Learning from the quake

I was fortunate enough to spend some time talking this past weekend with Aico Shimizu (on Twitter and Flickr), from Hakuhodo, one of Japan’s top advertising and design agencies.

We were talking about her experiences during and since the 11th March 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake, which claimed 15,811 lives. Aico has been conducting design research in the affected area and beyond for this year’s issue+design competition. This annual competition was originally a response to the Great Hanshin or Kobe Earthquake that occurred in 1995 and this year it’s challenge focuses on Tohoku.

Two things struck me whilst talking to Aico about the many issues raised by the earthquake.

The first was that in a situation like this, the body re-emerges as a primary, and very conscious concern. In advanced economies, quite often the body has become an illicit subject, still much talked about and served, but often in the shadows. With everything peeled back and concerns about feeding, sleeping, toilets, hygiene coming to the fore, we are starkly reminded of how animal the human body is.

The second issue I was intrigued by was that the tsunami’s disruption of certain networks prompted a shift to alternatives. Synchronous networks such as cash machines, telephones, electricity, the things we use immediately, became unreliable during the crisis (across large areas of Japan) and people turned to alternatives that offered asynchronous communication. Mobile data and social media usage saw spikes, and people stepped in to fill information gaps by sharing information about available food and fuel on Google Maps. Amazon wishlists became a means of communicating needs (and reportedly fulfilling them too, which is impressive given the logistical difficulties).

People used Picasa to take photos of the messages looking for loved ones in evacuation centres in Tohoku and share them more widely, and the destruction of paper stock prompted publishers of popular manga or comic books to distribute them digitally (and at the time for free). The destruction of paper based identification has also prompted discussion of digitisation.

These issues speak of abrupt shifts in the usual patterns of behaviour, and together with the response to the crisis at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant have prompted much soul-searching from the traditionally deferential Japanese who haven’t experienced much public dissent since the 1960’s.

One of the most intriguing stories Aico told was of a small region of Iwate prefecture where a local folklore (Japanese only) saying has been preserved in oral tradition since the Meiji Sanriku tsunami of 1896. The folklore encourages people to escape to safe ground immediately and individually, instead of waiting to see what happens or to travel with others. This swift and comprehensive action helped the region escape much loss of life. This reminds me of a similar story about local knowledge from the Indonesian tsunami in 2006.

I’m going to be in Japan next week and am looking forward to speaking more with Aico and others about all these issues. I’m particularly interested in what shifting ideas of power between people and the authorities could mean for Japan’s economic troubles. What questions do you want to ask of people in Japan?