How do we actually find research partners?

Through a carefully executed plan? Representative sampling? Existing contacts? Stroke of luck…..happy accidents?

I may nullify my credibility as a researcher when revealing that for me the latter has proven the most successful. Some may call it snowballing to maintain academic valour, but perhaps it’s all just a matter of being at the right place at the right time and using those organic contacts to form trusting relationships and making further contacts. For ethnographic research like mine trust is essential, and you sit somewhere between a friend and a researcher in order to foster that trust and to be able to construct the knowledge and data together with your research partners. This is precisely the reason why I have recently started to call people who take part in my research, those I study, as partners rather than participants. Research should not be a one way street for me into ‘Doctorhood’, but rather a partnership during which we co-construct a picture of the reality we want my research to represent, the message we want it to send and the value we want it to produce. These research partners come in many forms and you come in touch with them in unexpected ways more often than none. What I have discovered is that there are three types of partners in this process, at least for me: The Conduits, the Key partners, and the Contacts.

The Conduit is the first link in the chain. They are the connectors getting you in touch with those who have information relevant to your research. You meet them in unexpected places, by chance or by design, and they come into your life from all walks of life and in all manner of social situations. While they are the ones who connect you with your Key Partners, they too often remain an integral part of your research group in one way or another. They don’t just connect you with your informants, they help maintain that trust and relationship with your other partners, are often referred to in conversations and some remain as confidants for you during the field work. The Key Partners on the other hand are those who are qualitatively relevant to your topic, either by having deep knowledge of the issues you are researching, or otherwise engaged in activities that are under scrutiny in your research. They form the core of your research team and are the valuable members who you stay in touch with for a long period of time. Through their engagement and networks, you will then be introduced to a futher larger cohort of individuals who form the basis of your Contacts and function as informants in a more traditional sense.

I have three Key Partners in my research who were the original core of my network, one in each community I am studying. Below I’ve introduced how my happy accidents and chance meetings resulted in the formation of excellent relationships and contacts across the communities. Possibly the difference between my research and that of many others, as well as the major challenge I faced upon arrival, was that I had no existing contacts in Tohoku when I arrived. I was literally starting from scratch and I think the following encounters exemplify the somewhat accidental ways in which I came in touch with my research partners. Still counting my lucky stars!

As I mentioned above, I’m currently working in three communities in the Miyagi prefecture. The very first contact I made was in October. Having just arrived in Tohoku I was feeling a little lonely and was trying to come up with ways of meeting people….since my programme pretty much consists of four people, with everyone being fairly busy with their work (and to be honest, I do tend to seek friends outside the academia as well…we just end up talking shop when left amongst ourselves and interacting with the non-academics has a way of keeping you grounded). As an avid Couchsurfer I contacted a few fellow travelers in Sendai and met up with one of them for a drink on one Thursday evening. After exchanging experiences and life stories, the discussion turned to work, and I explained what my research is about and what I am hoping to achieve here. My couchsurfer buddy went on to suggest that I get in touch with an organisation he volunteered for some years ago saying they sound like something that might fit the bill that is my research. First Key Partner was recruited about a week later.

The following month I received a leaflet in my letter box stating the local disaster management committee was recruiting foreigners from the neighbourhood to take part in a disaster management drill. As I had never been to one I decided to join as it might be useful for the research and give me a clearer picture of how communities prepare for disasters in Japan. During the presentations at the drill I started to speak with one of the foreign volunteers recruited as interpreters who after finding out I was from the UK, suggested I take part in a trial tour organised by Matsushima Town to help promote tourism in the area. As I had never been to Matsushima at that time, I decided it might be a day well spent.

On the day of the tour we were told to assemble at the Sendai Station where we’d be divided into two groups. Five happy foreigners came together that day and we were escorted into Matsushima and two other communities in the area. One of the other participants was an Assistant Language Teacher in Ishinomaki, who was also running some conversation classes in the city. We again exchanged life stories and current plans, after which she proceeded to invite me to join her conversation class the following week as she believed I should meet one of her students who is very much involved in recovery activities in his community. A week later I made the trip and partner number two was recruited for the research.

My final key partner was again recruited through the happy accident route when I took part in a disaster tour in January (something I should also write about in here!), during the course of which I met with a young gentleman who has started a new business in one of the communities devastated by the disaster. After the day’s activities and his interesting presentation to us, I proceeded to go and introduce myself to him. We exchanged business cards and discussed his organisation and my research further. Some time afterwards I got in touch with him over e-mail and we are set to meet for an interview over the next couple of weeks.

Since then my Key Partners have introduced me to further local contacts whose views will be recorded and included into the study. These contacts would have been impossible to make had it not been for my chance encounters that led me to these amazing people who have helped me so much along the way.

Naturally this is not the only way I have got in touch with people, or made contacts in general, and I haven’t solely relied on walking the streets of Sendai with my head in the clouds waiting to bump into people. There is a great deal of e-mailing, phone calls and online searches involved in finding participants, but for me gaining these key partners as my traveling companions has been a true stroke of luck! One of the most important aspects about treating those involved in your research as partners is trust, as I mentioned before, which is Japan especially gains an additional layer of importance anyway. I can trust these partners to stay with the research until the end as they have exhibited commitment and enthusiasm toward the project. In return, I make sure I repay them for their efforts and kindness, and unbelievable amount of time they are sacrificing for this project, with the same level of commitment and motivation by supporting their projects in return, showing interest and enthusiasm, and sharing my thoughts and the research process with them in an open and honest way. These are the people who also help to keep you SANE! They give you an incredible amount of confidence which is something we often forget. By being there, they make you believe in yourself and the thing you are trying to achieve. They make it happen as much as you do.


In the waiting room of field work

It’s been fairly long time since I have managed to write anything in here. Loads has happened of course, but time just seems to escape from you when you are not only busy but primarily confused. It is written in all the handbooks, your supervisor tells you this, as well as your peers who’ve “been there, done that”, and you yourself even might have experiences from field work, but it still takes you by surprise how lonely it is, how confused you are, and how basically everything you planned to do never works out and you have to come up with a completely new game plan. So welcome to my reality of the last couple of months.

The trouble is of course that you are trying to do something incredibly hard in three years. To be fair, for a lot of things three years is a great deal…Let’s face it, for completing a marathon, finishing reading all of the Harry Potter books, for building a house or for realising that purple just isn’t your colour, three years is plenty. But for writing a PhD that requires an original idea, a thoughtfully crafted theoretical foundation, handsome literature review and a solid methodology that is both achievable and rigorous….just as the foundation of getting you to a position where you can actually start collecting data and analyse it in a manner that offers an original contribution to science, three years flies by at lightning speed with you barely holding on to the reigns.

My carefully crafted plan went out the window pretty much during the first month and it’s been an uphill battle ever since to start making sense of the reality that I am studying, and how to honestly interpret and represent what I am witnessing. I have come to narrow this whole second year of PhD to a lot of self-doubt, hatred, confusion and self-pity. A fairly loathsome experience all in all.

