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Crossing the Streams: locals, experts & knowledges in Tōhoku’s participatory recovery planning

Tyson Vaughan
Cornell University

I have conducted over a year of ethnographic fieldwork in tsunami-devastated Japan, investigating participatory recovery planning processes in several districts of Karakuwa Peninsula in Kesennuma City, Miyagi Prefecture, and the roles played by recovery planning experts from Kobe. Much of my training is in that branch of Science and Technology Studies (STS) concerned with public engagement with science and technology (PES), and I began this project on the supposition that post-disaster participatory recovery planning is an interesting example of “upstream” public engagement in socio-technical change, in which non-local recovery planning experts work with non-expert, local residents. However, my research has led me to question some of the assumptions that I carried into this project, in ways both disappointing and reassuring. For example, the actual degree of influence that local residents wield over the shape of their built environment is disappointingly constrained by government policy. Also, the oft-invoked notion of “upstream” engagement seems thinly theorized and frustratingly inappropriate when the current activities are considered within the cultural and historical context of the local area. However, I have found the experts far more reflexive and keen to understand local conditions than generally portrayed in PES literature. In this short paper, I will touch briefly on each of these “findings,” and I will be happy to discuss them in more depth in my presentation and in the fora of the workshop.

The initial recovery plans compiled by the municipal government of Kesennuma in 2011, like the plans of other municipalities in the region, boasted three prominent features for future disaster risk reduction: (1) a larger, redesigned seawall; (2) mass residential relocation to high ground; and (3) a zoning scheme based on elevation and proximity to water[1]. By early 2012, residential relocation was also explicitly listed as a “core” project category to be funded by monies appropriated for the new national Reconstruction Agency (復興庁) [2]. In other words, largely before any significant participatory planning processes had begun, government at the local and national levels had already decided, with essentially no public consultation, to make several fundamental changes to the built environments of towns and villages in the disaster zone.

Viewed in a vacuum of context, these plans appear to promise a safer, brighter future. And what is “upstream” engagement about, if not the future? When viewed in socio-historical context, however, it seems more accurate to say that, if the tsunami brought acute devastation to these villages, current recovery plans would bring permanent dislocation from their history and traditional ways of life.

Until the second half of the 20th Century, the inhabitants of the steep valleys and rugged inlets along this ria coast had maintained a similar livelihood and culture for generations. In the fishing villages of the Karakuwa peninsula, families lived in large, multigenerational houses. The main, patrilineal line of the family, or honke (本家, “main house”), maintained close ties with the other family branches, or bunke (分家), and hosted large, extended-family gatherings during festivals. The peninsula is too compact and rugged, with no rivers and insufficient fresh water, to permit wet rice agriculture, but local residents produced silk, which they traded for rice or cash[3].  In addition, residents grew their own fruits and vegetables in small plots. Today, most houses still have their vegetable gardens. In fact, the produce section of the local supermarket, in addition to a small selection of fruit and vegetables, sells seeds.

Fishing, however, has historically been the center of the community’s culture and livelihood. Fishing set the social rhythms of the villages, as the women went out en masse to the beach to send off their husbands in the morning and then again to greet them in the evening, helping to haul in the boats, nets and the day’s catch. Especially successful families displayed their wealth in a particular way: by constructing ever more ornate roofs for their houses. This gave birth to an elaborate style of roof for which Karakuwa became famous. Because they grew their own produce and procured their protein directly from the sea, locals rarely needed to purchase food, aside from rice. These were remarkably self-sufficient people. Even into the late 20th Century, Karakuwa fishermen crafted much of their own equipment — nets, boats, fishing rods — from wood and other materials sourced from the local forest.

Only in recent decades had these traditions begun to change, with fishermen relying increasingly upon purchased “high-tech” equipment and less upon local resources or friends and neighbors. Fishers could work individually rather than in groups. To a certain degree, they also became somewhat less dependent upon embodied skills and tacit knowledge rooted in experience working directly with nature. For example, traditional hoya (sea-squirt) fishing entailed probing the seafloor with a long, flexible rod constructed by the fisherman himself from local plants. “Modern” methods used electronic sensors and synthetic nets. Meanwhile, local forestland became increasingly privatized, and land owners grew less and less inclined to allow access to the materials fishermen traditionally used to make their equipment (Takahashi, 2003). At the same time, the honke-bunke family structure began slowly to dissolve. Multi-generational households gradually became less common. Families grew more independent, but also more socially isolated from each other[4].

