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Aid As Analogy: Ambiguities Of “Lessons Learned” In Post-Disaster Recovery

Chika Watanabe
Cornell University


Disaster risk reduction and preparedness efforts often mobilize the concept of “lessons learned.”  The expectation is that past experiences of disaster—the mistakes and successes—will contribute to better mitigation strategies in the future.  In this paper, I propose to complicate the temporal directionality of this formulation in turning my attention to recovery efforts conducted by aid actors who have experienced disasters themselves.  Specifically, I explore ethnographically how three aid actors who experienced, respectively, the Tohoku earthquake in 2011, the Niigata earthquake in 2004, and the Kobe earthquake in 1995, made comparisons and connections between the different disasters in their aid efforts in Ishinomaki city and Oshika peninsula.  I suggest that their acts of what I call “aid as analogy” challenged a smooth, linear progression from the past to the future, from one disaster event to another, suggesting that the formulation of “lessons” from previous disasters in recovery efforts are fraught endeavors for those who have been affected by such calamities.  In particular, I illustrate how the attempts to analogize between disasters foregrounded differences as much as connections between them.  As such, imagining better futures based on cumulative improvements of the past went hand-in-hand with a sense of helplessness in the singularity, and thus un-imaginableness, of each disaster.  Ultimately I ask how we can understand the continuum and tensions between disaster events, recovery efforts, and risk reduction strategies in ways that take into account their often non-linear and non-causal linkages.

In the first section, I look at a man whom I call Mr. Kawakami from the village of Mizuyama in Niigata prefecture.  He recounted to me how volunteers helped revitalize the village not simply from the 2004 earthquake, but also from the problem of depopulation that had been pushing the community toward disappearance from before the disaster.  In analogizing between Mizuyama and the fishing villages in Oshika peninsula, Mr. Kawakami tried to encourage people in the latter communities to connect their concerns with societal problems, such as depopulation.  As such, I suggest that this form of aid, shaped by analogies between the disasters and places of Tohoku and Niigata, aimed to “scale-up” spatially and temporally delimited concerns in order to shift the direction of decay in these communities toward new futures.

In the second section, I focus on Mr. Hayashi, a young local staff of an NGO that is currently conducting projects in Ishinomaki and Oshika peninsula.  As with Mr. Kawakami, it seemed that his interactions with volunteers had given him hope for the future on a personal level, and this was reflected on his aspirations to create a sustained volunteer program with a particular fishing village in Oshika peninsula.  He also visited Mizuyama village in the summer of 2012, and the analogizing between the two locations and disasters strengthened his commitment to nurture relations between villagers and volunteers in Oshika peninsula as a mechanism not only for recovery, but also for longer-term community revitalization.

While analogies in the form of equivalences seemed to motivate hopes and new ideas for the future for Mr. Kawakami and Mr. Hayashi, these acts of comparison also foregrounded differences between the disasters and places.  In the third section, I emphasize this challenge by drawing on an interview with a man from Kobe, Mr. Mori, who founded a volunteer-based nonprofit organization to aid the elderly and disabled persons affected by the 1995 earthquake, an activity that continues to this day.  His organization sent volunteers to cities in Tohoku to lend an ear to people living in evacuation centers in what is often called “listening volunteerism” (keichō borantia).  Although he wanted to convey the experiences of the earthquake in Kobe, and the importance of neighborly and other social relations in recovery efforts, he was also aware of the cultural differences between Kobe and Tohoku.  Having spent some time in the northern prefectures affected by the 2011 disasters, he realized that they could not simply transpose their experiences in Kobe.  As much as aid-as-analogy inspired people to engage in various recovery activities, the work of comparison in trying to learn from past experiences and other places also highlighted the uniqueness of each situation, and the differences between disasters and places.  If the concept of “lessons learned” presumes the conclusion of a disaster-event and the possibility of extracting a guidebook for the future, what Mr. Kawakami, Mr. Hayashi, and Mr. Mori suggest is that the application of previous experiences on current and future recovery work is not a smooth translation.

How would such temporal and spatial comparisons between disasters impact a community’s disaster risk reduction strategies?  Given the observations of the three aid actors in this paper, how does the temporality of recovery efforts seem to relate to the temporality of preparedness and risk reduction?  What policy, political, or personal outcomes might emerge from the intersections and blind spots between these different post-disaster temporalities?  What are the politics and possibilities of such aid activities that discern the differences and commonalities between disasters?  This paper is a collection of “notes from the field” in an attempt to begin to explore such questions.

* The names of Mr. Kawakami, Hayashi, and Mori, as well as the village Mizuyama, are pseudonyms.


