INTERVIEW: Anthropologist says Tohoku region must gain independence from Tokyo

INTERVIEW: Anthropologist says Tohoku region must gain independence from Tokyo

By YUZURU TSUBOI/ Staff Writer

After seeing the rebuilding efforts for the devastation wrought by the triple disaster in March 2011, anthropologist Norio Akasaka said he wondered if the Tohoku region would remain a “colony of Tokyo.”

The 61-year-old Gakushuin University professor, who is also director of the Fukushima Museum in Aizu-Wakamatsu, has long promoted regional developments through cross-disciplinary studies of Tohoku.

The rebuilding projects, he said in a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun, have unveiled an antiquated mind-set that the Tohoku people must depend on the capital.

But Akasaka said the Tohoku region actually has a chance to attain economic and psychological independence–and serve as a role model for all Japanese in adapting to the demographic and environmental changes facing the nation.

Excerpts from the interview follow:


I have advocated the development of “Tohoku studies” for the past quarter century to deepen our knowledge of the region’s culture, history and climatic characteristics, and turn them into resources for regional development. I have walked across the region on my own feet.

Based on what I saw, it was my understanding that Tohoku has fully grown into a richer region. Indeed, the government’s Reconstruction Design Council in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, in which I served as a member, lauded Tohoku as a “manufacturing hub” in Japan.

But I have learned that the reality is different. For instance, in a tsunami-stricken municipality, the operator of an auto-parts factory is forced to work for an hourly payment of 300 yen ($2.94), well below the minimum wage.

Under that system, the factory can earn 2,000 yen by producing an auto part in an hour, but it actually takes an entire day to manufacture it. That means the wage level for the operator is as low as 300 yen per hour.

The municipal government made serious efforts to attract the plant to its area. While nobody is willing to acknowledge it, however, the factory is actually on the bottom end of a chain of subcontractors and is forced to compete with its counterparts in developing countries around Asia.

Nuclear power plants are more explicit symbols of the “colonial” rule. The Fukushima nuclear disaster has raised a fundamental question as to why Fukushima Prefecture had to host a nuclear power plant that supplies electricity to Tokyo.

I was surprised when people related to the nuclear industry said Tokyo Electric Power Co. has colonies in Tohoku. They meant that TEPCO’s nuclear power plants are all located in Fukushima and Niigata prefectures, outside the region that they supply electricity to.

Tohoku people sarcastically express anger toward the roles the region played before World War II, saying, “men make soldiers, women make prostitutes and farmers make rice” in Tohoku to be supplied to the rest of the country.

Since the end of the war, Tohoku has supplied “electricity, industrial components and rice,” but its economic subordination to Tokyo and other regions apparently continues today.

Countries around the world have been trying to survive the era of globalization by allowing widening disparity within their peoples and regions. Their survival hinges on how they can sacrifice the exploited people within national boundaries.

I believe Tohoku and Tokyo are rebuilding a relationship of structural dominance and exploitation in line with this reality.

Nagao Nishikawa, professor emeritus of comparative cultural studies at Ritsumeikan University, who died last year, caught on the structural woe of globalization, calling it “colonialism without colonies.”

During the campaign to bring the 2020 Olympic Games to Tokyo, the president of the bid committee emphasized Fukushima’s recovery but bluntly added that Tokyo is safe because it is 250 kilometers away from Fukushima. To his eyes, Tohoku is a remote and peripheral region.

But it is utterly heartless to use Fukushima’s tragedy to draw compassion from the rest of the world and then sideline it to give Tokyo the Olympics. Or is that what politics is all about?

Since it was conquered by (legendary general) Sakanoue no Tamuramaro (758-811), forces from Tohoku have lost all decisive battles against forces from other regions.

Its subordinate position in the interregional hierarchy was reinforced in the early modern era with the loss of pro-Tokugawa Shogunate domains in Tohoku in the Boshin War (1868-1869). Tohoku has unique history as a “land kept as a colony for a millennium.”


Recovery projects that have been under way in tsunami-stricken areas are also Tokyo-oriented.

The disaster effectively advanced the clock by 20 years; today’s Tohoku is much like what it can be two decades later when depopulation and aging will become much more serious problems.

We needed wisdom to rebuild Tohoku into a region that can serve as a model for all Japanese in the future when the population shrinks by one-third to around 80 million 50 years from now.

But what is now under way are antiquated public works projects, as if politicians, bureaucrats and businesses are all rushing to protect vested interests in the name of recovery efforts.

The people affected by the disaster have generally given their silent approval to such projects, underscoring the weakness of the regional economy and people’s mentality–a result of decades of dependence on central government subsidies.

Local governments also lack the imagination and strength to draw future scenarios in the era of depopulation. That is why they are building gigantic concrete tide walls to block in their towns and public housing complexes, which are destined to become like ghost towns as depopulation continues.

In a nutshell, the state, local governments and residents all lack the vision to use recovery projects to create ideal communities.

On March 11, 2011, the tsunami flooded rice fields in coastal areas, turning them into seas of mud. But these rice fields were created on reclaimed lagoons.

Our ancestors divided common-property lagoons and wetlands into personal properties and cultivated the land to produce farm crops to supply to the increasing population in the modern era.

But since the population is set to decline, we should simply let devastated coastal lands return to lagoons. They can attract tourists and become models for environmental reclamation projects.

I wonder whose benefit it will serve to reclaim rice fields that were destined to be abandoned sooner or later–even before the March 11 disaster–with the costs subsidized by the central government.

Debate is now needed to find a realistic answer on how we can lead safe and sustainable lives in the future.

We must review our lives and livelihoods from scratch to redesign our future. In doing so, it is important to listen carefully to voices of young people, especially women.

Wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable energies are the leading technologies of our civilization and co-products of the local natural environment and technology.

If people can produce electricity from these energy sources, we can regain control over our lives.

For example, micro-hydro power generation requires local residents to restore limpid rivers and streams. To keep our rivers clean, we must restore mountain forests, which were our primarily source of energy in the past.

Through actively participating in the energy cycle, we can also give serious consideration to the idea of community autonomy and independence, and we support these ideals.

Residents in the Aizu region of Fukushima Prefecture have already taken action to realize such ideals. Our motto is that we are restarting the freedom and people’s rights movement seen in the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

The prefecture served as a central base for the movement. And residents in the Sanriku coastal area in Iwate Prefecture have also shown a self-governing ability through their successful campaign to oppose construction of a nuclear power plant.

The “colony for a millennium” may not be able to win over other regions, but it has a toughness not to surrender completely.

By YUZURU TSUBOI/ Staff Writer