The fishing industry, including the oyster and wakame seaweed aquaculture which accounted for a significant portion of the local economy, not only became more technology-intensive, but also more globalized. By the end of the 20th Century, Karakuwa fishers were competing in a relatively open market with much cheaper products from other parts of Asia, pressing them to increase production and lower costs. Yet, simultaneously, the local waters around the peninsula began suffering from environmental contamination due to runoff from mining, the logging industry, and agriculture, causing die-offs or the ruining of whole “crops” of oysters and the other shellfish raised by the aquaculture fishermen.

During the heyday of Japan’s postwar “economic miracle” and its late-80’s “bubble” economy, fishing towns like Kesennuma never quite fully shared the level of affluence or the material comforts enjoyed by urban centers like Sendai or Tokyo. They remained unambiguously on Japan’s internal periphery. As the rest of the country slid into the “lost decade,” coastal and rural villages faced significant declines in their economies. Their populations rapidly aged and declined as birth rates fell and young people left, seeking office jobs in the large cities.

In short, in half a century these villagers on Japan’s periphery endured significant transformations to the social, material and economic foundations of their livelihoods and culture. They became increasingly ensnared in Japan’s globalized, techno-industrial, capitalist economy, suffering the social and environmental costs of their entanglement. Indeed, their ways of life and social and environmental conditions began increasingly to reflect those of Japan’s urban center.

By early 2012, residents of the Matsuhama district of Karakuwa had begun participatory planning processes involving expert consultants from Kobe [5]. They met once or twice per month. During the early stage of the planning process, these residents expressed profound reservations about both seawalls and relocation to high ground. One resident summed up the issue when he said, “When we say the word seikatsu (生活, ‘livelihood’), what that really means is umi (海, ‘the sea’).” Plans to enhance safety by moving away from the water or building ever more gargantuan seawalls merely separate the community from the source of its identity, and yet cannot guarantee people’s safety[6]. In fact, some residents argued the opposite. People who live here understand from a young age that tsunami follow powerful earthquakes, and they know how to recognize the telltale signs of an impending ōtsunami (大津波, “great tsunami”) and how to avoid it (run to high ground, or take your boat far enough out to sea that the tsunami will roll under it). Meanwhile, on March 11, massive and extravagantly expensive tsunami defenses such as the famed Kamaishi breakwater had been decisively overwhelmed. Some coastal towns, heavily damaged by past tsunami (e.g., 1960, 1933 and 1896), had largely redeveloped their lowland areas only after such defenses had been erected, only to be even more thoroughly devastated than before. Aware of this context, residents contended that large seawalls would accomplish little beyond merely encouraging an exaggerated sense of safety. Rather, they argued that their local, indigenous knowledge of tsunami risk — born from deep historical experience (and, for some, personal experience) — could be at least as effective at saving lives as concrete walls.

Despite these objections and the clear preference of most residents not to build a large seawall, its inevitability was never seriously in question. Eventually, residents accepted both group relocation and the system of amplified levees. When asked why, more than one said “shikata ga nai kara” — “because there is no (other) way.”

Now, after more than a year, the relocation plan has nearly been finalized. Assuming that land ownership details can be worked out [7],  it would move residents to a hill near the sea, overlooking their old village. There will be no ornate roofs, no large honke houses for extended family gatherings, and no attached plots for vegetables. Houses will be small and packed closely together, much more like urban residences. Although not far, residents will have to descend a steep access road and drive down the highway a short distance to the waterfront, a very different experience from simply walking a few steps to the beach.

A focus purely on infrastructural technologies and the built environment of these villages might reasonably lead one to construe the post-disaster recovery process as “upstream,” because this is a moment when sociotechnical futures appear to be in flux. However, when considered in light of social and historical context, to talk of “upstream” engagement in this case seems unjustly to do violence to the fundamental narrative of decline which sadly characterizes these people’s experience and history.

