June 17, 2011

A JCIE team visited several hard-hit towns Tohoku on June 17–19 in order to speak with NGO leaders, government officials, and local citizens about their communities’ needs and how outside aid can be directed most effectively. Following are the reflections of JCIE/USA Executive Director Jim Gannon.

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Before departing for Tohoku, I have spent the week in Tokyo with a delegation of 15 American scholars and policy experts meeting with a wide range of Japanese leaders from different sectors of society. The aim was to discuss US-Japan relations in general, but 3/11 comes up as the main topic in almost every meeting, with most people expressing gratitude for the extraordinary response of the US military as well as the donations of the American people. As we meet with people farther and farther from the traditional power sources, the more dynamic the conversation becomes and the more we feel a sense of mission. Many of those with whom we speak cite the revitalization of Tohoku’s economy as the top priority now, and there is much talk of searching for new ways to promote entrepreneurship and venture philanthropy. The meetings with some of the country’s leading entrepreneurs are especially animated as they speak passionately about the need to create a new Japan. It is only when we talk about Japan’s domestic politics that things turn ugly. It is clear that the level of public disgust with political maneuvering and the Kan administration’s perceived lack of decisiveness in responding to the disaster is extraordinarily high, even if it is difficult to envision how much more the leaders of any other developed country might have done.

We catch the last bullet train out of Tokyo Station that will take us to Iwate, the poorest and most remote prefecture hit by the full strength of the tsunami. Surprisingly, the train is packed, with people standing in the aisles. It is Friday, and many of them are heading north from Tokyo to volunteer over the weekend before returning to work on Monday. All is normal until we pull into Fukushima City, which has had radioactive hotspots although it is outside of the 12 mile no-go zone around Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. Nobody gets off of the train and the platform is completely deserted, a scene that is jarring for those accustomed to traveling in Japan. Even more striking is the eerie sight of the city. Office buildings are clustered around the station, just as they are in most of Japan’s larger cities, many standing 10 to 15 feet stories high. However, there are only two or three lights turned on in each.

Tomorrow we head to Kamaishi on the coast, which has been hard hit by the tsunami.