Residents walk past debris after an earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in 2011
Residents walk past debris on March 14, 2011, after an earthquake and tsunami struck Minamisanriku, Japan. XINHUA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images


How Japan Rode a Tsunami to Equality

Japanese women quickly realized that the disaster that struck their country nine years ago was an unprecedented opportunity to overcome discrimination.

MINAMISANRIKU, Japan—When Tamiko Abe arrived in this fishing port on Japan’s northeast coastline, 35 years ago, the first thing that struck her was the beauty of the Pacific Ocean. Her hometown of Yonezawa, about a three-hour drive inland, is famous for its cherry tree orchards, but is landlocked; Abe, newly married to a fisherman whose family ran a seafood cultivation business, had never seen anything quite like the sparkling expanse of water, which quickly became a constant in her life.

Abe spent the next few decades taking care of household duties, as is customary for women in Minamisanriku, and raising her three children. In her spare time, though, she would often help her husband farm fresh oysters, scallops and wakame—edible seaweed—occasionally packaging the products and selling them to friends and relatives.

On the afternoon of March 11, 2011, Abe was working by the shoreline when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck 80 kilometers off the coast of the region of Tohoku, where Minamisanriku is located. It was the most powerful quake ever recorded in Japan, one that would tilt the earth off its axis. Abe hurried home, but soon heard a neighbor shouting, ‘Run!’ She turned, and in the distance saw her beloved ocean swelling with dark, menacing waves. As she struggled towards higher ground, an elderly lady was overtaken by the tsunami as she watched, helpless to do anything.

Minamisanriku suffered some of the worst destruction of any place along Japan’s eastern coast. More than 600 people were killed.

Minamisanriku suffered some of the worst destruction of any place along Japan’s eastern coast. More than 600 people were killed as freezing harbor water bulldozed concrete seawalls and flattened residential areas. The town center, which sat in a valley surrounded by mountains on three sides, was almost completely washed away.

Like the majority of the town’s residents, Abe’s loss in the 3/11 disaster was incalculable. Her father-in-law was among the dead, her house was destroyed, and factories used by her husband’s fishing business were damaged. As with most women in the region, the expectation was that Abe would contribute to the recovery effort in a predominantly domestic way—in her case, by supporting her husband as he attempted to rebuild his company.

But today, Abe runs a successful seafood packaging business of her own, “Tamiko’s Ocean Pack,” selling goods from the area in stores around Tohoku and online. As if in defiance of her fear, the spot she chose for her shop sits high on a rocky cliff overlooking an emerald green inlet on Shizugawa Bay.

Since 2013, as part of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “womenomics” strategy, the Japanese government has introduced a variety of initiatives aimed at increasing the number of women in the work place, with the goal of countering the effects of Japan’s rapidly-shrinking labor force—predicted to be 20 percent smaller by 2040—and its declining birth rates. As a result, in 2018 Japan’s female labor participation rate was a record-high 71.3 percent, up from 65 percent in 2013, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

But in 2019 Japan received its lowest-ever ranking in the World Economic Forum’s annual gender equality index, placing 121st out of 153 countries. Cultural attitudes towards working women have been slow to change, the wage gap between men and women is significant—24.5 percent according to the OECD—and only around half of mothers return to work after having their first child.

“I had no experience, no know-how for business, only a passion to do something. I just wanted to create jobs based on women’s needs.”

Female entrepreneurs like Abe remain a rarity in a country where job stability is highly valued and risk-taking is generally frowned upon. Abe credits the women she met in a temporary housing center with inspiring her to overcome the paralysis she felt after 3/11 and pushing her to try something new. Many of them, stuck in the shelter all day while their children went to school, told her they were envious that she had skills, gained from years of packaging seafood as a hobby, that she could harness to start a viable business. International volunteers helped her apply for a grant, secure a bank loan and learn how to use a computer. In 2013, she hired her first employee; she now has a staff of three women, two of whom are mothers.

“I had no experience, no know-how for business, only a passion to do something. I just wanted to create jobs based on women’s needs,” she said. “For women—especially while raising a child—[working] is very difficult.”

According to a survey by Japan’s Cabinet Office looking at the experience of people in Tohoku’s three hardest hit prefectures, women were disproportionately affected by the disaster.