Aid as Analogy: Ambiguities of “Lessons Learned” in Post-Disaster Recovery


In early October 2012, world leaders and disaster experts gathered in the city of Sendai in northern Japan to attend the “Sendai Dialogue,” a two-day international conference on disasters and development held as part of the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB).  Leading up to the event, the BBC proclaimed, “Lessons Learned: Japan’s Recovery in the Spotlight,” and the Japan Times reported, “Japan Ready to Share 3/11 Disaster Lessons.”  While a UN official, Hart Schafer, opened the plenary meeting by stating that the resilience and disaster preparedness demonstrated by Sendai city was “a cultural thing… [that] doesn’t come instantly,” the mayor of Sendai, Emiko Okuyama, emphasized the generalizable “lessons learned” from Sendai’s experience so that it may become a model for disaster mitigation in other parts of the world.

The idea of “lessons learned” and its often-coupled concept of “best practices” are key terms in disaster risk reduction efforts.  These lessons from past disasters are meant to contribute to better preparedness strategies and to build local resilience against the next disaster.  This is the framework of what Andrew Lakoff (2007) has called “the anticipatory mobilization for disaster” (261), the various technologies of rationality and intervention oriented toward an impending catastrophic future.  In this paper I pause to consider what is often overlooked in the forward-looking compulsion of “lessons learned”; that is, I focus on moments of recovery efforts in order to explore the temporal weight of diverse past experiences of disaster, unresolved loss, and the gap between past and future that makes the transition from loss to lessons, from particular experiences to generalizable points, much more difficult than the technologies of preparedness suggest.

In the ethnographic sketches that follow, I turn my attention to moments when individuals who experienced disaster—in Tohoku in 2011, Niigata in 2004, and Kobe in 1995—tried to transform their experiences into something else vis-à-vis post-disaster aid efforts in Tohoku.  This was not necessarily something as well-formulated as “lessons,” but it was a form of aid work that aimed to reorient the past as well as the future.  These actions were not intended to contribute to preparedness, nor based on an anticipation of a future catastrophe.  They unfolded in less deliberate ways.  What I want to explore here are how people who experience disasters themselves engage with post-disaster aid work in ways that interlace different temporal horizons in their varying definitions and concerns of “recovery.”  The ethnographic vignettes below are notes from the field in which I gesture toward the contours of the generational, regional, and scalar lines of differentiation across which aid actors articulated their experiences of disaster vis-à-vis other disasters in a dynamics of recovery efforts that I call “aid-as-analogy.”


On April 6, 2011, Mr. Kawakami, a 50-year old man from the village of Mizuyama in Niigata prefecture—a region 260 miles to the southwest of Miyagi prefecture—drove for 6 hours with his friend to help out with relief efforts in Ishinomaki city.  Mizuyama village had also experienced an earthquake of Magnitude 6.8 in October 2004, the second largest earthquake since the 1995 Kobe earthquake.  The village lost most of its rice paddies, affecting the livelihood and future of its inhabitants.  Mr. Kawakami told me, “People have helped us and taken care of us so much since the 2004 earthquake, and so we wanted to go to Ishinomaki to help in whatever way we could.”  Volunteering and aid work was a form of return for him, a repayment of gratitude for a generalized moral debt.  He and his friend packed the car with tools, water, and food, and spent 10 days in Ishinomaki city eating and sleeping out of their car, volunteering to help clear the streets of debris, until Mr. Kawakami pulled his back and had to return home.

Mr. Kawakami recounted this experience to me when I was visiting Mizuyama village in the summer of 2012 as part of one of the weekend volunteer programs that villagers have been organizing since 2004.  The volunteer work usually consists of farm work over the summers and snow removal over the winters.  It was clear, however, that the purpose of these activities was not for volunteers to actually provide useful labor for the elderly villagers; after all, it was clear that urban participants, most of them in their twenties and thirties without experience with manual labor, could not be much of a labor force.  I had heard over the years that what was meaningful for the villagers were the relationships with these young volunteers.

Like many other rural regions in Japan, Mizuyama village suffered from rapid depopulation as Japan developed throughout the 1970s and 1980s.  In 1955, there were 37 households in Mizuyama and 15 households in the next village, but by 1989, this other village had disappeared.  Around the time of the earthquake in 2004, Mizuyama itself only had 9 households left, and after the disaster, 3 of those households left the village.  The remaining 6 households, 13 people of which the majority were elderly, were also thinking that they would soon have to abandon their village.  But after the disaster, suddenly groups and individuals began to come to Mizuyama to offer help.  One of the leading NGOs in Japan helped coordinate volunteer programs that facilitated the visit of over 2000 volunteers in 6 years, including a program called “Let’s Go to the Rice Paddies!” (tambo e ikou!) in which volunteers could help the villagers to plant and harvest rice.  After a couple of years, the villagers began to coordinate the volunteer programs and other initiatives themselves.  In recent years, they have developed new projects to revitalize their community in order to create an environment that would welcome and nurture young successors to the farmers.  In 2010, a family of 3 moved to the village, and in 2011, 2 young women—former volunteers—relocated to Mizuyama.  A baby was born in early 2012, and another is on its way.