When you start collecting data…

  1. You quickly realise how the only reason your data exists is to confuse you. It does not represent what your neatly crafted theory originally suggested it would represent.
  2. You panic cause your neatly crafted theory is in pieces.
  3. You calm yourself down and decide that your theory still works, and that the data not fitting the theory is a research finding and will help you develop the theory further.
  4. But now you need to readjust your approach to accommodate the change in course and development of theory aspect into it as well
  5. And you touch your research questions. Let’s just change this a little, and that one a little, and well, let’s omit that and replace it with that. There, now my research questions fit the theoretical framework
  6. But by this point your methodology has become flawed. Wait, I didn’t ask this is my interview and now I don’t have data to respond to my newly adjusted research questions.
  7. At this point you also start to wonder if you need some statistical analysis to back up your qualitative data.
  8. You start to hyperventilate cause the remote thought of having to use SPSS pops in your head
  9. By this time you’ve already questioned the validity of your data, theory, methodology and research questions and feel like the entire foundation of your project is gone.
  10. If you only read a bit more, then maybe this will all start making sense again. You just need to know a bit more about x, y, and z.
  11. By this time you are trawling through Google Scholar downloading everything and anything that might bear relevance to your topic, printing out articles, categorising them according to topic, year, author, or whatever and pile them in front of you like a giant paper monster.
  12. You start reading the first article and realise it’s rather irrelevant to your topic…you do the same to a couple of others. And finally abandon the task after a few completed chapters, realising this whole thing is just making you more confused.
  13. You leave your desk to do anything but research, clean your house, do laundry, scrub the toilet and find the joy in little things in life, and begin to dream of simpler times where none of these worries exist. Would it really be that bad to work at Tesco?
  14. Eventually you force yourself to return to the theory and convince yourself it is still good and valid, this thing will work out, and return to the data.
  15. You go through steps 1-15 again in about 30 days time.

Kuvankaappaus 2016-3-2 kello 10.41.26And then there’s the mundane task of actually doing the field work. In my case it is almost literal field work…I am actually often surrounded by fields or some nature in a rural community somewhere in the bitter cold of Japan. To be honest, field work is a lot of waiting around….for e-mails, for phones calls, for rides, for trains, for busses, and for people to turn up (only to get a last minute message from them saying they can’t make it). You are wholly reliant on other people for your data, especially if you are doing work with people.

While I do get to spend a lot of time in the communities and “out there” so to speak, it is hardly the Jane Goodall type of romanticised sitting around in beautiful nature observing your surroundings and the beings within, making notes on crusty old notebooks and simply being serene about the task in front of you (OK, I’m sure this is not what even Jane did…but this is how field work is often portrayed isn’t it). My days consist of a lot of sitting around in the office, preparing paperwork, fiddling with language, translation, answering e-mails, checking train times, looking up maps and transport links. And then there’s the endless tirade of endless progress reports, supervision forms, funding applications, conference papers, field trip reports, etc that also need completing.

But despite all this, there are of course nice sides to field work as well. Visiting the research sites, meeting members of communities, having long conversations with your research participants, and in general, witnessing and experiencing the kindness of strangers make the effort worth your while. Hearing people share their stories is an incredibly satisfying, and humbling experience. If you strip it down to its bear bones, they are essentially pouring information on you so that you can gain a PhD…and perhaps, contribute to the advancement of knowledge on a larger scale, somewhere down the line. I do hope, and strive towards research that gives immediate returns to the participants as well, if not in anything else but in the knowledge that their stories get told honestly and in a form that represents the reality as they witness and experience it.

All in all fieldwork can be a satisfying experience, and mostly is. But it is also mundane and wholly unglamorous part of the PhD experience. As in fact is the entire PhD. But we do it anyway because it gets us closer to our goals, it feeds our hunger for knowledge and teaches us values on being rigorous and thorough when analysing the views of those we study. I am grateful for this experience, even though at the moment I fell this is one of the most confusing times in my professional life (I say professional because I do feel PhD should be treated a s a job, but that’s another are of discussion for the future).

Out of chaos comes clarity.

Like a scout, I am always prepared

I’ve lived in Japan before and as a result have been unable to escape earthquakes. Since I’ve been here, we’ve had two noticable ones already. I thought this time round, since I am studying disasters as well, it might be not only interesting but useful as well to attend disaster prevention training, Bousai Kunren in Japanese.

It’s now been over four years since the big one took place in this region. I’ve always felt that Japanese people take earthquakes seriously…which may sound funny, but in general, foreigners get a sense of excitement and since we don’t always know what to do, we fail to do anything and just ride them out. They seem to instil fear in us, but we take them primarily as an exciting experience…perhaps because we’ve not really experienced the damage they can cause.

But Japanese people take them seriously as most of them will experience damages from earthquakes once or more times in their lives and comparing the observations I have made when experiencing an earthquake surrounded by foreigners, and surrounded by Japanese, the differences in composure are striking. It was in Tokyo 2011, about 4 months after the big one in Tohoku, when I was sitting in a meeting in a downtown Tokyo office building when the early warning system (that since the Big One, started to become a standard feature in any government building) went off and warned us of impeding danger. Generally, the early warning system is an automated system that collects data on seismic activity and issues a warning ahead of the quake. The system goes off and an automated message is played based on the location and the timing of the earthquake, telling people in the building how to prepare….essentially, cover your head, go under the table if possible and prepare yourself for the shaking. And then the system starts a countdown.

At first the whole situation seemed bizarre, not only because of the early warning system, but also because no one was panicking. But everyone was very serious. Slowly and calmly they started climbing under the tables, or covering their heads and going into the airplane brace position. No one spoke. So I followed lead and in silence we waited for the countdown to reach zero and after a couple of seconds a relatively strong quake took place and lasted for about 5-10 seconds. After this everyone simply looked at each other, exchanged a few words about the intensity, and the meeting went on.

Since coming to Sendai, as I mentioned above, we’ve had a few quakes. But the memory of the big one is still in everyone’s mind and the area has really upped its game. During our induction sessions, the story of the disaster was solemnly weaved into the speeches followed by the spirit and vigour of recovery. And while the remembrance goes on, some very real and pragmatic measures have been taken to increase safety and preparedness.

In our department for instance, we have been provided with personal helmets that we must keep close to our work station at all times. They are to be worn when evacuating from a building after the earthquake. Book shelves have also been equipped with belts to secure people from falling books, and lockers and other heavy equipment has been bolted to the floor. This seems like a rational thing to do, but have never seen this anywhere else in Japan. In addition to this, the university as a whole deploys a warning system that is tested on a regular basis every week. This consists of loud speakers providing information on evacuation, and an emergency signal that tells you to evacuate. The Japanese language classes for foreigners also went through a earthquake drill.

Belts to hold books in the book cases, rather than tumbling down on your head.

Belts to hold books in the book cases, rather than tumbling down on your head.


Lockers bolted to the floor and the wall. Despite this being a somewhat common sense safety feature, I have never seen this in Japan before.

Lockers bolted to the floor and the wall. Despite this being a somewhat common sense safety feature, I have never seen this in Japan before.


Sporting my personal helmet.

Sporting my personal helmet.


So in general, the level seriousness with this earthquake business feels much higher here than in other places I’ve lived in. But all this is very understandable as people are still dealing with the shock and loss of the massive scale of the last earthquake that was not supposed to take place according to experts. The understanding and realisation that while people were prepared for a disaster, some places were wholly unprepared for a disaster of this magnitude.

