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Disaster Evacuation from Japan's 2011 Tsunami Disaster and the Fukushima Nuclear Accident

Reiko Hasegawa

JAPAN’S 2011 DISASTER: RESPONSES TO NATURAL AND INDUSTRIAL CATASTROPHES The triple disaster that hit the Tohoku region of Japan on 11 March 2011 triggered a massive human displacement: more than 400,000 people evacuated their homes as a gigantic tsunami induced by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake engulfed the coastal areas, and the following nuclear accident in Fukushima released a large amount of radioactive materials into the atmosphere. This study analyses the disaster response, with a particular focus on evacuation of the population, and social consequences of this complex crisis, based on intensive fieldwork carried out one year after the catastrophe. It reveals that the responses of the Japanese authorities and population were significantly different between a natural disaster and an industrial (man-made) accident. TWO EVACUATION PATTERNS: RISK PERCEPTION VERSUS VULNERABILITY Being prone to both earthquakes and tsunamis, Japan had been preparing itself against such risks for many years. A tsunami alert was immediately issued and the population knew how and where to evacuate. In contrast, the evacuation from the nuclear accident was organised in total chaos, as a severe accident or large-scale evacuation had never been envisaged—let alone exercised—before the disaster. The population was thus forced to flee with no information as to the gravity of the accident or radiation risk. In both cases, the risk perception prior to the catastrophe played a key role in determining the vulnerability of the population at the time of the crisis. SOCIAL CONSEQUENCES FROM THE DISASTER: DIVIDED COMMUNITIES AND FAMILIES While tsunami evacuees are struggling with a slow reconstruction process due to financial difficulties, nuclear evacuees are suffering from uncertainty as to their prospect of return. One year after the accident, the Japanese authorities began to encourage nuclear evacuees to return to the areas contaminated by radiation according to a newly established safety standard. This triggered a vivid controversy within the affected communities, creating a rift between those who trust the government’s notion of safety and those who do not. The nuclear disaster has thus become a major social disaster in Japan dividing and weakening the affected communities. www.iddri