“It may not be much, but it’s a lot more than nothing.”

The idea of giving up without a fight is anathema to the people of Tōhoku. The nation’s politicians need to do more to use the powers and resources at their disposal to help local people as they work to rebuild their lives, says Miyagi-based freelance writer Ishida Osamu.

The idea of giving up without a fight is anathema to the people of Tōhoku. The nation’s politicians need to do more to use the powers and resources at their disposal to help local people as they work to rebuild their lives, says Miyagi-based freelance writer Ishida Osamu.

What kind of impact has the Fukushima nuclear crisis had on seafood sourced from the Tōhoku region? Have marine products been affected by radiation—and if so, how bad is the contamination? I traveled along the Sanriku coast in late June—visiting fish markets from Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture to Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture—to find out.

The Impact on the Fishing Industry

None of the region’s fishing ports escaped the effects of the tsunami. Every harbor, every beach, every town . . . The tsunami devastated the fishing industry along the entire length of the Pacific coast. There were no exceptions.

When I visited Iwate Prefecture on my trip, fixed-net fishing had started up again in places like Fudai and Omoe, and a relatively large variety of fresh fish was on sale at seafood shops in Noda, local markets in Miyako, and other places. I also wanted to get hold of seaweed and shellfish for my survey, but finding samples harvested since the disaster proved much more difficult than I had expected.

I approached an elderly woman working on one of the stalls and asked her if she knew where I could find wakame seaweed harvested since the disaster. She shook her head sadly. “It was all washed out to sea,” she said. “Boats, nets, everything. Even the fishermen . . .”

One of the specialties of the Sanriku area, wakame seaweed is normally harvested in March. This year, the March 11 tsunami swamped the coast just as local fishermen were getting ready for the season. The tsunami wrecked everything in its path—not just fishing boats, but also the nets and other equipment used to harvest the seaweed. Many fishermen lost their lives. The fishing ports were totally destroyed, along with the processing factories and warehouses. Countless trucks, retail outlets, and houses were swept out to sea, and the fishing ports—the vital centers of the local economy—were buried under an incredible mountain of rubble and debris.

There is little chance that this year’s wakame harvest will ever come to market, if any is even harvested at all. There are doubts about next year’s season and beyond too. It is still not clear how severely damaged the ports and harbors have been by all the rubble and sludge the tsunami left behind. It may be years before production of this local delicacy returns to pre-disaster levels.

Growing Fatigue and Reconstruction at a Standstill

And it is not just in the sea that the effects of the disaster continue to make themselves felt. As I traveled along the coast, I was struck by how little progress seemed to have been made on land too. Piles of rubble still disfigured the landscape everywhere I went. I couldn’t help wondering what was to blame for this apparent paralysis, a full four months after the disaster.

To tell the truth, I felt that people’s spirits and energy levels were starting to drop. I got the impression that the repeated exhortations to “persevere” and work hard on reconstruction were starting to sound a little thin. People in the disaster areas are tired. And it is hard to deny the feeling that people in the rest of the country are starting to get frustrated by the situation too.

The energy reserves of people in the disaster areas are slowly dwindling away. It ought to be the job of politicians to boost people’s energy and hope by presenting plans and prospects for the future. But the nation’s politicians are doing nothing of the kind. Although many of them presumably visited the disaster areas in the early days of March, four months later they are still squabbling ineffectively among themselves, hundreds of kilometers from the scene, and utterly out of touch with the people who have borne the brunt of the catastrophe. It is a depressing sight.

A Volunteer’s Words

My wife and I run a small grassroots assistance project that provides second-hand appliances to people affected by the disaster. One man who has been helping out from Kumamoto Prefecture recently traveled to Minamisanriku as a volunteer. A few days later, he uploaded a video of himself with spade in hand to one of the online image-hosting sites. Attached as a caption was something a fellow volunteer had said quietly to him as they worked.

“It may not be much, but it’s a lot more than nothing.”

I like the phrase a lot. Shifting mountains of rubble by hand is a thankless task. Given the horrendous scale of the disaster, it must sometimes feel like an exercise in futility. But a tortoise that keeps up a steady pace is likely to prove much more useful in the long run than a hare (or government) that lets its strength and potential go to waste by napping in the shade (or coming to a grinding halt).

To stumble under an overwhelming burden is one thing. But what the people of Tōhoku will not accept is the idea that someone might give up without first doing everything in their power.

Many people have put their faith in the reconstruction project, and are waging a hands-on struggle against the rubble strewn all around them. Surely it is time for the nation’s politicians to get going, and put their strength and resources to better use to help these people.

Incidentally, the results of my survey on radioactivity levels should be appearing in a Japanese magazine soon. You should be able to find them with a little creative searching . . . (Written on July 11, 2011.)

In This Series
Rebuilding Together
“It may not be much, but it’s a lot more than nothing” (July 11)
The Hardiness Stereotype (May 18)
Care Packages from “Disaster Veterans” (April 10)
“Okage sama” (March 30)

Ishida OsamuIshida Osamu

Freelance writer. Born in Iwate Prefecture in 1960. Graduated from the Osaka University of Arts with a degree in art planning. Turned freelance in 1993, after having worked at editorial-production and newspaper companies. Contributes to local information magazines, government publications, and anniversary publications by schools and corporations.