Mr. Kawakami explained that, at first, the villagers were hesitant.  In 2005, when reporters would ask them “How do you imagine Mizuyama 10 years from now?,” they could not answer because they thought that, in 10 years, the village will have disappeared.  Having been a community where everybody knew each other from birth, they were also wary of outsiders such as volunteers.  But over time, they came to appreciate these visitors, and Mr. Kawakami told me that villagers were moved by the fact that so many young people from cities would take the trouble to travel to such a remote part of Japan, pay their own way, and labor in their fields.  They were given strength (genki) by this.  But what surprised them even more, he said, was that the volunteers would themselves say that they were encouraged by the villagers, that now they could go back to the city with renewed energy for their own work.  The villagers were initially perplexed by this reaction, but in time, it made them realize the value of what they have; that is, in Mr. Kawakami’s words, “clean air, a beautiful landscape, rich human relationships lacking in cities, the strength to face nature, and the culture and customs nurtured in this environment.”  If the village before 2004 was on a track toward disappearance, the earthquake pushed villagers to turn around this temporality of decay to different possible futures through a form of relational exchange with volunteers.

Mr. Kawakami went to Ishinomaki and the adjacent Oshika peninsula 2 more times after his initial trip.  The second time was after he went to the nearby city of Sendai to receive the 2012 Award for Community Revitalization from the Minister of Internal Affairs on behalf of Mizuyama village.  He told me that one of the things listed in the award certificate was that Mizuyama could become a model of recovery for communities affected by the Tohoku earthquake, and he took this to heart.  Analogic thinking could become the basis of his aid work.  He decided that the first thing to do was to see the affected areas.  So he organized a third trip with several of the villagers, and visited some of the fishing communities in Oshika peninsula.  He told me that the people of these fishing villages welcomed them warmly, offering them a feast of oysters, for which Oshika peninsula is known.  At a later date, Mizuyama villagers returned the gift by sending rice made in the village.  Mr. Kawakami told me that he was impressed by the richness of the sea of Oshika peninsula.  But he was told that these fishing villages suffer from the lack of successors and depopulation, and he realized that they had issues similar to Mizuyama’s.

When I asked Mr. Kawakami what the most important thing had been in their post-disaster efforts in Mizuyama, he explained that the disaster pushed forward the problem of depopulation, and revealed the fact that the disaster came atop and entangled with other social problems.  “So what’s important is to actively send out the message that the problems in our communities are actually problems of our society in general.  Only then will other people understand.”  He told me that this was what he wanted to convey to the fishing villages in Oshika peninsula—to not give up, and to connect their concerns to larger social issues, such as the problem of depopulation in rural communities in Japan.  Mr. Kawakami’s act of analogizing between Mizuyama and the fishing villages in Oshika peninsula appeared as a way to “scale up” local issues as societal problems.  At the same time, it was difficult to tell if the problem of depopulation itself was truly a “scaled-up” concern; that is, is it an issue that people in Tokyo and other urban centers try to address seriously?  Or does the act of aid-as-analogy end up reinforcing urban-rural divides?


Envisioning recovery activities through the conceptual mechanism of aid-as-analogy was also present among local aid actors in Ishinomaki who had themselves lived through the 2011 disasters.  As Mr. Kawakami and I talked, a young man, Mr. Hayashi, sat next to us, listening intently.  He was one of the local staff from the Ishinomaki office of the NGO mentioned above.  The NGO had conducted post-disaster activities in Mizuyama between 2004 and 2010, and was now working in Ishinomaki and Oshika peninsula.  As a new staff member of this NGO, on the same weekend that I went to Mizuyama in the summer of 2012, Mr. Hayashi also participated in the volunteer program in order to see the village for himself.  When I first met Mr. Hayashi in May 2011, he had appeared to be a quiet, gloomy young man, with overgrown hair that always covered most of his face as he was often looking down.  I met him again in January 2012, and I barely recognized him.  He looked up at people now, smiling and talking to volunteers, checking up on everyone.  When I commented on this, he told me that he had always been shy, but being put in charge of the NGO’s volunteer coordination, he realized that he had to change, began to read books on how to improve his social skills, and by the early fall, a switch inside him had turned on.  Later, I heard from another person that he had experienced a devastating loss in the tsunami, which explained why he seemed to be so downcast when I first met him.  It was incredible that he had made such a transformation.  He was only 21 years old.

Half a year later, in August 2012, on one of our trips to a fishing village in Oshika peninsula, Mr. Hayashi told me that when I last saw him in January, he had actually been going through a tough period.  As the disaster relief efforts began to switch gears, the head of the NGO was asking local staff in Ishinomaki to plan for the next stages of recovery.  Mr. Hayashi felt stuck, not knowing how the volunteer program could evolve into a meaningful activity.  He did not want to exacerbate the sense of dependency that was beginning to take root in some communities, and yet he did not know how to expand the volunteer program in new directions.  Then, around February, he began to see some possible directions for the future.

