Part 1: A journey through Tohoku Japan

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On December 20th, 2011, three researchers from three different universities took off on a road trip that would take them through some of the areas that suffered the most devastation caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011.

I first met Yugo Shobugawa at Harvard University back in May 2011.  He came to watch my presentation on “Social Media and GIS: Mapping Revolutions, History, and Catastrophe” where I spoke about the role that social media played in the days following the earthquake.  Yugo is a physician, an expert in clinical epidemiology, and is currently an assistant professor at Niigata University.  But he is also quite the GIS practitioner, fluent in using spatial analysis to provide amazing insights on how space is directly correlated with the outbreak, diffusion and control of various epidemics.  We bonded immediately over mutual excitements over things like temporal mapping, spatial regressions, and why our 4 year old children never listen to us.  But I think the real connection happened when we both acknowledged our feelings of despair and helplessness of being Japanese, and yet not being in Japan during the earthquake.  For many Japanese nationals living abroad, experiencing the earthquake from a distance was excruciating.  It is this sense of despair that drove many of us to pour our hearts and souls into the recovery effort, in any small way that we could, remotely.

And so it was that when I finally had the opportunity to visit family and friends in Japan in December, 2012, I also decided that I had to see the effects of the disaster with my own eyes.  I had been in a similar predicament in the past, having toured the town of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, shortly after the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004.  This trip left a huge imprint, witnessing an entire community in ruins, standing on ground zero of it all, rendered speechless and heartbroken for people I had no connections to.  With much trepidation, I understood that going to Sendai would be, in many ways, different.  Different in a sense that these were my people that had suffered, that I had a deep cultural and spiritual bond with the land that was affected.

So on the morning of December 20th, Yugo and I met up at the Shinkansen platform in Tokyo, and rode together towards Sendai. It was only the fourth time we had met, having first met at Harvard, then at UCLA, another time in San Diego, and now on a bullet train) , but it felt like we had been friends since kindergarden.  It was on this bullet train ride that Yugo told me about the Bishamon Project that he was working on.  The Bishamon team was working with local governments around the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, monitoring radiation levels in surrounding communities, focusing on commuting routes around schools.  He told me that the data they were collecting revealed what many feared, that radiation levels were still very high, at exposure levels that were dangerous to live in for prolonged periods of time.

As we rode along, I realized that all of this was interconnected in a strange way: our journey towards Sendai and Miyagi being one part of the whole, with the ongoing situation in the Fukushima Nuclear plant being the other.  Upon arrival in Sendai, we were met by a pleasant, effusive and thankfully talkative Dr. Mimura, who was currently working on his PhD studies in Tohoku University.  He had volunteered an entire day to take both of us around strategic spots in Sendai and Miyagi, all along providing excellent insight and stories that we would otherwise have no access to.  While there were many, many places he took us to (too many to recount here), I would like to focus on just a few highlights of the day.

Ishinomaki City

Our first stop was Ishinomaki City.  Driving around the city, we were initially struck by how life seemed to be going on as normal.  A vibrant community, densely populated neighborhoods, and the usual hussle bustle you expect from any mid-sized city.  But it soon dawned upon me that some things were far from normal.  The traffic lights not working, the visible damage in many buildings, the newly paved sidewalks, but most of all, it was the sign of boarded up businesses that were apparent in many areas of the city.  But it was not until we reached the Medical Center that the true impact of the disaster was felt.

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Ishinomaki City Emergency Room 石巻市夜間急患センター

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While many areas around the city were showing signs of recovery, this medical center was left mostly untouched since March 11th.  It felt as if time had stopped, as if we were here just moments after the earthquake.  Venturing inside this structure revealed something I can only describe as a scene from an apocalyptic movie.  The entire first floor of this building was inundated, without a single window still intact.
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Kadowaki Elementary School

Driving along, we saw what remained of Kadowaki Elementary School.  Fires had caused much of the damage following the earthquake, leaving the facade charred, the structure devoid of any sense of livelihood.
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Turning around, you would notice that all areas around this school were completely devastated.  What remained were outlines of buildings and occasional structures that had somehow survived the onslaught of the waves.
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Looking along the horizon, I saw what appeared to be small mountains, but I was struck by the uniformity of these mounds.  I soon realized that these “mountains” were debris mounds.
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And then, what I saw down the road left me searching for words.
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To be continued…