The disaster preventation training took place on the 31st October at the local Junior High School. They have a training once a year for the students held together with local residents of the area. On top of that they do regular evacuation trainings. The local Neighbourhood association also runs trainings on regular basis and in general is in charge of the evacuation procedures in case of an emergency. These training sessions, as well as this one, normally consist of fire safety training, explaining how to use fire extinguishers, giving CPR and emergency first aid, and explaining how to behave when the quake hits. Additionally, some tips are given on how to stock your emergency evacuation kit (see example below). After the official training is over, participants are provided with a warm meal that exemplifies the type of food that they’d be offered at a shelter in case of an emergency.

Example of a well stocked emergency kit (source BBC)

Example of a well stocked emergency kit (source BBC)


How to use cling film to produce a temporary dressing and a sling

How to use cling film to produce a temporary dressing and a sling


First aid demonstration

First aid demonstration


Helpful translations not available during real emergency

Helpful translations not available during real emergency


Over lunch I had a chance to have some brief conversations with a few of the local residents. They explained about the procedures and mentioned that this Junior High School is their immediate evacuation centre. However, due to the high number of elderly people in the area, the neighbourhood association experienced some problems in the big earthquake some years ago. Because the neighbourhood stretches over a hill, many elderly people had difficulties reaching the school. As a result many of them ended up taking refuge in the local Temple Rinno-ji who took care of them. Rising elderly population is complicating some of the established emergency procedures. The average age of the participants in the room was well over 50 years old in any case, so the issue is becoming fairly apparent even among the participants who still have the energy and capacity to attend trainings.

While Sendai is a fairly large city and the centre of activity in Tohoku, I can’t help but notice the differences between the city and Tokyo for instance. Or the whole of Kanto region in general. Age is definitely something that is apparent. People are older. And another thing that I have only recently began to realise is the lack of children on the streets and neighbourhoods. While Tokyo has the lowest birthrate in the country, the presence of children is still apparent. You see children everywhere and families spend a great deal of time in the public. In Sendai this is not as apparent, but could be related to the other factors such as the sprawl and structure of the city, abundance of space compared to Tokyo and the increased level of privacy that people have here.

Nevertheless, the population is getting older everywhere in Japan, and not only can this create complications in the case of disasters (in 3/11 the elderly and women were the most vulnerable) but in recovery as well. Affected populations tend to become more conservative after disasters and look into the past rather than the future, and this tendency is exacerbated if the affected population is older. The fact that there are more older people undergoing recovery efforts than younger people may not necessarily help to attract younger populations to the affected areas. This is a specific issue related to this disaster.

But putting the social side aside for the moment. I feel like the training was an interesting experience that I can take away from it, alongside my pack of face masks that were gifted to us.

A box of 50 face masks. Creative uses for these welcomed...I think I am a bit too European to pull this off.

A box of 50 face masks. Creative uses for these welcomed…I think I am a bit too European to pull this off.


My first recon trip

So, here I am in Japan. It’s been a while since I’ve managed to do any updates in on here, due to being busy and trying to settle in. However, I feel like I am back on track with life and have subdued to a mundane everyday existence on the other side of the globe finally, and feel I should write something here again.

Yesterday was my first proper venture outside the city of Sendai for research purposes. I have done a great deal of research in the last weeks (which has kept me busy) on the locations of potential research sites, as well as compiling a list of organisations to contact to participate in the study. A few weeks ago I made contact with an organisation working in Minamisanriku north from Sendai, and we set up a meeting in Ishonomaki for yesterday. Along the way I decided to stop by at Matshushima which is famous for its beautiful coastline, and also suffered some damages during the trunami. I had no particular goal in mind with this trip, except for gaining some raw observations.

So I hopped on the train in Sendai central station, taking the Senseki Line north. Matsushimakaigan lies approximately 25km north from Sendai and takes 40 minutes to get there on the local train. It was a lovely day and the area around Matsushimakaigan was filled with visitors aiming for the boats that will take you onto a cruise around the island landscape in the bay. As I only had about an hour, I opted to visit a tiny coastal island of Oshima, and then walk a bit along the coast towards Takagimachi to hop back on the train towards Ishinomaki. Reminders of the tsunami were present however, but were quite subtle…

Tsunami evacuation sign along the coast

Tsunami evacuation sign along the coast


"Work hard Miyagi, Matsushima"

“Work hard Miyagi, Matsushima”


Depth of the inundation caused by the 3/11 tsunami. The line reached my neck, so around 140cm

Depth of the inundation caused by the 3/11 tsunami. The line reached my neck, so around 140cm


Below are also a few touristy shots from Matsushimakaigan, which represents a stark contrast with the rest of my journey….

IMG_6782 IMG_6792IMG_6779

In Takagimachi I hopped back on the train. The station was tiny and for a brief moment I had the thought that it was not even open. There were no people on the platform, and in general I saw few people on the streets. This was a little surprising at first considering the hoards of people I saw in Matsushimakaigan. But, as a tourist spot Matsushimakaigan is bound to attract people around the year.

The Senseki Line to Ishinomaki was fully restored only this year. From Rikuzen-Tomiya, the train line descends to the coast and opened my view to the beautiful bay area, as well as the newly built sea defenses. The entire coast from Rikuzen-Tomiya to Tona is bordered with a sea wall, creating a barrier between the sea and the land along the natural coast line. Similar structures were visible elsewhere as well.

After Tona, the train advances to the district of Nobiru in Higashimatsushima. The town was severely hit by the tsunami as can be seen from these eye witness accounts right after the disaster. The plan for the district is to move the entire community inland up on the hill. The relocation of the railway station has already taken place and can be seen in Google Maps (see screengrab below), while the map itself hasn’t yet been fully updated to accommodate the relocation of the trainline as well. So now it looks like Nobiru has a station but no railway.

Nobiru railway station with no rails

Nobiru railway station with no rails


The area around the new station however still remains completely barren. The bulldozers, trucks and builders are working energetically, but still 4.5 years after the disaster, you cannot see many structures on the hillside or on the new community site. It is elevated land, with car parks and main roads constructed but few buildings. It was interesting to see how much energy is being put into a place that to someone who might not have any knowledge of what has happened here, looks like a construction in the middle of nowhere. The lack of people and life was somewhat unsettling to me. Of course, this could just be the time of day as well…I was traveling around noon.

The train then advanced towards Rikuzen-Ono, Azuma and Yamoto. The train descends from Nobiru towards the plain again and you can see that a great deal of activity is taking place along the coastal area, but it is impossible to make out what is happening. Along the way I observed freshly laid tarmac, newly built houses, and beautifully reconstructed stations and rice fields being cultivated again. If you did not know something disastrous had happened in this area just a few years ago, you would think it was an area experiencing an economic boom with building works and new residential areas popping up everywhere.

So I finally reached Ishinomaki, which was one of the hardest hit towns in this area. It is also the biggest town and the centre of activity on the peninsula with a population of about 150 000. Before meeting with my contact, I took a walk around the town and saw it mostly being rebuilt and in good shape. Along the way there were relics and evidence of the destruction that took place however. A few pictures of these are shown below.