Of the local community leaders responsible for the design and operation of evacuation shelters, 96-97 percent were male. “They didn’t have much concern with gender issues—they wanted to control everything in their own way,” said Yumiko Tanaka, vice-president of the Japan Women’s Network for Disaster Risk Reduction (JWNDRR), which was set up after 3/11 to advocate for the incorporation of gender perspectives into laws and policies around disaster prevention and recovery.

Women’s unique needs and concerns tended not to be taken into account by those running the shelters, the Japanese government found, if they were even expressed in the first place—uncommon in a region where women have historically been reluctant to raise their voices against authority figures.

The survey reported higher rates of insomnia and an overall greater impact on mental health for women in the evacuation centers. Women were more likely to report a lack of privacy, a shortage of toilets and an inability to take baths. Sanitary napkins, underwear in the right size and formula for babies were hard to come by. Requests for privacy screens were rejected, Tanaka added: “Women were complaining they could not change their clothes, they could not sleep safely, but those opinions were ignored.”

Nine years on, scant evidence remains of the devastation wrought upon the town of Minamisanriku. New highways and seawalls line the coast, a permanent shopping hub has been rebuilt for residents, and work is ongoing to elevate the town center from its previous location in the valley to 10 meters higher in the surrounding hills.

But 3/11 has left a different kind of mark on Tohoku, one of the more conservative regions of Japan: it has had a catalyzing effect for women who are no longer satisfied with status quo gender dynamics.

But 3/11 has left a different kind of mark on Tohoku, one of the more conservative regions of Japan: it has had a catalyzing effect for women who are no longer satisfied with status quo gender dynamics. Though female labor force participation in Tohoku’s largest prefectures is similar to the national figure, as in other rural areas across Japan, women are often pressured to leave their jobs or switch to part-time work once they become pregnant. Many feel unable to speak out in public against policies they might not agree with, wary of the Japanese proverb that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”

“Women have been taught to simply endure gender inequality as a ‘traditional’ fact of the family,” said Jackie Steele, a Canadian political scientist and long-time Japan resident who experienced the earthquake first-hand and researches disaster policy from a feminist perspective. But after 3/11, “they no longer take life for granted, and have begun to openly question and challenge the hierarchies telling them that their voice, and women’s voices, do not matter.”

In her capacity as a gender advisor for Women’s Eye (WE), a non-profit organization that aims to promote female empowerment in Tohoku, Steele has witnessed how loss and devastation have opened up a window of opportunity for new actors like Abe to come forward.

WE, established in 2011, has provided training and mentorship for over 100 aspiring female leaders through its “Grassroots Academy” program. One participant, Izumi Mizuno, is an outlier in that she had a job before 3/11, working as a public servant at a city hall in the region. But she suffered from the punishing culture of overwork that is common across Japan, and longed to do something more meaningful with her days.

While Mizuno escaped the disaster by fleeing to the rooftop of her office building, many of her colleagues didn’t survive. Her in-laws, too, perished in the tsunami. The experience—and the arrival of her first child—ultimately inspired her to quit her job and open a bread shop.

“I knew if I kept working [at city hall], I would sacrifice everything for my job. But then I thought, if I started my own business, I could manage my business and take care of my family as well,” she said.

For a year, she trained in an industrial kitchen set up by WE for women wanting to hone their baking skills. With the life insurance money her husband received after his parents’ deaths, as well as a city grant set up for entrepreneurs after 3/11, Mizuno bought the necessary equipment and rented a space not far from home. After opening the shop last September, it took some time for her and her husband to settle into a rhythm of sharing household duties, she said, but she has felt supported by both him and elderly members of her community, for whom a working mother is still something of a marvel. Breadmaking has become her ikigai—her purpose—and her way of giving back while bringing better balance to her life.

Along with re-assessing the trajectory of their own lives, women in Tohoku have seized the chance to play a more active role in promoting social change post 3/11—no small feat in a landscape dominated by male decision-makers.

Along with re-assessing the trajectory of their own lives, women in Tohoku have seized the chance to play a more active role in promoting social change post 3/11—no small feat in a landscape dominated by male decision-makers. A year after the disaster, of 751 members of municipal committees tasked with reconstruction throughout the region, 84 were women, and nine committees had no female members at all. Only heads of households—almost always the senior male in the family—were invited to official consultations and given public subsidies for recovery.