He told me that one of the best things that had happened in the previous year was how much the people of one fishing community had changed since the disaster.  At first, they were all busy just trying to live their day-to-day lives after March 2011.  But as Mr. Hayashi regularly brought volunteers to the village, their perspectives changed.  The distanced attitude dissolved, and the fishermen began to express their welcome to the volunteers, treating them to oysters and other local produce for lunch.  The villagers told Mr. Hayashi that they had, in fact, been thinking for a while that they wanted to give back (okaeshi) to the volunteers—they figured out that, even though they didn’t have much, they could show hospitality (omotenashi) by offering what they did have, fresh seafood.

After taking part in the volunteer activities in Mizuyama, Mr. Hayashi told me:

I reconfirmed the importance of continuity in volunteer programs, and realized the various possibilities and developments that could unfold through connections between people.  There are many relationship problems within the fishing village in Oshika peninsula, but if we can somehow get everyone in the village involved with the help of outside volunteers, I think that things can change, little by little.


Unlike other coastal areas further north, Oshika peninsula had never been a tourist destination, and outsiders rarely came to these villages.  Through the volunteer program, he wanted to encourage a new industry of experiential tourism in the area, making this particular fishing village a model community.  He told me that he had a vision of something like the “Let’s Go to the Rice Paddies!” project in Mizuyama, a marine version: “Let’s Go to the Ocean!” (umi e ikou!) in which volunteers could experience the work and lives of fishermen.  From the mountains to the sea.  He went to Mizuyama to see if such an analogy would be possible.

It is still too early to say if this analogy will help shift the course of the future for this fishing village.  But I suggest that what the analogies enabled were techniques to imagine the future in different ways, from a temporality of decay to possibilities of regeneration.  In particular, what strikes me is that this dynamism was owed to the changes in relationships, which were at the center of the analogies.  This is especially clear in the analogies between the two men’s individual experiences and their visions of collective transformation.  That is, as Mr. Kawakami found a personal path toward the future through his interactions with the NGO, similarly, he believed that relationships with outsiders could revitalize Mizuyama.  A similar echo existed between the way that Mr. Hayashi’s relationships with volunteers changed his sense of loss to a hopeful commitment to his work, and his emphasis on interactions with outsiders as a vision of alternative futures for the vanishing fishing communities.  Both men found analogies between their personal relations and the relations of their communities, and these analogies allowed them to imagine, “what if…?”—not a “what if” of worst-case scenarios (Clarke 2006), but a counterfactual thinking of a different order.  Changes at one scale of relationality seemed to provide hints for transformation at other scales for them.

At the same time, we also need to question how differences and disparities between places, events, or points in time emerge through aid-as-analogy.  After all, analogic thinking is not only about establishing similarities, but rather, it is a work of comparison.  Although Mizuyama and Oshika peninsula share similar problems of depopulation, the scale and nature of the disasters were not the same, leaving different scars on the land and people.  One local Ishinomaki staff member at the NGO told me that what struck her the most in meeting Mizuyama villagers who visited Oshika peninsula was their passing comment: that the scale and complexity of the disasters in Tohoku were much greater than in Niigata, and so it was beyond the advice and assistance that Mizuyama villagers could give.  The aid worker, who was from Ishinomaki and had joined the NGO a month after the earthquake, explained that the experience of Mizuyama villagers was only one example of a post-disaster community recovery effort, and so they could not simply use that same experience in Tohoku as an absolute model.  “If the place changes, the form of aid changes too,” she said.  “Kobe, Niigata, and Tohoku all had different types of earthquakes, different situations, and different complexities of disaster.  In this one [in Tohoku], there’s the highly difficult issue of radiation, which is being detected in Ishinomaki as well.”  Analogies highlighted differences as much as connections; the “lessons” to be learned from experiences and past events were inherently indeterminate.


             Immediately after the Kobe earthquake in 1995, a schoolteacher mobilized a group of people in an evacuation center to serve as persons to whom others could talk about their worries and problems.  This teacher, Mr. Mori, who eventually went on to organize the group into a volunteer-based nonprofit organization, explained to me that their purpose was not to provide specialized counseling services, but to simply give people a space to talk about their daily concerns and other mundane things in a form of assistance that is called “listening volunteerism” (keichō borantia).  This work was driven by Mr. Mori’s struggle to balance his disillusionment with his commitment to help vulnerable persons still suffering the effects of the Kobe earthquake.  He explained:

People are usually walking in a straight line along a road, with doors on either side that are shut.  But if you open those doors, you’ll see people like the elderly and disabled persons on the other side.  The earthquake flung open these doors.  One would think that, at this point, others would become kinder to these people behind the shut doors, but they actually just shut the doors again and continued walking on the same straight path.