"Ganbarou! Ishinomaki" outside the Ishinomaki railway station, roughly translating to "Work hard in tough times Ishinomaki"

“Ganbarou! Ishinomaki” outside the Ishinomaki railway station, roughly translating to “Work hard in tough times Ishinomaki”


Temporary shopping area close to the Ishinomaki Station composed of temporary shelters that house small local businesses

Temporary shopping area close to the Ishinomaki Station composed of temporary shelters that house small local businesses


Current training opportunities offered by Peace Boat from their headquarters

Current training opportunities offered by Peace Boat from their headquarters


Current projects of the Peace Boat whose headquarters are located in Ishinomaki

Current projects of the Peace Boat whose headquarters are located in Ishinomaki


"In 2011, this is how high the tsunami waters reached"

“In 2011, this is how high the tsunami waters reached”





...and another destroyed building still standing.

…and another destroyed building still standing. to a construction site....

…next to a construction site….


Destroyed house still standing at the seaside...

Destroyed house still standing at the seaside…


From the above images, it is difficult to see that destruction has taken place. Par from the few buildings at the seaside, the murals on the walls, and the explicit exhibits of proactive disaster reparations, the town has rebuilt itself fairly well that to an outsider like me who has not witnessed the town before the disaster, looks like there was never an earthquake or tsunami there in the first place. However, while I was taking the train journey to the town and walking around Ishinomaki, what really struck me was the lack of people. Perhaps, the timing was not great, but in a city of 150 000 people, you would expect to see more than a handful of people on the streets, in the shops and other areas. The only place where I was a little bit of life was on the construction sites and the railway station…perhaps a fitting analogy for the sadness that began to creep in as I was walking the streets of this town. People are coming in to build a ghost town, only to leave at the end of the day?

Ishinomaki pedestrian area...with no shoppers, and few shops

Ishinomaki pedestrian area…with no shoppers, and few shops


I met with my contact an hour later and the positivity they expressed towards the region reinvigorated me. They painted a beautiful picture of the region with energy and fierce will to rebuild their lives and communities and show them to the world. One of the things that struck me was what they said about the human connection they felt in Tohoku as opposed to Tokyo, which was in stark contrast with what I had just witnessed in the town and along the way, seeing few people.

This made me think about the nature of research and coming into these communities as an outsider, someone wanting to study them, find out what is going on and then going away and analysing them from a distance, still as an outsider. It made me re-establish that my research needs to be based on the people and what they want to say, not just what I want to find out. As researchers, particularly when doing ethnographic research, rather than seeing the people as vessels of information that we are just ladling from, perhaps we should change our perspectives and see ourselves as the vessels that need to be filled with information and analysis from our subjects themselves? Relying on observations as well is tricky…what I witnessed in the town as a visitor, was not the picture my contacts were painting which was full of positivity and visions for the future.

This led me to think about the value of the position of being an insider and outsider, and prompted me to ask this from my contact, who had earlier explained their journey to me. They have only recently located into Tohoku to carry out their work in the local community of Minamisanriku, and have acutely felt the shift from an outsider to an insider, while they still state being somewhere in between. When I asked what might be the value of each position, they had the following to say (I have taken the liberty to paraphrase the following from the original conversation based on my notes):

When you are living in the community you see how close-knit it is, and people know things about you before you have even told anyone. You are supported by your neighbours and have their support. Knowing the locals makes it easier to do the work, and we can see, observe and hear their needs much more closely, but the needs of the town are much more complicated than what you can just observe. As an outsider, it can be easier to see the larger context and bring in new ideas. It gives you a fresh pair of eyes…you might be Japanese, but you are still someone from the outside. Our goals in this community are both local and global. Having insights from outside will help in our work. 

I suppose this is a good lesson to bear in mind and perhaps I will try to be something in between. Creating trust and relationships between myself and the research subjects has been a strong component of my methodology from the start, and it was great to see how my personal conviction toward my research project, and the views of my contact were resonating with each other so well. To finish off, it was a very fruitful and thought provoking trip and meeting, and a successful one at that, as the contact has expressed interest in being part of the study. So my next trip will be to visit Minamisanriku in a few weeks time to have the next recon trip into the countryside. Looking forward to it already.

Multimodality and visual methods in Research

In the beginning of September I attended two workshops related to multimodality and use of visual methods. The first one was organised by the Sheffield University and the second one by the ESRC Wales in Cardiff. Both workshops gave me an immense boost on the research activities, and put some creativity into my thinking on methods ranging from the way data collection, analysis and representation could be carried out in more interesting ways. Using multimodality and visual methods also match well with the ethos of my research that as an activity itself wants to represent the values, principles and practice of community development. I’ve used visual tools a lot as a Community Organiser, so it’s not an uncharted territory for me in every respect. The workshops helped put some academic rigour into them though.

In Sheffield we focused on visual methods, and how space is one of the forgotten aspects of meaning. I was particularly interested in the connection between agency and space in the research context. This is fairly relevant for me considering the nature of my research…space, its usage and how its rebuilt are bound to come up as massive issues during my field work. Space as a political and economic sphere of activity is something that can easily be tangled into the social usages. What can and cannot be done? How the economic and political policies may influence the way space is being reconstructed? Reconstruction of space is not the recovery of space and this is where agency becomes an important variable that may determine whether the reconstruction of space also helps to recover the space.

We also did a spot of groups work during one of the sessions and walked around the ICOSS building, taking photos of the building, finding shapes between spaces. Few of the shots I took are below.

Square root handrail

Square root handrail

Kuvankaappaus 2015-9-30 kello 4.43.23

The second day of the workshop began with Solomon Lennox’s keynote on his ethnographic study on boxing gyms. I must say this is by far the most interesting keynote presentations I have ever witnessed and made me start considering performative ethnography as a potential avenue for representation….then again I study disasters and my plan may not pass ethics approval…?

The keynote also included some audience participation, where one of the workshop organisers was asked to join in and “I would like for you to punch me in the face”. She did a pretty good job at it as well. And who said the academic world is dry and boring?

Sparring before the big finish

Sparring before the big finish


Another interesting part of the workshop introduced visual representation of data, graphic and comic books in particular. The presenter introduced us to a programme called Comic Life that can help render your visual material into a story form. The programme can be used on tablets and laptops alike, but I found the tablet version pretty tricky to use…potentially because of my sausage fingers and my general aversion to touch screens. Nevertheless, the programme itself and the outcomes were interesting, giving not only visual but sequential representation of activities and space as well.

I’ve been working on my methodology for a while now and have wanted my methods to not only collect data but be representations of the Community Development process itself, and the workshop gave me some ideas on this. My interviews will hopefully be carried out in two stages with the first part being a traditional sit down interview, followed by a mobile component on the ground. The idea is for the interviewee to take me around the area the organisation is working in, film the walk and ask them to point to spaces and details along the way that they find interesting and meaningful for their work. This not only helps to contextualise the interview data better, but also distorts the hierarchical relationship between myself as the researcher and the subject, which again is a principle central to community development.

Initially I considered the data only as data for my own benefit and had not really thought about how I might present the data in the thesis…it of course has to be done somehow. The comic book workshop gave me an idea of mapping the routes the subjects take, and use the comic book model to create a visual respresentation and a storyboard of the mobile component of the interview. These could be carried out together with the organisations to give them more agency over the results, and also presented to them as a concrete research outcome.