But all is not gloom and doom. Although the ambit of the participatory recovery planning process is constrained by government policy, within those parameters we can see non-local experts working far more sensitively and productively with non-expert local residents than one might expect based upon common characterizations of technical experts in PES literature[8].

Indeed, one of the proudest achievements of PES has been the replacement of a “deficit model” of an irrational and technically ignorant public with (what could be construed as) a “deficit model” of inveterately un-reflexive technical experts who are institutionally blind to local knowledge and conditions[9]. Thus, PES frameworks implicitly retain the assumption of a problematic lay/expert divide which also characterized the old PUS (“public understanding of science”) model. Like two rivers that never cross, technical and non-technical ways of knowing supposedly flow in parallel streams.

Yet, in the context of participatory recovery planning in Karakuwa with experienced experts from Kobe, this does not describe what I have observed. Consider, for example, the practice of machi-aruki (町歩き, “town walking”).

One day in 2012, experts from Kobe organized a machi-aruki activity for the district of Matsuhama, in which they and the residents visited the village’s devastated hama (浜, generally translated as “beach” but in this area often equated to the entire zone of flat land near the seashore of a narrow ria valley). With the exception of a single reconstructed general store, their village was now leveled and cleared of debris, a field of rectangular foundations. The group walked around, pointing out places that had mattered to them. The experts asked questions: “What was this?” “What was in that place?” “Where did you live?” The residents effectively reconstructed their old machi (まち, “town” or “community”) out of the fabric of memory. The machi they conjured did not merely comprise physical structures and technological infrastructure, but also social relationships and the rhythms of daily life — in the words of one recovery expert, not just a landscape full of rocks and trees or a townscape full of buildings, but a lifescape full of people and activity. For example, a resident would say: “I used to live over there, and I liked it there because every morning I could go two doors down to K’s house, and we would walk down to the water and stop at Y’s to get some tea on the way. Then K and I used to watch the sunrise as the boats went out.” Reconstructing such memories was emotional and probably therapeutic for many residents, and it also served to remind them of the kinds of places and structures and practices which they valued in their community, past and future.

At a machi-zukuri (まちづくり, “town-building” or “community development”) meeting in a neighboring district, conducted by a different group of experts from Kobe, residents gathered around a platform in the center of the meeting room, upon which was displayed a white, detailed three-dimensional model of their village as it existed before the tsunami, constructed from foam-core materials, about 2 by 3 meters in size. The experts discussed the importance of remembering what their village had been like in the past, before beginning to plan what shape it would take in the future.

The model enables residents to see and remember and “walk” through their old machi in a way similar to machi-aruki. The Kobe-based professor of architecture who built the model with his students told me that while the model generally serves a similar function as the practice of machi-aruki, the advantage is that it fixes the past townscape — and thus residents’ memories of their “lifescape” — in a relatively durable, physical artifact. The professor described the relationship between the material configuration of a town with the life-ways and memories of its residents in the following way:

There is the landscape and the townscape, and within that there is what we call a lifescape. When we talk about “building a town” (まちを作る), that may mean physically building, but when people live there, they create this kind of lifescape. And then the tsunami comes, and the town is destroyed. But even if the town is gone, if we make a model like this, a portion of their lifescape will still remain…. Whether people retain this or not becomes so important for them when next they make a new townscape[10].

The professor’s description suggests that he understands an expert’s role not as merely dispensing technical information or advice based on putatively universal knowledge, but as evoking and eliciting memories, information, and affective expressions that inform, not only the experts, but the locals themselves. Furthermore, he argues that it is paramount for an expert to learn to see from a local perspective:

What my theory is now, regarding the relationship between experts and residents, is that residents become experts, and experts become residents…. What I mean is, this process — residents becoming experts and experts becoming residents — this is actually machi-zukuri itself. That is my assertion [11].

In short, although these are but brief and partial examples, the non-local experts’ uses of machi-aruki and the scale model indicate less a “lay/expert divide” than a convergence — a site of interaction and cooperation between reflexive actors who are aware of their knowledge gaps and who earnestly engage in mutual learning to address those gaps and accomplish collective goals. In the context of participatory recovery planning, the streams of local and expert knowledge are not parallel; they cross and mix. The important question for STS and PES scholars, then, is not why this group can’t understand that group’s form of knowledge, but rather: through what practices and strategies does knowledge circulate among different epistemic communities?