Mr. Mori was disheartened by the indifference that he saw from municipalities, some neighbors, and others who had not been severely affected by the Kobe earthquake.  He saw that this unkindness only grew over time, as the 1995 earthquake became a distant memory for the general public.  Thus, the activities of his group were first and foremost to focus on people who had been marginalized and forgotten, years after the earthquake.  “It’s about building relationships of trust and letting them know that they’re not alone,” he said.  “Only people can save people (hito wa hito ni yotte shika suku-u koto ga dekinai).”  As in Mizuyama, the work aimed to grasp at something or someone that was headed toward disappearance through the creation of social relations.

At the same time, Mr. Mori was torn.  His Power Point presentation was titled “Struggles toward Hope” (Kibō e no kutō).  Pausing on the title page, he emphasized the importance of this phrase in presenting the slideshow because the truth was that, even if one wanted to have hope after Kobe, it was nearly impossible.  The government had let people down, and many people still struggled in the aftereffects of the earthquake.  In his opinion, too much energy and money had gone into infrastructural changes, and not enough into helping people’s livelihoods.

When the Tohoku earthquake struck, the volunteers in the organization decided that they could help out by doing what they had been doing for the last fifteen years: lend an ear to people in need.  When I asked him if it helped that they themselves had experienced the Kobe earthquake, he nodded.  “It is easier to talk to people [in Tohoku], being from Kobe.  We know what living in an evacuation center is like, and we can give people advice based on that experience.”  I asked Mr. Mori how one could make use of past experiences of disaster.  He replied that people focused too much on disaster prevention (bōsai).  According to him, as a city, Kobe had invested disproportionately in “city-building” (machi-zukuri), which “lacked a sense of humanness” (ningen no nioi ga shinai).  He told me that the only way that people could have a forward-looking perspective and continue to live positively was to create connections between people.  “It’s because neighbors care for you that you can live on, even if the conditions are really bad,” he said.  He wanted to convey this message to the people in Tohoku.

“But,” he commented, “even if one wanted to build on the experiences of Kobe, the differences in cultures pose difficulties.”  He stated:

Kobe and Tohoku are different.  The people are different.  Tohoku does not have the same “style” (nori) as Kansai [the region where Kobe is situated].  For example, you can’t enter into people’s lives easily, like in Kansai.  It seems that Tohoku is much more of a vertical society (tate shakai), and so people listen to those in authority.  People in Kansai complain more.  People in Tohoku endure things more, and put responsibility on the people in authority.  I think that this will be a problem in the future.


Thus, as appealing as it was to reference past experiences of living through and providing assistance to people affected by a disaster, the efforts to analogize between events and experiences also foregrounded lines of distinction.  While aid-as-analogy inspired relational connections between people in Kobe and Tohoku, Mr. Mori’s statement indicates that analogic thinking also generated culturalist perceptions of identity and difference.  Gregory Bateson (2000[1972]) famously provided us with an analogy between a leaf and a noun based on their relational configurations, but this comparison also begets the question of what cannot be analogized between a tree and grammar.  If making analogies between Mizuyama and Oshika peninsula stimulated new ideas and motivations for the future for Mr. Kawakami and Mr. Hayashi, the attempt to connect Kobe and Tohoku, the earthquake in 1995 and the disasters in 2011, brought forth notions of difference as well as connectivity, as much doubt as hope for Mr. Mori.  Articulating past experiences in disasters as “lessons” or models for current recovery activities in Tohoku seems to entail such calibrations of difference and connectivity, disillusionment and aspiration, in ways that complicate what recovery means for different people.  If the wisdom of disaster risk reduction and preparedness activities lies in building upon past experiences to imagine different futures, another kind of effort to configure the relationship between the past, present, and future, between one disaster event and another, seems to take place in recovery efforts.  At the same time, for people who have experienced disasters themselves, the analogies are never stable, predictable, or comforting; they know all too well that the singularity of each disaster event makes any formula for recovery or preparedness impossible.

If so, how do these temporal and spatial comparisons in aid-as-analogy relate to disaster risk reduction strategies?  In other words, given the observations of these aid actors that different disasters and recovery efforts cannot be fully analogized, how could “lessons” from the past be calculated as risks to be managed and anticipated?  Conversely, if recovery efforts can be motivated by analogies with other experiences and places, how is the temporality of anticipatory technologies challenged or expanded?  Furthermore, what is the relationship between conceptualizations of difference and hope, that is, is it possible for an awareness of difference and incommensurability to generate aspirations for the future, rather than disillusionment, in a framework that is outside of “lessons learned”?


Works Cited

Bateson, Gregory. 2000[1972]. Comment on Part II. In Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Pp.153–156. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Clarke, Lee. 2006. Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, Andrew. 2007. Preparing for the Next Emergency. Public Culture 19(2):247–271.


Chika Watanabe is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Cornell University.  Her dissertation examines how international aid work is constituted through intercultural relations in a Shinto-based NGO in Japan and its projects in Burma/Myanmar.  Her most recent publication will appear in Political and Legal Anthropology Review (PoLAR) in May 2013. 

