Japanese”, as the stoic victims of the 3.11 disasters.

According to Stuart Hall, globalization is “the process by which the relatively separate areas of the globe come to intersect in a single imaginary ‘space’ ” (1995: 190).  Although globalization allows capital, people, and information to flow easily across country boundaries, making “the world flat” (Friedman, 2005), it has not eradicated hierarchical binary oppositions, particularly between the center and the periphery. The mediascapes that emerge to define these new imaginary spaces have, likewise, not facilitated, in the case of post 3.11 Japan, cultural environments that allow for complex intersecting discourses of intra-cultural diversity to be contested or debated nor for inequalities to be acknowledged or historical/contemporary social injustices to be addressed. Indeed, the observations I have made in this paper suggest that such mediascapes can serve to conflate intra-cultural diversities and serve to legitimize, rather than seek to contest, the status quo.

The global mediascape, the ‘imagined community’ (Anderson, 1991) of the Japanese nation, and the borderless capitalism that seeks to exploit opportunities, together intensify the divisions between Tokyo and Tohoku. The combination of these global, national and regional discourses and how they intersect and affect each other has been starkly revealed in the wake of 3.11.  Japan as a nation once tried to realize its own energy utopia through the ‘dream technology’ of nuclear energy, but instead has shown technology’s dark dystopian side.  Years ago, the decision to build the Fukushima Daiichi Reactor complex placed Tohoku in harm’s way.  The reactors produced electric power for the “center,” but not for the “periphery.”  The amorphous guilt that many Tokyoites now feel for Tohoku has generated a wave of sympathy for the people of Tohoku.  But this guilt doesn’t seem to stand in the way of creating other potentially damaging symbolic and real injustices and mistakes, with the potential calamity of adopting a ‘reconstruction plan’ that will provide economic benefits that are unlikely to reach the people of Tohoku being merely one of many.

As several possible futures await Japan, it is clear that the intersections of nation, region and world are vitally important to define in any mapping of that future. If Japan, the Nation, can somehow reinvent its notion of a center-periphery and embrace the rich cultural diversity and contribution of its regions (acknowledging the centrality of their contributions to “Japanese-ness”, such as Tohoku’s regional distinctiveness)—and if regions such as Tohoku can interface with the world to become conduits for a network of globally-inspired local innovation—it is possible that Japan will move closer to becoming a balanced, fair and integral society that draws on all of its cultural resources to provide a high quality of life for its diverse inhabitants.

As we have seen, however, the binary opposite dystopian vision is also a possible future reality where the old inequalities and superior-inferior dynamics and discourses are reproduced. This image is the one I would like to end with here, partly (as dystopian writers aim to do), to provide a warning. As the Diet debated the Tohoku recovery plan, a bill to legalize casinos was quietly being pushed through (GCM News , 2011).  The economic impact of casinos might amount to more than 500 billion yen (Kiso, 2010). The glamour of Tokyo investment money could bring in quick money and modernity to Tohoku, but at the expense of further removing the population from their native roots, original industry and their (and others’) visions of a nuclear-free and culturally rich and diverse future. One likely scenario is a Tohoku reconstructed as an imagined utopia for particular sorts of Tokyoites.  This would be a region to be exploited and commoditized in the center’s own image. To end on a dark dystopian image: imagine, if you will, a multicolored fluorescent casino arcade built on the mound of debris saying ‘Welcome to your Tohoku: A Japanese Utopia!’


This paper was based on my experience of several visits to Tohoku region after the March 11 earthquake.  I am very grateful to the heartfelt reception of the local people we met.  Even though they were still in the midst of grave calamity and chaos, they received us and took time to take us around and share moments with us.  I would also like to express my gratitude to John D. Bockmann, David M. Pierce, and Bruce White, who helped to edit this paper and gave valuable comments.  This paper could not come out without the help of those people.


 AERA, 2011. Fukushima dansei no kenketsu wo kyohi shita Nisseki (Japanese Red Cross Refused the blood donation from Fukushimaite), 13 June, pp.24.

AJW, 2011. Construction boom hits Tohoku, but not everyone is happy, 4 July,

Anderson, B. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso Books.

Appadurai, A. 1990. Modernity at large: cultural dimensions of globalization. Minnesota: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Ariga, K. 1957.  Yui no imi to sono henka (The meaning of Yui and its transformation). The Japanese Journal of Ethnology 21(4).

Asahi.Com 2011. Nihonjin niwa dotoku no chi: chugokushi,shimin no reiseisa wo shosan(Japanese have moral blood: Chinese media praises calmness of Japanese Citizens), 13 March,

Asahi Shinbun 2011. Fukkokeikaku sakutei jichitai kan de 8kagetsu no hiraki, zaigen miezu (Restoration Plan has 8 months gap between different local governments, no financial resources found), June 12,

Business Insider, 2011 ‘Even Japan’s Infamous Mafia groups are helping with Relief efforts,’ March 18,

Cullen, L.M.  2003. A history of Japan 1582-1941: internal and external worlds. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Evans, J. 2003. O.M. Edwards and the Welsh Not (Welsh history stories). UK: Gwasg y Dref Wen.