All in all the wokshop in Sheffield was a useful one and progressed my methodology a great deal, making it much more interesting and novel as a result. It also had the effect of making myself more excited about carrying it out, which is always good considering that I am the one who has to do it. While I do enjoy interviewing, in my past research the most enjoyable parts of the research process were the non-conventional visits and meetings I had with people. Working in a Japanese nursery as a teacher for one day for instance was an experience that has been drilled into my memory, and provided an ample source of contextual data for me I would not have been able to gather through just a normal visit to a nursery.


So the following week I travelled to Wales, which was an exciting bit all on its own since I’ve never been there before. Cardiff is lovely and we were lucky with the weather. Below is a spot of Welsh national pride…and a homage to the Japanese rugby team outside the stadium for some reason as well.

Welsh national pride

Welsh national pride


Homage to Japanese rugby...indeed appropriate considering their recent success.

Homage to Japanese rugby…indeed appropriate considering their recent success.


We kicked off the workshop with a short lecture on multimodality after which we started working on the research site. This was a very hands on workshop where you got to do and experience different modes of data collection. I was on the field notes group which was very helpful. I have used field notes in the past but they have tended to slip into the more reflective side already in the note taking period, which may of course complicate and restrict their usage as representations of what is actually happening and be coloured with your own interpretations. So working on field notes was a useful learning experience and to my surprise I actually managed to keep them fairly statemental…that way they also became increasingly detailed.

After the initial field visit to the site, which was the Gorsedd Gardens outside the law courts and city hall in Cardiff city centre, we returned to the university and were put into project groups where each member brought a different mode of capturing data onto the table. My fieldnotes were combined with sound, images, and video. The task was then to discuss what we experienced and took note of and weave the elements together to produce a multimodal representation of the findings. What for us came out most strongly were the social uses of the space and how people may experience it. Our representation ended up being a film with moving and still images and recoreded sound of the various social uses we discovered in the space, with fictional stories being spoken over the video during the presentation of our piece.

Working in groups

Working in groups

Working on our final piece

Working on our final piece


What I mostly gained from the Cardiff workshop was on the field notes, and interestingly enough how sound could be used to record data and weaved into the data representation. I think this made me think more about the contextuality of my own research and the role sound may play in the spaces that I hope to record and capture with my subjects. Remembering that Japan is a fairly loud country in the cities and very silent in the countryside could potentially create interesting soundscapes that could be contrasted with one another. This also led me to reconsider my original idea of simply taking photos of areas and spaces of interest to perhaps using video as well that could capture movement, sound and a fuller picture of the areas that organisations are working in.

I think these two workshops have been some of the most useful ones I have attended since starting my PhD. They have really made me think much more deeply about my methodology, developed it further and opened up more creative opportunities that are available for ethnographic research. As I’ve just landed in Japan, I am already itching to start my field work and start applying these methods in practice, test them, develop them further and make them work fully for my research purposes.


Training wheels are off

I attended the British Association for Japanese Studies annual conference last week at SOAS at UCL where I gave a presentation on my research as part of current social issues -panel. This was the first time I presented at an “adult” conference and to my surprise, the experience was painless and reception to my humble thoughts was encouraging. Over the year I have attended several post-graduate workshops and seminars, as well as gone through the uncomfortable experience of a PhD upgrade, and while these environments are nurturing and safe spaces to present your thoughts and test the waters, I must say I felt more at ease expressing my thoughts at what could only be called my first “real conference”. I suppose it is partly related to the hierarchy that is imposed in the post-graduate conferences and workshops, where the hierarchy is really in the semantics already. You are the post-graduate student, still learning and trying things out, and then there are the professors, lecturers and specialists in their (and your) field. At a conference setting however, while you still are a PhD student, the hierarchy disappears to some extent and you become the specialist.

At the same time, in a conference setting you also get to experience Allan Johnson’s six hits of post-presentation Q&A. Surprisingly accurate list. It truly is a performance of ritual and symbolism that takes place among academics at conferences…including the mandatory ranking of conference food you overhear during breaks without fail. I once had an idea of turning a conference as a setting into a (perhaps a black?) comedy of some nature and perform it to people not familiar with this ritualistic setting. Or in fact, to convey the findings from my own research to the academic audience through participatory performance? Since I am doing participatory action research, this might in fact be appropriate and avoiding conformity…although perhaps rather shocking for the audience. I did recently attend a workshop where I was introduced to performative ethnography for the first time and it was truly invigorating…not to mention entertaining. A refreshing break from the usual expectations.

Anyway, happy to have come out the other side still smiling and without my training wheels. It’s full speed ahead from now on!

Don’t mind the body

Apparently one in five British people have tattoos. I’ve started noticing people and their body art more, and am discovering the beauty (and yes, sometimes the horror) that people carry with them and expose of themselves for the world to see. I recently had some work done on my arm as well. This saturation of tattoos in recent years must have had an impact in the way tattoos are perceived in the society.

It took me a year of active thinking and planning before I actually did the deed…after having wanted one for years. Before I had mine done, thoughts about the consequences of having something permanent on your skin did of course cross my mind; some people warned be against the idea, saying that it might affect my employability. However, we have permanent marks of life on our bodies in any case…many of these are not by choice but by something that was inflicted upon us. An injury, illness, tragedy and birthmarks to name a few. But somehow a mark made on your body out of pure choice, while executing your own agency, is something that is still frowned upon.

In the making, right after finishing.

In the making, right after finishing.

Back in the day when I was an undergraduate student in Finland I studied with a girl who had alopecia. This is an autoimmune disorder that makes the person periodically (or permanently) lose all or some of their body hair. In her case, she had lost most of her hair and had she let it grow it would have pretty much grown only in patches. This led her to decide to shave it all off and embrace the nakedness of her skalp. In certain social settings when meeting new people, I was sometimes slyly questioned about her look that was rather unusual (always only when she had left the room). Some of the questions were clearly laden with covert judgement, asking why would she do that? Why would she shave her head as a woman? The message was clear: ‘she does not conform to the general idea of what a woman should look like and I do not understand her choice’. I initially tried to avoid responding to the questions because I did not find it was my place to explain her situation to anyone, but eventually I caved in an said she has a condition that makes her lose her hair. The expressions on peoples’ faces normally changed from judgement to pity, leading on to shame over their own judgements.

People making judgements about my desire for decorating my own body and saying I may not get a job as a result, made me think about the value judgements we place on physical appearance when it is a personal choice, and when it is not. Like the person who initially judged my friend for (supposedly) making a personal choice about her appearance and looking “unnatural” (what to her actually constituted both  beauty and comfort), and then changing their tune after hearing that this was not a whim of free will and eccentricity, but a condition she had no choice over (well, it was partly, she could have opted for a wig like many other people with alopecia to “fit in”).

The same can be applied to body art as well. I recently read an article about an artist in Brazil who provides free tattoos for women who have been victims of domestic violence, and carry the scars of their past on their skin. The act of taking a tattoo is a personal choice for these women (much like my friend’s personal choice of being bald rather than wearing a wig), and as such functions as a form of agency and taking control over the acts that were done upon them, and of which they are already carrying permanent reminders. If a tattoo can help someone gain dignity and help to forget the tragedies they have endured, this can surely only be seen as a positive act. But why should the validity of these choices, covering a scar with a tattoo or not covering your head with a wig, be dependent on tragedy and illness? By doing so are we not running the risk re-victimising the person?

