Last night I was at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan in Tokyo attending a "Book Break." The book in question was Japan Copes with Calamity: Ethnographies of the Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Disasters of March 2011, ed. by Tom Gill, David Slater, and Brigitte Steger. I don't know Brigitte, but Tom and David are old friends. Both are anthropologists, one from the UK, the other from the US, who are tenured faculty at Japanese universities, Meiji Gakuin and Sophia University respectively. I mention this book here because it addresses a question frequently debated on OAC and in other anthropological forums online: What can anthropologists do? And, in particular, what can anthropologists do in the face of calamity, disaster on an overwhelming scale?
The contributors to this book mobilised networks of students and colleagues, led groups that participated from the start of the relief effort. Their "fieldwork" involved digging through mud, passing out blankets and food, helping victims find surviving members of their families and deal with officials and NGOs. But it also had another dimension. As reporters turned their attention elsewhere and bureaucrats faced with events that had shattered all routines fumbled for what to do next, they made it their mission to stay on and to capture and retell the stories of the people affected by the disaster. And, as Gill, in particular, made clear last night they were not always the stories that the pious platitudes of theory prepare us to hear. A big three-generation farmhouse in the countryside inside the nuclear exclusion zone around Fukushima No. 1 is abandoned. The family is relocated, but split, with the parents and children in one place and the grandparents in another. It is awful,yes. But to the wife, now out from under the thumb of her mother-in-law, also a relief. Most of the places affected were small and already depopulated. Young people in this part of Japan have been leaving in search of better opportunities for decades. Those making plans to rebuild must take into account stories like that of a young man who says candidly that feeling guilty had kept him from leaving. Now, after the disaster, that guilt is gone. A young activist wants to marry a local girl. He goes home to talk it over with his parents, themselves activists with strong progressive views—which doesn't prevent his mother from asking if he's thought about the possibility of a radiation-contaminated wife who may die early of cancer or produce deformed babies. Loving concern or discrimination? Can the two be separated?
There is no "theory" here, no debate about politico-ontological or epistemological ramifications. But as a report from the field from folks who stepped up when others, including myself, had, as we say, others things to do, it is moving and morally challenging. I highly recommend this book.