In closing, I would like to explicitly point to an implicit meta-argument of this paper, which is that one of the possible uses of DSTS includes interrogating established theories and frameworks by “testing” them in the empirical context of post-disaster recovery. In this case, my fieldwork in Tōhoku has changed (I would say “enriched”) my understanding of classic PES tropes such as “upstream” engagement and unreflexive, locally blind technical experts. Furthermore, it has sensitized me further to the outsized influence of government policy in post-disaster recovery.


[1]「海と生きる:気仙沼市災害復興計画」umi to ikiru: Kesennuma-shi saigai fukkoukeikaku (“Living with the Sea: Disaster Recovery Plan of Kesennuma City”), Kesennuma City, Oct. 2011.

[2] “Current status and path forward for reconstruction,” Reconstruction Agency, November 2012.

[3]  Indeed, Karakuwa (唐桑) translates as “T’ang mulberry,” and the local legend is that the area’s first mulberry tree was brought to this area by a ship from T’ang Dynasty China.

[4] Following Aldrich (2011), we could describe this as a deterioration of “bonding”-type social capital, and we would expect this to reduce the resiliency of the community in the aftermath of a disaster.

[5] I have anonymized the names of specific districts and individuals.

[6]  The previous two sentences appeared in “Notes from the debris field,” my paper submitted to the first Fukushima Forum online virtual conference in 2012.

[7] This is by no means a safe assumption, and a source of worry for residents.

[8] There are many examples by many authors, but arguably the pre-eminent canonical exemplar is Brian Wynne’s work on Cumberland sheep farmers dealing with “experts and bureaucrats” in the wake of Chernobyl.

[9] To state it somewhat simplistically and dramatically.

[10] Interview, April 8, 2013.

[11] Interview, April 8, 2013.

Tyson Vaughan is a PhD candidate in the Dept. of Science & Technology Studies at Cornell University, a co-founder of the academic blog Teach 3.11, and a Fulbright-Hays Fellow affiliated with the International Recovery Platform and the Kobe Machi-zukuri Research Institute, both of Kobe, Japan. His research interests revolve around urban planning for post-disaster recovery, community (re-)building, and public engagement with technoscientific expertise.

  1. unixj4zz permalink


    Your piece is very important for STS in revisiting the issues of expertise and the relation between science/engineering and publics

    The discussion of ‘lifescape’ suggests a phenomenological approach towards space/place, dwelling, and memory. That is, it describes the active engagement of a particular group with their surroundings which follows the Husserlian formula: it is not because they have a mental representation of their former built environment that they have the ability to engage in the reconstruction process, but it is precisely because they lived in a particular place through their sociotechnical entanglements with humans and non-humans. ‘Dwelling’ is key to understand possibilities of connection (and disconnect) of experts from Kobe with the affected community.

    Also, in respect to the question of ‘lifescape’, I was wondering if you looked into the trajectory of the experts you encountered. By looking at their personal life histories you might be able to illuminate other aspects of their form of engagement with the space and the community/built environment reconstruction process.

    I have another question as well: what is the role of ‘gaijin’ post-disaster reconstruction volunteers
    and international NGOs in the context you described? Is it something that was not relevant to the particular location you conducted fieldwork? Or, is it a minor influence that did not resonante as crucial for the description of the case at hand?

    Looking forward to our discussions during the workshop!

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments! Indeed, I think phenomenology is appropriate to bring in here. I like your use of the word “dwelling,” which, as a participle of “to dwell,” implies activity.

      Indeed I have been looking at the histories of these experts, though more as a group than individually. In particular I am interested in those experts who were instrumental in the recovery planning process after the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995, and what role they are playing in Tohoku today.

      As for “gaijin” involvement, from what I have observed that has fairly restricted to special projects and to volunteer activities distinct from the recovery planning process. Worth studying in its own right, but not a major part of the overall recovery, I think.

  2. Monamie Bhadra permalink

    Hi Tyson! I share your frustrations with how constrained upstream engagement activities can be. My work so far in India suggests that the public’s engagement with science, at least around nuclear energy, is really an engagement with what counts as legitimate forms/practices of democratic politics, the ends and means of development projects, and a defense of lived experiences that can be marginalized by planning experts. Whether it is trying to have a say in designing an evacuation route in case of a nuclear accident, or trying to force the government to accept non-governmental epidemiological studies of high cancer rates of workers, science is rarely the terms of engagement there.