  1. Chika, this is such rich, emotionally evocative material, and wonderfully thought-provoking analysis. I can’t resist the temptation to note that in some ways it must have been a struggle to write a piece which must necessarily grope toward some form of generalizable knowledge (because as academics this is what we do, at least if we want our writing to be relevant) but which does so by highlighting a certain incommensurability of individual experience and interrogating the drive to produce generalized “lessons learned” from such experiences!

    More to the point, I’m curious about the connection you draw between “lessons learned” for disaster risk reduction, which seems to me largely oriented toward policy and governance, and those rich, intimate “ethnographic sketches” of individuals’ experiences. You successfully portray echoes between that policy realm and the human realm, in that each of your subjects is aiming to learn lessons and apply them within his own sphere of control. However, I’m not sure I fully understand the nature or the objective of this analogy you draw between the personal and the public (policy-oriented) uses of empirical learning, which frames your piece. Can you elaborate on your argument there?

    I was struck by Mr. Mori’s comments about machi-zukuri being too focused on infrastructure projects and not enough upon building the conditions for “livelihoods,” including presumably human relationships and community ties. Going back to the early machi-zukuri groups in the 60’s, this was one of the main reasons for them to form in the first place: to act as a “soft,” social, community-oriented counter to the “hard,” infrastructure-oriented institution of city planning. Yet I think Mr. Mori’s comments are a perceptive recognition that, in practice, machi-zukuri councils are often concerned primarily with changes in infrastructure and the built environment, albeit on a local scale. This raises the question of whether something else — perhaps the volunteer activities you describe here — are replacing machi-zukuri insofar as that humane, community-building function is concerned (though one doubts whether machi-zukuri ever really fulfilled that function beyond a few celebrated cases).

    I also want to comment on the question of disaster risk reduction policy. As a Fulbright-Hays fellow I’m affiliated with the International Recovery Platform (IRP) in Kobe, which is a secretariat of various governmental and international organizations including the World Bank, UN, the Cabinet Office of Japan, etc. IRP helped to organize the Sendai Dialogue and similar gatherings, and is involved in early discussions on formulating the successor to 2005’s Hyōgo Framework for Action, an internationally agreed-upon document laying down policy principles for disaster risk reduction. In short, IRP is deeply enmeshed in a web of relationships among disaster risk reduction and recovery experts, government agencies, NGO’s and IGO’s. Speaking of temporality, the work of these groups and individuals is very much paced by the stochastic rhythms of the occurrence of disasters around the globe. Each disaster sparks a new round of research and data-gathering, to be collated into “lessons learned” on “good practices” which will subsequently be disseminated to governments and IGO’s. The underlying principle that unifies much of this work is the very thing that you have identified and begun to interrogate here: that “lessons learned” from each event can be used to help minimize the impact of the next. Interestingly, one of those overarching lessons has been the very notion that, while different disasters often share certain features, every disaster is in some way unique, owing to local culture and conditions and so on. This is dealt with in two ways: by admonishing policy makers (these lessons are generally conceived as being aimed at policy makers, after all) to be attentive to the unique local conditions of each disaster zone; and by supplementing generalized, rule-like “lessons” with plenty of detailed case studies. Of course, no strategy can simply do away with the inherent tension between the imperatives of assembling generalized knowledge from empirical cases on the one hand, and the essentially unique character of each case on the other; however, that the tension exists is recognized. The question, then, is how practically both individuals and institutions manage this tension as it arises. (One would suspect that policy-oriented organizations, at least, tend to follow general rules excessively despite a nominal recognition of case-by-case uniqueness.) Indeed, your three “ethnographic sketches” demonstrate this very well.

    Chika, I think your focus on temporality and directionality in a pre/post-disaster context is profoundly important, because an awareness of both the previous disaster and the possible next one is so palpably present in every statement and every act in such a context, and yet it is thus far under-analyzed. Thus, speaking to the theme of this virtual conference, I think this is critical work for Disaster STS.

  2. I think this is a very interesting set of case studies that provides useful contrast to two areas that have received a lot of attention in the study of disaster: mainly disaster preparedness, and the role of international aid in disaster relief. The different experiences and analogies made by the individuals in this study has particular relevance as the news coverage this week teems with contradictory stories about the status of recovery in the Tōhoku region.

    The question of what is *conceivable* here plays as much a role in recovery, in providing potential post-disaster futures, as it does in anticipating and preventing future disasters. A great deal more work has been done on disasters and preparedness than on recovery (a point made by Kitahara Itoko in Kinsei saigai jōhō-ron about historical studies, and the available sources for such work)–for this reason, I found the study in this paper not only thought-provoking but valuable.

