Prof: Friendships, community still critical for survival in quake-ravaged Japan

March 5, 2012

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - In the immediate wake of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan, survival was a matter of relationships among neighbors. A year later, the same remains true - particularly for the elderly - says a Purdue University expert.

"No matter how people were warned of the tsunami, we have found that those with stronger social relationships were more likely to survive the immediate disaster, and we're finding that similar social networks are also critical in the well-being of survivors," says Daniel Aldrich, an associate professor of political science who is studying Japan's recovery. "Survivors quickly settled in community shelters at local gyms, schools and cultural halls, where they not only had physical comforts but also strong social networks. A year after the disaster, these survivors have been or are being relocated to more isolated settings. And without a strong network, it can affect their well-being."

The March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami resulted in 21,000 deaths. Aldrich, who has been to Japan twice and will return at the end of March, is interviewing residents from the 200 fishing villages on the northeastern coast. He is venturing from the far north town of Aomori to Chiba, located north of Tokyo. Findings from his earlier research will be in his upcoming book, "Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery," that will be published in August.

The average age is 60 in the communities he will visit, and of the 250,000 people on the northeastern coast who left their homes, it is estimated that 100,000 are still displaced. Many of those who survived did so because they had stronger social networks and relied on neighbors or friends who were the first responders to help older individuals evacuate, Aldrich says.

Survivors were able to maintain networks while living at the shelters, and they also received meals and health care on site. However, while the new housing for survivors, known as temporary-permanent housing, returns some individuals geographically to their communities, they are at higher elevations and away from the central village life, he says.

"These people have their own space now rather than the less private shelters, but they are isolated and physically farther away from health care, stores and their friends," says Aldrich, who is studying how people cope long term after disasters. "Based on what we've found here and what we know from the Kobe earthquake in 1995, isolation and a breakdown of social networks can be a disaster themselves.

"Would it be possible for disaster recovery planners to help survivors transition from emergency evacuation and short-term housing to permanent housing together as a block community, or are there other ways to preserve their social networks? People were safely relocated to high-rise buildings after the Kobe earthquake, but survivors experienced what was called the lonely death outcome. Today, survivors are relocated to safer physical sites, but how can these older adults continue to live if they are more than a mile from the center of their communities?"

Other research topics that Aldrich is studying are the increase of volunteers in Japan and why and how the survival and evacuation rates varied among the 200 villages that were directly affected by the disaster. He also is assessing how people were notified of the tsunami and radiation leaks and how it affected their survival.

Aldrich is the author of the 2008 book "Site Fights: Divisive Facilities and Civil Society in the Japan and the West." He is a fellow in the Mansfield Foundation US-Japan Network for the Future and an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723,

Source: Daniel Aldrich, Aldrich is in Washington, D.C., and can be contacted by email to schedule phone or Skype interviews.