    It’s also really great that you are giving a nuanced portrait of experts, to show how they try in earnest to understand the needs of those they seek to help. I really loved the idea of simultaneously walking, remembering and rebuilding. But while I completely agree that the new question should pay attention to knowledge circulation pathways, I don’t think the “old” question of why different knowledges cannot be apprehended should be thrown out. In contexts with great power asymmetries, rigidity in knowledges plays a huge role in maintaining those disparities.

    • Thank you, Monamie! I appreciate your insights from your work in India. I am curious, is the distinction you cite between what is contested and what is science your own analysis, or an actor’s claim? Yes, I think you are right, I would not make the blanket move of throwing out incommensurability.

  3. Scott Knowles permalink

    This is very provocative, thanks Tyson. I read this after already reading Yasuhito Abe’s paper and Phil Brown’s and I’m seeing a theme emerge that I hope we can work with at the meeting. Namely, the expert/non-expert divide is a staple of STS scholarship (my own to be sure), but it has limits. If we don’t follow up on moments when experts are shown to be limited (yet willing to learn) or citizens display profoundly useful knowledge, then we are missing important opportunities to show how and why risk-taking is sustained, and normalized. The machi-aruki you describe is one of these moments when the divide seems to break down. I think it also happens WITHIN expert communities, and sociological research has shown that there can be a reordering of social functions at the local level post-disaster as well.

    I have been thinking about this differently in terms of what emergency managers do and what they represent in the US. Often, EM’s find themselves representing the possibilities of a “temporary world,” a place where recovery will rewrite broken histories of disinvestment, environmental pollution, deindustrialization, and poverty. In the “temporary world” the expert/non-expert divide seems suspended for a time, especially when people are in “volunteer” mode, boots on the ground, meeting in improvised spaces. As Paul Jobin points out, sometimes these temporary worlds are places of exploitation for relief workers. But, sometimes they also seem to be places where new communities are forged in the absence of strict oversight (for experts) and under the weight of grief and the hope of transformation (for victims).

    I’m still trying to understand, though, why citizens in japan have not questioned the central government’s emergency preparedness moves. You have this:

    “Despite these objections and the clear preference of most residents not to build a large seawall, its inevitability was never seriously in question. Eventually, residents accepted both group relocation and the system of amplified levees. When asked why, more than one said “shikata ga nai kara” — “because there is no (other) way.”

    WHY is there no other way? What changed about the political economy to render such futility?

    • Thank you for the thoughtful response, Scott. I really like this idea of a “temporary world” in which the possibilities and rules of engagement appear to be thrown open to a certain extent. I will have to think about that further, particularly in the context of a comparison with Kobe (or New Orleans), as it could certainly be a significant part of a more diachronically oriented story.

      I also would like to know the answers to your final questions. I have some ideas, and I’m looking forward to discussing this with you further. (And see Phil’s comment for part of the explanation.)

  4. As I have noted elsewhere in my comments, the long-standing patterns of government-public interaction, especially as they impact relatively rustic areas of Japan, need attention. The issue is not just expert/non-expert, but the prestige and implicit authority imputed to government employees. While this might not be as explicit and forceful as the 19th century expression, kanson, minpi (respect officials, despise the people) suggests, bureaucrats in Japan retain a very high status (although arguably this is under attack, as seen in the privatization of the postal service and its related enterprises, and protest groups of local origin which link up to similar groups nationally).

    On the issue of the role of “experts,” as I have in the SHOT Copenhagen and Cornell meetings, I would encourage us all to be self-reflective about this issue. STS practitioners are, in my experience, motivated to improve the world and have an impact on the society more broadly, but the more we get wound up in professional jargon, the more we limit our potential to do so. Extensive use of opaque language (this is a general observation, not directed at Tyson or any other author in particular) may be common within the field but use outside of it erects a barrier that sets scholar aloft as experts, sometimes incomprehensible and apparently insensitive to one or more set of stakeholders.