    Likewise, the culture clashes and disconnects between relief worker or volunteer and local resident after disaster has generally been looked at in an international disaster relief context. The discussion of the different cultures (not only experiences) of Kansai, Niigata and Tōhoku remind us that not only the nation, but the region and regional identity has an important role to play in such “cross-cultural” interactions. I have to wonder if these regional identities, particularly as expressed by Mr. Mori in this paper, might not be more strongly expressed or reinforced in Japan compared to another national culture. After all, JR’s regional tourism campaigns and popular entertainment such as Himitsu no Kenmin Show emphasize regional characteristics and “uniqueness” in a way that brings such regional difference to the foreground of popular discourse.

    A question I have for the author, is that while you emphasize the material differences between the three locations as the basis for the incomplete or imperfect analogizing between recovery experiences, I wonder if you could speak a little more in particular about the role interpersonal communication might play in how people evaluate their own analogous experiences; particularly as Mr. Kawakami and Mr. Hayashi had the opportunity to converse. Do you think that communication and the sharing of stories played much of a role in how people evaluated these analogies, or even made such analogies in the first place? Or was personal experience a factor that overshadowed all others in this process?

  3. Chika Watanabe permalink

    Tyson and Kristina–

    Thank you so much for your wonderful comments. It’s true that the issue (and politics) of “generalizations” from ethnography and people’s personal experiences that defines academic work (at least in anthropology) is in some ways an echo of the struggles that I tried to illustrate here. For the sake of space, let me try to answer the specific questions you both raise.

    Tyson: Your question about the relationship that I pose between personal experiences and policies of “lessons learned” is on point–in the sense that what I wanted to do in the piece is to question that link, and I don’t elaborate on it. Your own work with IRP that you describe here already challenges the contrast I was making between the multiple temporalities of personal experiences and the future-oriented framework of risk reduction and preparedness strategies. Clearly, the policy-makers are more complex than how I made them out to be in this piece! But I wonder if policies of “lessons learned” and “best practices” ultimately do demand actors to articulate things in forward-looking terms, whereas Mr. Mori, and Mr. Kawakami to a certain extent, were more hesitant or doubtful about making their past experiences “work” for the future in a causal way. Their methods of analogizing between their experiences and the Tohoku disasters seemed to have different temporal qualities, and perhaps a term other than “lessons learned” needs to be developed to indicate that dynamic. In that sense, I wanted to suggest that the temporality of recovery is not the same as the temporality of preparedness or risk reduction–although both are post-disaster domains–and that recovery of one disaster can be interlaced with responses to other disasters because helping others is also often a way to heal oneself. I still need to develop further how this relates to risk reduction strategies. It would be interesting to compare the work of IRP with grassroots efforts to connect past disasters/recovery experiences with current/future ones.

    Kristina: I love your question about interpersonal communication. I hadn’t thought of that, but it was definitely a factor in Mr. Hayashi finding hope in learning about the recovery efforts of Mizuyama. The intermediary role of the NGO was also an important factor, since it’s how Mr. Hayashi and Mr. Kawakami came to know of each other in the first place. You’re right that as much as the analogies foregrounded differences, the quality of the personal relationships shaped the assessments of the analogies between experiences, disasters, and cultures. In that sense, I wonder if Mr. Mori’s relationships and interactions with people in Tohoku was of a different quality. The urban-rural differences as well as the notion of regional differences also seemed to play a role in the assessment of the analogies–Mr. Kawakami and Mr. Hayashi could relate to each other because of their rural contexts and their shared problems of depopulation, which made their recovery work have a different temporal horizon than disaster preparedness. One concern that all three shared was the situation of elderly citizens after disasters and the issue of ageing communities, something that I’d like to focus on in the future.

    In short, I’m wondering how disaster STS can include studies of recovery and aid. My dissertation work and research interests have been about development and humanitarian aid work, and so the tensions and relations between humanitarian practices/moral logics and technoscientific interventions in disasters is something that I hope to develop for my next project. Your comments have been very helpful in thinking through these first few steps. Thank you so much.

  4. Hi Chika,

    Thanks so much for sharing this work and your experiences in the field. I feel that you’ve provided us ith a rich window into the culture of Japanese aid workers and the affected communities in the rural regions of Japan (plus Kobe). Your analytic summary at the beginning reminded me of a talk I heard at 4S about the perpetuation of past patterns of action and frames of reference in dealing with similar disasters (in that case, the BP disaster and prior oil spills). It’s interesting to note that the phenomenon exists among the volunteer community as it does among expert communities.

    In commenting on Ben’s paper, I had mentioned how I couldn’t find an appropriate substitute for the general “culture” concept, but in the case of your paper the concept of “imaginaries” came more immediately to mind. At least in the first two case studies, there is clearly a sense of imagined futures that inform the actions of the volunteers, and these imaginations are both transformed and capture, well, the imagination of the communities that free them from the more dim view of a future that they held (ironically?) prior to the disaster. I find it interesting your own choice of how you signpost narrative closure in your account—the return of two young volunteers and the birth of a child—even as you point to the internal tensions within the narrative.

