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North Japan March 2011 quake activist groups under threat from virus spread: survey

Yoshiko Aoki, representative of Tomioka-machi 3.11 testimonial group, is seen talking in front of the coastal area where the tsunami hit, in Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture, in February 2020. (Mainichi/Tatsushi Inui)

Efforts to educate people about events during and after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami are in trouble from the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to the results of a survey answered by regional groups and individuals engaged in activism to tell people about what happened to the disaster-hit areas.

The questionnaire, carried out by a citizens' network in March and April, was answered by 30 groups and individuals. Cumulatively they reported a total of 302 canceled tours that would have been attended by 9,235 people. Among the respondents, there were also some groups and individuals that had been forced to cease their activities due to the spread of the virus.

March 11, 2021, will be exactly 10 years since the triple disaster -- the quake, tsunami and the onset of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. As the milestone anniversary approaches, people connected to activism efforts are expressing concerns that memories of the disaster are fading and disappointment that they won't be able to show people how areas have revitalized in the intervening years.

The survey was managed by 3.11 Memorial Network based in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, which comprises groups and individual activists that recount what happened in the disaster. The association sought responses online between March 24 and April 7, and received submissions from 30 groups and individuals based primarily in the northeastern Japan prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima.

Responding to questions about the state of their activism, the most common answer at 37% was that they had reduced the scope of their work. Another 27% said they had suspended operations after halting reservations or facility closures. But another 23% said they were still continuing as normal. Close to 80% reported that in March 2020, tour or testimonial activity participant numbers had dropped by half or more compared to March 2019.

Among the comments provided in the section where respondents could write freely were, "As we can't see an end (to the virus spread) we can't plan or hold events," and, "We're not getting an income from our work, and are financially strapped." The 3.11 Memorial Network said, "Reservation cancellations are stretching into the long term, and new applications aren't being made. The sustainability of activism is entering a difficult time."

Staff at Tsunami Memorial Hall in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, are seen practicing for online guided tours on April 28, 2020. (Mainichi/Takuhide Nakao)

"There's nothing we can do, but there's absolutely no sense of what the future holds," said 55-year-old Masayoshi Nakai, director of general incorporated association Bosai project. Based in Higashimatsushima in Miyagi Prefecture, the group holds tours and talks in the city of Ishinomaki, which was badly affected by the events of March 2011, and elsewhere.

Every year Bosai project does tours roughly between March and November, and more than 14,000 people have taken part. It doesn't receive any financial aid, instead covering its costs through profits made from speaking events and tours. But the novel coronavirus has caused at least 20 cancellations, and once winter comes the number of participants falls anyway. Nakai said, "Even if the virus goes soon, people won't come. This fiscal year's activism is effectively over."

In the town of Tomioka in Fukushima Prefecture, Tomioka-machi 3.11 testimonial group has seen cancellations from around 420 people in the period covering March to May. Its representative, Yoshiko Aoki, 72, said that in a normal year over 1,000 visitors would take part in their activities, but up until June they haven't had a single successful booking this year.

The entire population of Tomioka was forced to evacuate the town in March 2011 due to the dangers presented by the meltdown at the Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Slowly, evacuation orders have been lifted for the town area-by-area, and this past March JR Joban Line trains started running full services again for the first time in nine years. Aoki said, "I wanted people to see for themselves how the area has recovered. The way things are now, we have to think of another way to communicate what happened."

There are some activists looking for ways to do their work online. In Iwate Prefecture there are still no confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, but the Tsunami Memorial Hall in the city of Kamaishi still stayed closed between April 21 and May 13 as part of efforts to stop infections. During the period it was shut, online tours of the museum were done over the videoconferencing platform Zoom. A person in charge at the museum said, "We've considered ways for even people who can't come here to learn more about disasters."

Shosuke Sato, an associate professor at the International Research Institute for Disaster Science, Tohoku University and who was involved in drawing up the survey, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "There will be activist groups and individuals that are forced to end their work just before the 10-year milestone since the disaster."

He added that tours and testimonial event activism is closely bound up with local tourism industries, and suggested, "Some kind of government financial support like that given to general business, such as looking at a one-off payment, is essential."

(Japanese original by Takashi Kokaji, Regional News Department)

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