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An example of a piece from “A Pele da Flor” (The Skin of the Flower) project by Flavia Carvalho.

This leads me to question the validity of questioning my choice of having a tattoo in the first place. And by questioning, here I mean the act where there are negative judgements attached to people’s comments. Asking questions out of interest is always ok and even preferred. Would we warn a person with alopecia choosing to not cover their head with a wig or a person covering their scars with a tattoo that this could lead to them losing their jobs…or not getting one? Probably not. More likely they would be celebrated for their bravery. But for outsiders to be able to come to the conclusion of bravery and a positive meaning for someone’s body art or a bare scalp, an interaction related to their bodies is necessary. This can feel invasive…and requires the exposure of past traumas to outsiders despite efforts of trying to forget.

However, a liberal choice a person makes for the reasons that too are personal but contain no tragedy or illness, may in this case be considered less valuable as choices. Perhaps even selfishness? For having a tattoo for no other reason than for aesthetic and symbolic reasons is also empowerment and a way to love yourself and your body a little bit more. Majority of British people don’t regret having a tattoo done (When I asked a friend of mine whether he regretted his two sleeves, he simply stated: “nah, I’ll make a good looking corpse”), so clearly the choices are positive ones and the results are loved.

As I said, getting a tattoo was not a simple decision for me. Nor was it easy or rushed. It took years. And during those years I did many things that made me grow as a human being, I increased my intellect, my knowledge and my skills. And gained experiences that have helped me become a better person. A tattoo branded on my skin does not diminish these accomplishments, so why should this one aspect of myself be a deciding factor in say employment, when it is all the other factors about me that matter in employment.

I recently read an article in the Guardian where the cosmetics company Lush was described as “no appearance policy” company. For me this perfectly sums up the point I am trying to reach (much less eloquently) above. The appearance of a person, whether a birthmark, illness, scars, body type, weight or even a tattoo are representations of who that person is, but not what they can do or are skilled at. As more and more people are being inked every year, the labour market too is naturally getting saturated with people who sport various pieces on their skin. Employers need to change their attitudes toward this art form and the choices that lead people to having tattoos done.

The same logic extends to the reasons why tattoos are viewed negatively by employers according to a study by the British Sociological Association; Tattoos are considered dirty and untidy and project a certain stigmatised image where tattoos are related to “thugs and druggies” and this may affect the way customers view the business. But it is everyone, not ‘that person who would not apply for this job anyway’, but you and me who have tattoos. Apparently 14% of teachers today are inked. Tattoos are a burgeoning activity these days, and the boundaries between who is supposed to and not supposed to have tattoos are distorted. Hence, customers too, like the employers, are being increasingly exposed to visible body art. What was also interesting about the study conducted by the British Sociological Association was a comment according to which some tattoos were viewed more positively than others; for instance, military insignia was seen as a badge of honour. Not to get into a whole other bag of worms about militarism vs. personal experiences of servicemen, but it makes me question whether we really should be honouring a symbol that marks activities riddled with violence and power, over something inoffensive that marks personal choice, freedom and agency?

Another reason I was warned about getting a tattoo was that I’d run into trouble in Japan, where tattoos are considered a taboo. Primarily because of the association with the yakuza. As a pale white girl from northern Europe I found it a little unlikely that because of my tattoo I would be associated with the Japanese mafia; however, I do see the point that the associations spill over to tattoos in general, not just tattoos on members of organised crime groups. And this generalisation may bar me from certain places, such as public bath houses etc. I asked someone else who had spent time in Japan while brandishing some subtle body art whether it had ever become an issue, and while he said mostly not he did insert a few anecdotes of value laden comments that were made about his choices into the mix as well.

During Sanjo Matsuri, by Corpse Reviver (CC), Wikimedia Commons

During Sanja Matsuri, by Jorge (CC), Wikimedia Commons

Japan is an interesting case when it comes to tattooing however, as the country has both a rich tradition of tattooing (Irezumi), and a heavy taboo on tattoos. Irezumi as a distinct style of tattoos originates from the Japanese woodblock prints and it is still not uncommon for people brandishing irezumi to have elaborate tattoos covering large parts of their bodies. The Ainu living in the north of Japan also have their own traditions of social tattooing that have sadly been largely eradicated by the Japanese modernisation and persecution. Tattooing itself was actually trampled by the Japanese idea of modernisation when the practice became to be considered unmodern and dirty and the Meiji government outlawed the activity only lifting the ban after the second world war. Interestingly enough, it appears that the taboo on tattoos was actually state orchestrated and drove tattooing as an underground activity, leading to it’s current association with crime that lives on until today. Experts on the subject probably have more accurate and eloquent analyses to offer I am sure.

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Tattooed man, c. 1875 by Kusakabe Kimbe

Leaving for Japan is just a few weeks away and frankly worries about my tattoo are the last thing on my mind. I can’t really say I even worry about it that much to be honest. Naturally I am in the ‘privileged’ outsider position in Japan and lenience by the locals is normally applied in terms of adjusting to the local norms and customs. Never any harm in trying not to offend anyone, so there is a time and a place for covering my arms, but suppose there is also a call for the society to reflect what really is and isn’t offensive…especially when the source of offense is mere appearance and not the essence of what makes us humans…and humane.

Reconstruction ≠ Recovery

It was the 10th year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina at the end of August, and the post-disaster recovery in the region hit the headlines, reporting what has been happening in the last decade. The reportage has been mixed, while the general consensus appears to be that much more should have happened.

The aftermath of Katrina has relevance to Japan and the Tohoku region as well. The scale of destruction was massive. Both disasters were experienced by two of the wealthiest and technologically advanced countries, where the protective features (tsunami walls in Japan and levees in New Orleans) that were designed to thwart the disaster from taking place, failed causing unimaginable damage people were not prepared for, as they trusted technology, and the system, to protect them and their property. Equally, the coordination and speed of the recovery has not impressed the world. Both New Orleans and Tohoku are battling with complex social and economic problems stemming from social inequalities. While in Japan the social problems relate to economic viability of local industries and demographics, inequalities guided by ethnicity have become a prime concern in post-Katrina situation. In Japan, tens of thousands still reside in temporary housing, four years after the disasters. In New Orleans, the last FEMA trailers left the city over 6 years after the hurricane hit its shores.

While some report that Japan will face a massive problem of relocation on account of the country lacking habitable land, are expressing a lack of understanding and expertise on Japan which actually has an abundance of habitable land in Tohoku that has for a long time been underused, with the whole area experiencing rapid depopulation. In fact, the whole country is depopulating! The problem therefore is not the lack of land, but the lack of constructive and community-led recovery that would create opportunities for sustaining thriving and fulfilling existence for people in these regions. It is a problem for Tokyo and other metropolitan areas that are experiencing an influx of people seeking better opportunities, fearing contamination, and wanting to offer a better future for their children that is not possible in Tohoku. These communities were in the decline even before the disaster struck, and the trend has only been accelerating after the disaster.

Much of what is branded as recovery in these regions, is actually reconstruction. It is buildings, dams, walls and roads, but it is not recovery. The Japanese government is lining the pockets of construction companies with centrally allocated funds to stimulate the economy in Tohoku and speed up the recovery of the infrastructure. While building roads and buildings will still take years, the local economy and the local residents are gaining little from this so-called recovery. The economies and industries native to the region are facing challenges due to contamination (and fear of contamination) of parts of the region, and salination of fields. The utter destruction of the area stagnated the development of native industries for years (fisheries etc.) with many having lost their contracts in the meantime to competitors outside the region.