    • Phil, I do think the first half of your comment goes some way to answering Scott’s questions. There are certainly social norms in play here. Perhaps related, I have noticed that people I interviewed in New Orleans talked about the recovery planning process as an opportunity to fundamentally reconfigure the ways that decisions get made in the city (i.e., back-room deals and corruption would be replaced by public deliberation), whereas I never hear residents in Tohoku speaking in those terms of almost revolutionary social change.

      Completely agree with your comments on experts, jargon, and communication. Indeed, even some of these experts in facilitating participatory recovery planning started their activities in Tohoku with an excess of technical terms, not to mention forward-facing genkiness. Local residents were initially unfamiliar with the terminology and really still too emotionally burdened to mentally process the very concept of recovery planning. Over the course of their collaboration with the experts, however, they have educated themselves, and they have gradually moved into an emotional space of being able to face the tasks of recovery.

  5. Charlotte permalink

    Thank you for this very interesting paper. I did the same kind of research about the fire that destroyed the Oakland hills in 1991 and do think that what your are pointing in your paper is extremely important. First because you show how much it is important to have people define their own risk and their own vulnerability. Recovery and resilience do have cultural roots and being able to reduce people vulnerability is also being able to understand their intellectual framework. I have also been very interested by the spatial dimension of your argument. Space – which is defined broadly by people’s everyday practices – is an important dimension of the personal identity. Maybe you’ve came across Augustin Berque’s work who, through several decades has been working in Japan and did a beautiful works of the co-instauration of space, identity and poetry: what he calls “ecoumene” (Berques, 1993). His new book, in English this time (but I just came across it while writing this comment) questions more particularly the space of the disaster (Berque, 2013). I would be also curious to know your though about the possible integration of the concept of ‘culture’ and “identity’ in a STS perspective. After reading you paper I was wondering what was the process that conducted to the reconstruction of urban-type residential dwellings, in such apparent contradiction with people practices and needs. Looking forward discussing that with you,
    Berque, A. (2013). Thinking Through Landscape (p. 96). Routledge.
    Berques, A. (1993). Du geste a la Cite. Forme Urbaines et Lien Social au Japon. Gallimard.
    Latour, B. (1998). To modernize and to ecologize? That is the question. In N. Castree & B. Willems-Baun (Eds.), Remaking reality: Nature at the Milenium (pp. 221–242). Routledge.

    • Charlotte, very interesting! Indeed, I need to think more about how to engage with the spatial in my analysis and narrative. Thank you, also, for the cite! I will definitely check it out.

  6. Tamiyo Kondo permalink

    Tyson, what kind of Kobe experts’ knowledge, based on their experience after Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, has been exported to Tohoku, and how was the response from communities there in Kesenuma?
    What do you think is the reason that experts from Kobe organized Machi-Aruki?

    • Kondo Sensei, great questions! As you know, I have been trying to answer these very questions for a while. I don’t think I have a complete answer yet, but I have some ideas, and I’m looking forward to discussing them with you.

  7. Ryuma Shineha permalink

    Interesting work! I think this case can be discussed as expertise, role, and norms of inter-mediator or facilitator, connecting to discussions in public engagement or science communication context. And I get questions how this trial and experience effect expert’s and other actors’s knowledge and epistemology. I would like to hear that in more detail.

    And as another point, I think experts in this case has different expertise from traditional PES cases. I guess that experts in this case are more field-oriented than case which Brian Wynne discussed. If it’s true, in my opinion, the differences should be analyzed and discussed. In additon, particularly, I anticipate detailed analysis of mutual learning between actors.

    • Shineha-san, you make several very perceptive points. The role of intermediator or facilitator is indeed critical, this relates to your second point about different kinds of experts. One thing I need to do much better in my account is to distinguish between different groups of experts. As you say, there are differences between the experts I describe and those described by Wynne and others in PES literature — and also, of course, differences between the cases and the kinds of knowledge in question. I discuss all of these points in much more detail in the dissertation. I will say briefly that Wynne and other PES authors have typically made a point of generalizing their critiques in specific cases. For example, Wynne could have said that, with the Cumberland sheep farmers, it was just a case of poorly executed science and poorly communicated advice, but instead, he explicitly applied his critique to all science and all forms of technical rationality. (BTW, I am a huge fan of his work, which inspired my own choices, but I think it is worth pointing out that such critiques fall prey to the same universalizing fallacy that, he points out, characterizes scientific and technical rationality more broadly.) Going back briefly to the question of facilitation, indeed we could say that this is a core expertise of the experts I describe — intermediators between technical and non-technical, between local and nonlocal, and between citizens and administrations and other organizations. Thank you for your perceptive and stimulating comment!

