Richard Wood: Reflections on the Japan earthquake

Editor’s note: Dean Emeritus Richard Wood ’65 Ph.D. and his wife, Judy, have lived in the part of Japan devastated by the recent earthquake and tsunami.  Wood, a past president of the Japan Society, wrote the following reflection in the wake of the tragedy.

By Richard Wood ’65 Ph.D.

Today's New York Times had a moving picture of people on the island called Oshima, in Miyagi Prefecture, trying to float their house back to land.

In the summer of 1969, Judy and I lived in a tiny village just a short boat ride on a peninsula across from the island, Oshima.  Our market town, also reached by boat, was Kessen-numa, now in ruins.  Over the years since, we have lived along that now devastated coast several times, and visited often.  Most of the villages we knew are gone, except for a few properties high up on mountainsides.  We've made contact with a few friends who live inland in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, but none yet with those who were along the coast.

We can testify to the truth of recent stories about the self-reliance, care for each other, and organizational skills of these folks.  When, in the 1970's, we lived in an even more isolated town in Iwate Prefecture, Tanohata-mura (where they made me an honorary citizen some years ago), we knew of Tanohata because this little village, not well-off financially,  had reached out to an architect friend of ours at Waseda University in Tokyo, to design for them a modern junior high school and dormitory.  The population density and rugged terrain required that the junior high be residential.

For most of Japanese history, these isolated coastal towns needed to fend almost completely for themselves.  They developed social structures as tough as the terrain. The land there is rugged, geologically like the Norwegian fiord country, but without the long valley fiords.  So when a tsunami strikes, the water piles into the shallow coves.  Most had sea walls, but nothing adequate to protect against a wave over forty feet high.  The nearest cities are hours away, even when modern transportation works, and days away when it doesn't.

We are deeply impressed, but not surprised, at the courage and resourcefulness these rural Japanese have shown and are showing.


Posted: 04/04/2011