Friedman, T. 2005. The World is Flat: The Globalized World in the Twenty-first Century. Penguin books.

Fukushima Prefectural Office, 2012. genki sakasoo Fukushima Dai kooryu ten’ (Finding the Spirit: The Big Fukushima Exchange), November,

GCM News, 2011. The general assembly of IR and Casino Diet Member Association will be held, 20 June,

Hadad, M. A. 2007. Politics and Volunteering in Japan: a global perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hall,S. 1995. New cultures for old. In A place in the world? Places, cultures, and globalization, edited by D. Massey and P. Jess, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.175-214.

Inoue, H. 1985  Kirikirijin, vol. 1-3. Shincho-bunko: Shinchosha.

Kiso, T.  2010. Nippon no casino ga mezasubeki tokoro (What Japanese Casino should be aiming at), 14 May,

Kokuni, Y.  2004. ‘Hogen wo meguru gengo seisaku to kyouiku jissen (Language policies and educational practices concerning dialects)’. In Kotoba to Shakai (Language and Society), 8, pp.47-57.

Kramer, E. (ed.) 2003. The Emerging monoculture: assimilation and the “model minority”. Greenwood Publishing Company.

Lewis, M.L. 1990. Rioters and citizens: mass protest in imperial Japan. California: University of California Press.

Ministry of General Affairs, 2010. Todofuken betsu shingakuritsu to shushokuritsu (statistics of university entrance rate and job acquisition rate by prefecture), chapters 18-22,

Morton, W. S., Olenik, J. K. & Jansen, M. B. 2004. Japan: its history and culture. McGraw Hill.

Napier, S. 1996. The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature: The Subversion of Modernity. London: Routledge.

Pesek, W. 2011. That 200% Debt is Reason for Economic Revolution. Bloomberg View, 31 August,

Saito, T. 2003. Yui no senshin sei (Innovative Spirit of Yui). NPO Community business kenkyukai.

Shukan Asahi, 2011.  Houshanoo ga utsuru—ijime hajimatta Fukushima sagetsu no gu (Radiation is infectious: stupidity of discrimination against Fukushima, 29 April, pp.131

Takahashi,T. 1986. Emishi: kodai Tohokujin no rekishi, Chuo koronsha.

Twine, N. 1991. Language and the Modern State: The Reform of Written Japanese. London: Routledge.

Walker, B.L. 2006 The Conquest of Ainu Lands: Ecology and Culture in Japanese Expansion, 1590-1800, University of California Press.

Yamada, S. 1995.  Ainu go chimei no kenkyu. Tokyo: Sofukan.

[1] When the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck Kobe destroying 300,000 homes and resulting in 5478 deaths, Tomiichi Murayama, head of the Socialists, served as coalition prime minister.  The coalition between the LDP and Sakigake lasted nearly two years (which is unexpectedly long by Japanese standards), and had to deal with two disasters, the Great Hanshin earthquake and the sarin gas attacks by Aum Shinrikyo in March that year, which killed a dozen people and poisoned close to 6000 people. The government’s slowness to respond to these disasters troubled and alienated many Japanese.  The Kobe citizens affected by the violent earthquake took things into their own hands as a massive, unprecedented outpouring of volunteers rushed to help them and supply materials (Morton,Olenik &Jansen, 2004; 258).  That year was commemorated as the year of volunteerism. It eventually prompted the Diet to initiate the NPO law in 1998.

[2] While staying in an inn during our visit to Rikuzentakada, I also came across some yakuza-like men, who were hiding tattoos and some finger-less hands (the symbol of Japanese yakuza), who were engaged in helping the locals to clear the debris.

[3] In the 7th-9th century, the Tohoku and Hokkaido regions were called the land of the Emishi (the land of barbaric and rebellious) by the Yamato dynasty (See Takahashi, 1986).  The Ainu are constituted from various regional groups such as Hokkaido, Tohoku, the Kurile Islands, and Sakhalin. After the 12th century they started to trade regularly with the inland Japanese, bringing goods such as furs and fish.  Consequently their relationship with the inland Japanese became more harmonious  (see Walker, 2006). Some Tohoku names are derived from Ainu words, and place names that carry Ainu names frequently appear in the Aomori, Akita, and Iwate prefectures (see Yamada, 1995).  Incidentally, the name “Kirikiri,” which shows up in this paper derives from an Ainu word signifying a white beach.

[4] For example, one of my neighbors who is from Yamaguchi prefecture told me that a taxi driver in Fukushima suddenly gave him a cold shoulder when he heard his passenger was from Yamaguchi.

[5] A similar policy was practiced in Wales: the ‘Welsh Not.’ This was to discourage pupils from speaking Welsh, at a time when English was considered the only suitable medium of instruction (Evans, 2003).

About the author

Yuko Nishimura


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