  8. Kath Weston permalink

    The ethnographic detail and site-specific insights in your paper really bring the stakes in these debates about expertise to life. I got to thinking about how your findings would compare with things in Alaska where the slow-moving disaster called climate change is forcing relocation of Inupiaq villages. It’s a very different context, of course, not least because it’s shadowed by a history of forced government relocation of Native communities, but then that speaks to the emotional and symbolic weight of these histories, of staying in place for generations or moving through landscapes, of who claims these histories and who initiates change. Indian Country Today has reported on meetings between experts, locals, and local (including tribal) governments in Alaska in which experts have encouraged participation with statements like, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” But engagement has also taken the form of organizations that somewhat bridge the divide, such as a relocation coalition and student groups like S.O.S. (Save Our Shishmaref) who have done fundraising, worked with filmmakers, etc.

    • Kath, I’m glad you mentioned the “slow-moving disaster called climate change.” For the incipient field of DSTS, I think it is important for us to keep that, and similarly long-scale crises, in mind when we talk about disasters. And it sounds like the organizations you mention fulfill that intermediary role that Shineha-san pointed out is so critical.

  9. Norio permalink


    I really impressed your ethographical research at Karakuwa. And I agree your comments that a government constrain the recovery scheme. All the scheme used for the recovery in Tohoku was developed in the ara of growing Japan, so that it does not work at the shrinking community. We say that community fight with new issues by very old fashioned wepon.
    And one thing I would like add about the community that they have experienceS of recovery from tsunami disaster. I am not sure about your staying community but many communites resettled to higher ground after the Syowa Sanriku Tsunami (1933). We have good report about the recovery project. I did survey how those resettlement sites surved from the 2011 event. Please refer to the following my article.
    And Machidukuri was the main concept of recovery in Japan after the 1995 Kobe earthquake up until the 2004 Niigata earthquale. I don’t know why, but Tohoku people did not use Machidukuri concept. The way of decision making in Tohoku commuity is very old fashined, they used traditional Japanese village type decision making style. It says that eldery or local boss will decide every thing.
    However, what is interesting to me is that yourger generations are starting to say no to those local boss decision making. Such kind thing has never happeded before. The point youger genration complaying is that elder genertaion does not think the future of community, they are just thinking what IS good for now.
    I really appriciate to discuss furter with you.


    • Maki Sensei, you raise so many important points in your short comment!

      Indeed, some people I spoke to said that their village had retreated and then resettled their hama multiple times after past tsunami.

      With regard to the different form of planning in Tohoku (which you suggest with some justification is not really a “true” machi-zukuri), I think that part of the problem is the large and diverse area affected, and the lack of any kind of system or standards for how to engage in recovery planning on the local level. The districts I work in found their experts through sheer chance; there was no “bank” of registered experts and no overarching plan for public participation as there had been in Kobe. So each district just did the best they could with the organizations and techniques that they knew.

      As you note, the generation gap, and the aging and decline population, is a huge issue. Looking forward to discussing this further!

  10. Nicolas Sternsdorff permalink

    Tyson — I like the ethnographic example of machi-aruki, and how memories surfaced. This reminds me of some of the literature on place, and the emphasis that space can be turned into a place filled with meaning by the user.
    I’m curious if you found through your research any differences in the ability of towns to deal with experts? I remember reading reports that in some towns, many if not most of the city officials died after the tsunami. Did it make a difference if people with civil-service experience were still representing the city?

    • Nicolas, thank you. Yes, the loss of city officials has been a big problem in general, compounded by the fact that so many municipalities had recently been merged. I do think that there have been differences as you suggest, based partly upon the vagaries of social networks and partly upon the officer exchange program being used, in which officials from towns and prefectures outside of Tohoku rotate into the region to supplement the local officials’ work for a while, and then rotate out again.

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