But what is recovery actually looking like in Tohoku? I collected few images from newspapers and online sources to exemplify that reconstruction really is not recovery…nor is it really reconstruction either:

Kesennuma three years n between. Kyotoku Maru No. 18 to the left, now removed, affected tourism and local economy Image: Japan Times (5.3.2015)

Kesennuma three years n between. Kyotoku Maru No. 18 to the left, now removed, affected tourism and local economy
Image: Japan Times (5.3.2015)

Kesennuma, three years in between. The orange banner marks the height of the planned seawall. The housing plots cleared for building new homes remain empty. Image: Japan Times (5.3.2015)

Kesennuma, three years in between.
The orange banner marks the height of the planned seawall. The housing plots cleared for building new homes remain empty.
Image: Japan Times (5.3.2015)

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Rikuzentakata, three years in between. The housing has not returned. Image: The Economist (7.2.2015)

What the above images show (even though few in number) is that while the basic infrastructure in terms of roads and harbours etc. may largely be carried out already, housing and other signs of human habitation and use of space is still missing.

So who is this reconstruction for then? And more importantly by who?

A recent article in the Jacobin unravels some of the complexities of reconstruction, and lack of recovery, over the last 10 years in New Orleans and argues that recovery has managed to deepen social injustices and turned recovery into an exercise of gentrification where those who suffered the most have received the smallest returns. While the article discusses the public housing crisis in the US political context, the underlying message where the poor, the old and the black don’t have much say in the way or where, their communities are rebuilt (or if at all) as they cannot afford to have a say. In Kesennuma, one of the worst hit communities in Tohoku, the first public housing complex opened only in early 2015. People’s vulnerabilities under the neoliberal system are exposed in a situation of abnormalcy, like a disaster, and made worse if the people themselves are not given agency to have a voice over their own futures.

Rather than seizing an opportunity to improve lives for the weakest and reducing their vulnerabilities to future adversities, post-disaster recovery has the danger of seizing the opportunity to make the vulnerable populations disappear by reducing their opportunities to regain their lives with any semblance of what used to be, to zero. Reduction of public housing stock to a token effort in New Orleans is an indication of this top-down induced vanishing act.

So while the Japanese government celebrates the advances that have been made in Tohoku, reporting on the number of housing units being built, kilometres or roads and railroads, this reconstruction means nothing unless it is accompanied by life. And life will not re-enter unless it has ways of sustaining and fulfilling itself. This requires for the authorities to truly listen what is happening in the lives of those most affected, and mere consultation cannot achieve this…my personal view is that consultation is often carried out with a predetermined goal in mind, with the task of consulting people only designed to reaffirm what has already been decided. A tokenistic effort towards democracy. The controversial documentary 3/11 by Tatsuya Mori witnessed a glimpse of authorities and media only listening what they wanted to hear. In a scene where Mori follows two women looking for their missing children in the rubble, one of the women says they have met many reporters, but the reporters don’t want to hear….they state more diggers and machinery is needed to go through the rubble faster, but the reporters say they can’t report that. The mundane news of machinery does not sell papers…the stories of lost children and hardships of people does.

The Japan Times (5.3.2014) writes the following: “

“What we really need are stable jobs, such as those in the fishery and seafood industry. Without that, I don’t think a real ‘recovery’ will ever come to Kesennuma,” Mittsu [local resident] said. But the central and local governments have seemed more interested in planning big public works projects, rather than measures to promote sustainable industries in the Tohoku region.

The central and local governments now plan to build gigantic seawalls along the coasts of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, to prepare for the inevitable tsunami. The 400 km of seawall will cover as much as 23 percent of the 1,700-km coastline of the three prefectures, according to the Kahoku Shimpo, a regional daily based in Sendai. Construction is estimated to cost ¥850 billion. Many of the seawalls would be higher than 10 meters, and some even would top 14 meters. Many locals believe the gigantic seawalls are mainly for the benefit of the construction industry, which they suspect of having close ties to politicians.”

The construction state in Japan appears to be alive and kicking. Well, at least in Tokyo.

While the construction boom in Tokyo, readying itself for the 2020 olympics, is at it’s hottest, Tohoku is suffering due to constraints on public spending, and construction companies being able to pick and choose where they take on. If the contracts are more lucrative in Tokyo, why would they labour for public housing projects in Tohoku? But the government insists that reconstruction is the way forward (with the aptly named Reconstruction Agency as a good indication of this), and assigns blame on communities who are slowing down progress by failing to find consensus (and as a result wasting the government cash gift horse of trillions of yen). But is there a consensus to be found within constrained boundaries of the bureaucratic reconstruction framework that emphasises the number of unit and kilometres of road built, not the recovery of the immaterial aspects of local communities?

While the reconstruction may be booming in some areas of the country, and even some areas of Tohoku, placing blame on the communities themselves, many of which are still labouring under the conditions of temporary housing (designed to last only for two years), may not be the most productive way out of the impasse. Building housing that is affordable, safe and available for all is the (at the moment the only) aspect of reconstruction that needs to advance quicker. Unless people are able to rebuild their homes, they are unable to rebuild their lives and their communities. Many are left in a limbo that is disrupting their opportunities to re-establish their lives in the region that many love and do not want to leave. Some can’t wait any longer, for some there are no opportunities in the devastated regions, some just want to forget. This is the real reason why Tokyo and the other metropolitan areas are attracting many displaced people, not the non-fact that the displaced would not have room in the region.

Oh the anxiety…?

Today I came across this LSE Impact Blog piece discussing the anxiety experienced by early career researchers about writing up their field work findings, and introducing the Writing across Boundaries initiative that has supported such researchers to find and develop tools for dealing with anxiety that comes with the territory (it seems, as a matter of fact). While the post does provide evidence that participants did in the end see “anxiety as a creative ally”, which in its creative sense highlights that anxiety can be a powerful force driving you forward, but I can’t help but wonder if we are all too eager to brand anxiety as something that is a natural (and even a good) part of our working environment; as long as well have the tools to manage anxiety, it becomes something positive and separates the successful ones from those who will falter under pressure? While I too have personal experiences where ‘deadlining’ and other forms of external pressure have enabled me to finish a piece of work, and perhaps done a better job had I just been left to my own devices, I would not say that it was the anxiety that sparked creativity; rather it may have streamlined the process in setting my priorities straight and eliminated procrastination. Branding anxiety as a positive and creative force can be dangerous as well…who decides what is a healthy dose of anxiety?

An article in the Guardian reveals some statistics on mental health and isolation problems in the academia, stating that feeling overworked and isolated are the major causes of mental health issues and anxiety among academics. And the problem is getting worse. These issues are explored further in an interesting piece from Rosalind Gill (available here), that starts with a conversation between the author and a university staff member…the conversation is revealing, and slightly haunting. The article writes: “What would it mean to turn our lens upon our own labour processes, organisational governance and conditions of production? […] How might we make links between macro-organisation and institutional practices on the one hand, and experiences and affective states on the other, and open up an exploration of the ways in which these may be gendered, racialised and classed?” The problems of anxiety are internalised and normalised…they have been silenced as a part of a larger problem that lies beyond the individual.