“There’s a disconnect fundamentally in the way that policy and local bureaucrats, all the way up to national bureaucrats, don’t see [young women], don’t know they exist, don’t understand their problems, don’t use taxpayer dollars to support any of the pain points that they experience on a routine basis, be it pre-disaster or, now, post-disaster,” said Steele.

Plans for the many towns in Tohoku that needed to be relocated to higher ground, for example, were usually “not very gender or disability-friendly,” said JWNDRR’s Tanaka. But when the city of Kitakami was being rebuilt, women’s groups came together to propose their own design ideas to the local government: slopes instead of stairs for better accessibility; low-rise buildings instead of high-rise buildings, clustered together for families to be able to watch out for one another; lots of communal space designed with mothers and children, the elderly and the disabled in mind. Encouraged by their example, local officials in the fishing village of Jusanhama held a women’s only meeting where residents could feel free to voice their concerns.

Though the women in Kitakami were successful, this sort of involvement is still rare. But Steele pointed out that at a time when aging, rural communities are in danger of dying out (in Minamisanriku, for example, the population has fallen from 17,666 people just before the disaster to 12,691 as of December 2019), an infusion of new female talent and leadership in local government and businesses could hold the key to Tohoku’s revitalization.

While young men in Tohoku, particularly first-born sons, generally inherit their father or grandfather’s property and vocation, Steele explained, young women are expected to marry into their partner’s familial line, often, like Abe, leaving one area for another. In a way, this gives women more flexibility when it comes to deciding whether to stay and start a family in disaster-affected areas or pursue professional opportunities in larger cities like Tokyo and Osaka, or even abroad, instead. Steele would like to see a “womenomics” strategy for Tohoku to create more rewarding jobs for those who’d prefer to stay put. “That is what will make the future of those communities demographically viable,” she said.

On top of the grassroots activism by women in Tohoku, intensive lobbying efforts led by JWNDRR’s president, Akiko Domoto—the former governor of Chiba, a suburb of Tokyo—have similarly moved the dial when it comes to women’s involvement in disaster prevention and recovery.

At the national level, a concerted push by JWNDRR in the months following 3/11 succeeded in ensuring that language on gender equality was included in Japan’s Basic Guidelines for Reconstruction, which stated that “women’s participation will be promoted in all aspects of the reconstruction process.” The network’s lobbying also resulted in an increased proportion of women on prefectural disaster management councils—15.7 percent as of 2018, up from 3.6 percent in 2011.

Internationally, Tanaka is heartened by a shift in how governments and NGOs have responded following several natural disasters that have occurred since 3/11. Privacy screens were readily available in shelters after the 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes in Japan, for example, and various cities have adopted gender-friendly guidelines and developed manuals on how to set up emergency centers through a gender and diversity lens.

After Super Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines in 2013 and the Gorkha earthquake in Nepal in 2015, Tanaka said, reconstruction funding was targeted at ‘softer’ areas, such as women’s livelihood recovery, in addition to the usual ‘harder’ areas, such as infrastructure. Gender perspectives were also included in a renewed international framework on disaster risk reduction (DRR) adopted by the Third United Nations World Conference on DRR, which was held in Tohoku in 2015.

Still, much work remains for groups like Tanaka’s when it comes to better integrating gender and diversity into emergency preparedness and response—something that will only become more important in an age of increased climate disasters around the world. And while she is encouraged by Tohoku’s budding female entrepreneurs, she cautions that more support will be needed if the region’s small businesses are to continue flourishing in the future.

“After the disaster, I started to think and act for myself. This job gives me joy, so that makes me feel stronger.”

In Abe’s view, though, something has fundamentally shifted in how men in Tohoku regard her and other female entrepreneurs. “At first, men looked down on us, thinking ‘that’s not going to last.’ But after seven years, my business is still going on,” she said. Doubt and discomfort have been replaced by acceptance and approval.

And it’s not just men’s attitudes that have been transformed.

“The tsunami changed my life, 180 degrees,” Abe added. “Before the disaster, I was the kind of person to do what my husband or father-in-law told me to do. I was just a follower. After the disaster, I started to think and act for myself. This job gives me joy, so that makes me feel stronger.”

“This is a really small business in a rural area on the edge of Minamisanriku, but I still really want to make this a place for employees to enjoy their job—and that’s what I’m doing.”

Catherine Tsalikis is a journalist based in Toronto. She is a 2019-2020 Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada media fellow. Twitter: @CatTsalikis