    Regarding more specifically the concept of “aid as analogy,” I have to admit that I have a tendency to be wary of neologisms, asking usually whether they do useful work. I found myself asking whether speaking in terms of imaginaries and their translation across geographies might not get at much of what you’re describing, and offer other resources, familiar to STS, about what occurs during acts of translation? Where the concept does its most work seems to be in the third case where Mr. Mori does explicitly appear to be thinking through analogy, as he seeks to more formulaically reproduce the interventions he made in his own region. Identifying and describing analogy as a specific body of practice for achieving (or failing to achieve) translation across locations, and who deploys such practices, seems valuable to note. (I think talking to Mike Lynch, and pursuing an ethnomethodological frame of what aid workers actually do, might prove surprisingly productive.)

    You also closely describe for us the narratives of hope (except perhaps for Mr. Mori) that one of the other papers pointed to were present in the case of the post-tsunami recovery, but absent in the case of those displaced by nuclear radiation. You really do an excellent job of unearthing the richness of the social relations in Japan, and would be very interested in comparisons to similar descriptions of aid workers in New Orleans. I was struck especially by the discussion about indifference, and how that plays out in different cultures, across/within racial and socioeconomic lines, and across time (e.g. medium vs. short term attention). Reflexivity, or how you see these relationships as filtered through your own cultural lens, might also become more important to your project.

    Atsushi Akera
    Department of Science and Technology Studies
    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
    Troy, NY USA

  5. Cecilia Manoliu permalink

    Hi Chika,

    I think your material is so interesting and rich in information. I ‘m not much familiar with the situation of the particular village affected by the Niigata earthquake to be able to grasp well the similarities and differences but I’ve been in Oshika peninsula after earthquake. This summer I went also to Central Asia/Kyrgyzstan for my field work and I often received questions of how Japanese deal with the disasters and what lessons can be learned. I found this particularly difficult to answer. We gather data from each disaster in the hope that something can be learned and we will be much better prepared for the next disaster. As you point out although it seams to be very a very difficult endeavour to create analogies even within the borders of the same countries, then what is happening with those lessons when we speak of completely different spaces, socio-cultural contexts ? How one can select the right information from all those lessons of the past disasters and give it a meaning in an entirely different context?
    It is interesting that international Japanese NGOs for examples faced difficulties in working locally and applying their international experience to Tohoku. Same for the international NGOs and some foreign volunteers.

    One comment of Mr. Hayashi I find it particularly important He mentioned that he ” felt stuck, not knowing how the volunteer program could evolve into a meaningful activity. ” It’s something that I notice in the case of many NGOs and volunteers when they needed to switch from activities related to the relief faze to recovery. There seams to be a problem for NGOs/ volunteers in finding a meaning for their programs and what role they can have in the long run. And I think here is one of the differences between Japan and some other places. For example in Kyrgyzstan due to the socio-economical and political context NGOs take lead and are involved in a various rage of activities including building of infrastructure and housing after a disaster (the case of Nura village after 2008 earthquake where NGOs like Save the Children build houses for the most affected families). In Romania Habitat for humanity rebuild in partnership with the government about 110 houses after floods. This kind of roles are not applicable in Japan therefore how NGOs and volunteers can maintain a meaningful presence in the communities ?

    Cecilia Manoliu
    University of Tsukuba

  6. Chika Watanabe permalink

    Hi Atsushi,

    Thank you so much for your comment. I think that “imaginaries” fits very well with what I’m describing here. I also like your suggestion to engage with the analytic of “translations”–I think that’s apt as well. What I did want to highlight by using “analogy” is that I found the negotiation of similarities and differences to be important, and thus a dynamic that was more specific than just imaginaries. But I do need to figure out whether it makes more sense to use translation or analogy here. Perhaps the larger vision of this project can be within the framework of different temporal and spatial imaginaries, and translations and analogies are some techniques of imagination. The question of indifference is also poignant, and the issue of how indifference is produced and maintained in the wake of disasters. And this would definitely need to be a self-reflexive project that hinges greatly on my own positionality.

    Hi Cecilia

    Thank you very much for your comment as well. In my dissertation project I also worked in Burma/Myanmar, and there’s definitely a discourse of “learning from Japan’s disaster preparedness and response” there, especially after the 2008 cyclone. I’m interested in that kind of dynamic as well. What I’m not sure about is if the analogies (or translations as Atsushi says) are qualitatively different based on national boundaries, or if the differentiations are along other lines. For example, despite differences, people in Oshika and Kobe would probably say that they’re Japanese, but would the impetus of aid as analogy change dramatically if there were no such national identification? Common sense would say yes, but I’m not sure yet. You’re right that volunteers/NGOs had a particular role (or exclusion from larger roles) immediately after the disasters in Tohoku–the NGO that I mention has extensive international programmatic experience, and they were only allowed to do “volunteer” work like debris removal, etc. I wonder if policies about the role of NGOs/NPOs in post-disaster response in Japan will change in the future.

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