So who has the responsibility over anxiety? Irrespective of the way we view anxiety (as a positive force or a problem) we might come to the same conclusions; that it is time pressures, expectations and isolation that make us feel anxious. Vital difference however lies in how we approach the cure to anxiety and who has the ultimate responsibility to deal with it. When anxiety is seen as something positive, the responsibility to deal with the consequences lies with the individual…you are anxious because you simply cannot manage your time better. But if we see anxiety as a negative force, a problem, the analysis on the causes will deepen and require a more detailed look into the root causes of why people feel pressured by time. Is it really poor time management, or unrealistic deadlines? When responsibility over the problem is collectivised by problemasing it as a larger phenomenon, we all must assume responsibility over solving it. But if we see it as a creative force that individuals need to just learn to manage, the responsibility for solving the problem is individualised and anxiety becomes branded as an opportunity wasted; and the only person to be blamed is you.

I suppose the real question I am thinking of, is what has led us to live and work in environments that feed our anxieties? Should we really be living in such a world? And what can we do to change it? As a PhD student my experiences still remain limited, narrow and somewhat green to what lies ahead of me if I decide to go down the path of developing an academic career. I am not sure if I have ever felt stress in my life, not in the way that some people describe it as a sensation and a state where your life becomes so jumbled up in the demands others make from you, that it ends up consuming you and affecting all other areas of your life, and your relationships with other people. So it worries me that the world where anxiety is normalised as an individual character fault might be what modern universities are heading towards…or being driven by larger forces of marketisation and neoliberal values of efficiency and improvement through competition. If I’ve never felt real all consuming stress, how will I cope?

While my thoughts and opinions above may not be the most impressive ones, nor well refined, I do feel that it is still a conversation that ought to be had. By everyone. Openly. Rosalind Gill has this to say, which echo some of the thoughts and feeling going around in my head…”[…] our failure to look critically at ‘our own back yard’, with the broad aim of understanding the relationship between economic and political shifts, transformations in work, and psychosocial experiences – and starting a conversation about how we might resist.

Disaster resilience, or just resilience?

Japan Times reported on 15th July that disaster planning needs to be reconsidered in anticipation for the ‘Big One’. By Big One, they are referring to the Great Tokai/Tonankai/Nankai Earthquake that has been anticipated for years now. The calculations are based on the frequency of seismic movement in the Tokyo area. For those so inclined, a detailed presentation from Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) can be found here.

However, not everyone agrees with what JMA is saying and doing. Geller argues in Nature (Vol. 472, April 2011) that predictions and methods of measuring the likelihood and timing of earthquakes and other related disturbances, based on the seismic-gap hypothesis (which in layman’s terms means a segment of a fault that has not moved in a significant amount of time), that provide the foundations for Japanese government’s disaster hazard predictions, have proven inconsistent with real life events. Geller continues to evidence his position by showing that over the last 30 years, “Earthquakes that have caused 10 or more fatalities in Japan have occurred in places that it [the government] designates as low risk“.

According to Geller, and other researchers agree, that assumptions on the arrival of earthquakes have been faulty. While others attribute this on inefficient prediction models, Geller argues that it is in fact the the bias in public perception awarded to the anticipated Tokai Earthquake that may in fact be harmful to the overall disaster mitigation as perceptions of risk can skew public policies and funding structures. In other words, it’s about politics, bureaucracy and money.

While disaster mitigation in Japan appears to be moving to the direction of pre-planning and away from the old hazard paradigm where disasters happen irrespective of human intervention and mitigation should focus on preventing damages and cushioning the blow so to speak. What the Japan Times article does highlight is the fact that Japan should start planning for the disaster recovery as well ahead of time. If a disaster hits, what are the priorities and how should we recovery from it?

There is plenty of evidence and research conducted on the value of pre-planning and Japanese communities should take it up as part of their disaster mitigation efforts. After all, disasters have the tendency to accelerate the existing patterns of development in a given community, be it growth or decline.

However, I feel that the Japan Times article misses the point in two vital respects: firstly, what is the involvement on communities in the process of recovery pre-planning? How are communities integrated into the decision-making process as agents, not mere consultative bodies? And secondly, is pre-planning merely a question of disaster recovery or should communities rather be actively planning for the sustainability of their economies, social ties and cultural values in general, with disaster mitigation inserted into general development activities? The article calls for disaster resilience, but surely true resilience against natural calamities lies in a more holistic understanding of resilience that is working towards eradicating injustices within economic, political and social power structures and turning them into advocates of solidarity and local agency?

Natural and human systems are intertwined and disasters are largely socially constructed, which means that how we operate in times of normalcy will have an effect on the way we also experience abnormalcy. Building resilience against disasters is all good and fine, but unless we understand the underlying root causes of vulnerability and how vulnerabilities are constructed within the social system, resilience will be meaningless. Social injustices based on income, gender and age are the biggest causes of vulnerability (this was proven in Japan when investigating into how and who faced devastation, see UNISDR for more information) and not just vulnerability in the face of disasters, but in the face of recovery as well.

There is no concept of a ‘disaster’ unless it has consequences for human settlements, so it is also time to re-frame the whole discussion away from the linear and event-based understanding of disasters before we can start talking about recovery and disaster mitigation in any meaningful way. Disasters and the processes to either avert, cope and recover from them should not be separated into their own entities, but rather integrated into generic processes of economic, social and cultural development of regions at risk (which let’s face it, is the entire country of Japan). Particularly since the primary risks to the communities and regions do not actually stem from the risk of natural calamities, but from social causes, such as lack of employment and other opportunities, aging and depopulation as in the case of Tohoku.

Giving communities the tools and authority to direct, if not govern, their own development with the support of local authorities may seem radical, but it is by no means irrational. There are plenty of studies that have proven that community participation and direction are important to sustainable recovery of communities and regions, with areas where residents were not only better organised but also full participants in the recovery processes experiencing better and faster recovery outcome. Most of these communities had the structures and networks of communication in place before the disaster, and maintained a level of cohesion and consensus that enabled them to reach mutual decisions faster. While I remain skeptical of the underlying aims of social capital generation as part of the resilience paradigm, Daniel Aldrich’s work on social capital as an indicator of recovery for instance is rather inspiring.

Despite the large scale reach and devastation experienced in Tohoku, each community is unique in the way they have experienced the physical impact and the consequences of recovery. Given the chance, local communities and residents have the experiences and expertise to direct recovery into the direction that provides meaning to their lives and offers them opportunities to remain rooted in the area. However, communities need opportunities to understand their experiences and what they mean to them as individuals and collectively as a community. These experiences and meanings attached to them are the foundation from which recovery can (and should) be actioned in a participatory, self-directed and sustainable manner.

It is not therefore only disasters, or the ‘Big One’ that Japan needs to prepare for. They are battling with a disaster of a social nature that will result in a greater number of vulnerable groups and individuals facing natural calamities. There is a dire need not for ‘disaster resilience’, but a mental shift that increases resilience in general by addressing the root causes of vulnerabilities that manifested themselves in the latest disaster on a local scale. This is where we need communities’ guidance to help us understand what vulnerability really means.