How LGBT+ communities overcame Japan’s 2011 triple disaster – The Diplomat


On March 11, 2011, a powerful 9.0 magnitude earthquake triggered a deadly tsunami that hit the northeastern region of Japan, Tohoku. The tsunami killed nearly 19,000 people and slammed into the Fukushima nuclear power plant, causing one of the worst nuclear meltdowns in human history.

For hundreds of miles, the damage spread across towns that dot the Tohoku coast, in some cases sweeping away entire communities. Homes that were left standing were cut off from electricity, gas and water, and structural damage rendered people’s living spaces uninhabitable for weeks or even months after the initial earthquake. In total, almost half a million people had to be evacuated from the tsunami flood zone in a very short time, to some 2,400 emergency shelters across the region.

As the disaster unfolded on news channels and onto screens around the world, the last thing on many people’s minds was how individuals from the local LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community and other gender and sexual minorities) could get away with it. Yet for Yamashita Azusa and other LGBT+ activists in Tohoku, this issue was a priority.

“I knew from daily experience that friends and LGBT+ people in these communities would be particularly isolated and in need of support,” Azusa explained in an interview with me, as part of my research on disaster vulnerability and resilience. LGBT+.

The last decade of research shows that LGBT+ people are more vulnerable than the general population during a disaster, due to a number of factors. For example, in disasters, while all women are more likely than men to be assaulted or harassed, for transgender people the number is several times higher. Being forced to choose between a male or female washroom in an emergency shelter can exacerbate this problem, making trans people stand out in very traumatic and unwanted ways.

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Even seemingly simple evacuation processes can create traumatic experiences for LGBT+ people. Since many LGBT+ families may not have access to full legal recognition of their relationships, depending on the laws where they live, they may not be considered part of the family in an emergency. This means they are at risk of being separated during evacuation processes that prioritize opposite-sex couples and their biological children as a family unit.

LGBT+ communities also tend to have more difficulty accessing information in times of crisis. For example, young people in this community are more difficult to reach in an emergency due to their higher rate of homelessness than other young people. Elderly people in the community are also more likely to be isolated and less likely to have family support, and therefore may have difficulty accessing resources or receiving emergency messages.

While these are just a few examples of heightened LGBT+ vulnerability in disaster situations, my research also examines how the community reversed its destiny in 2011 in ways that can serve as a model for disaster planning. disasters beyond Japan. Their stories offer important solutions that can actually reduce the vulnerability of LGBT+ and other marginalized communities, and can be applied in other disaster situations, including in the Pacific Northwest where I am currently based.

During the 2011 disaster in Japan, local LGBT+ people quickly realized they could not rely on inclusive considerations such as gender-neutral single-cabin bathrooms during the mass evacuation. Bathrooms and temporary bathing facilities set up by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces were usually divided in a binary fashion: men on one side, women on the other. This alienated people who did not identify strongly with either of these gender categories.

During the emergency period, Azusa and other members of the LGBT+ community in Tohoku began to identify unmet needs in their community and then pool their resources to develop their own strategies to take care of themselves.

In just one example, a gay man in the community recognized that offering only bathing facilities for men or women presented a potentially problematic blind spot in the existing disaster response. Because he was blessed with running hot water, he took it upon himself to open his home to outsiders from the queer and trans community who wanted to avoid the gender binary of the existing facilities.

Others, like Azusa, have developed bulletin boards with targeted information on where to access supplies such as sanitary pads and gender-appropriate underwear, even going so far as to personally deliver these supplies to shelters along the way. from the coast where they were needed but not readily available. people of different gender.

Some of these activities gave way to face-to-face meetings and the groups gradually began to organize regular check-ins, eventually organizing fundraising activities and even creating inclusive disaster planning manuals and other awareness resources. for inclusive disaster planning. Their creative response to the vulnerability of their community means that people in other places can learn from these experiences, in many places across Japan and the world.

These efforts may hold the key to the future of disaster planning for several reasons.

First, in our time of climate change, as disasters and natural hazards increase in frequency and intensity, events such as forest fires, floods and landslides are increasingly impacting human societies. We will continue to encounter crises like these with increasing regularity, as disasters and environmental disasters increasingly encroach on our lives in different ways. This means that the need for new and innovative ways to understand, plan for, mitigate and adapt to the threats of natural disasters will continue to grow.

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Despite this growing need, the way many people in governments, institutions and civil society think about and understand natural hazards remains outdated. Too much focus remains on the threat itself, without considering the specific experiences and needs of those affected at all phases of the disaster, from the planning phase to longer-term recovery.

Neglecting to consider the needs of diverse individuals in a crisis means that these people are at greater risk to their lives and well-being, and that pathways to safety will seem unwelcoming to some people more than to others. others. When seconds count, even the possibility of feeling unwelcome or unduly guarded in a shelter can be the difference between life and death, between evacuating to a potentially dangerous space or choosing to stay in an equally dangerous situation, such as a house. dangerously damaged.

There are also other important benefits for the whole population by making disaster planning more inclusive. For example, many potential solutions to the vulnerability of the Japanese LGBT+ community, such as providing inclusive bathrooms, can also benefit others, creating a safer and more comfortable environment not only for people of the transgender community, but also for families. with young children and others. In other words, the benefits of an inclusive approach are not limited to a particular population, but can strengthen the resilience of society as a whole in the event of a disaster.

On the one hand, Japan’s mass evacuation in 2011 demonstrated why the country is considered the world leader in the world of disaster planning. Indeed, disaster researchers have pointed to the fact that, had this disaster struck anywhere else on earth, the damage and loss of life would likely have been many times greater than it was. However, what is still missing from this expertise-driven approach to disaster planning is a lens that incorporates LGBT+ and other diverse perspectives into preparations.

The LGBT+ grassroots support groups in Tohoku are a great example of how these marginalized communities are moving the needle in a more inclusive direction when it comes to disasters and how to plan for them. This could have a big impact on how people experience the next crisis that will affect human societies in many parts of the world.

My research project on LGBT+ resilience and vulnerability is part of the Cascadia Coastlines and People Hazards Research Hub, a National Science Foundation-funded project dedicated to informing and enabling integrated risk assessment, mitigation, and adaptation for coastal communities. The expertise of Japanese LGBT+ grassroots groups on their own needs and how to meet them can serve as a new model for understanding how disasters affect diverse people, thereby filling important gaps in standard disaster planning.

Here in Cascadia, where we already face climate-related crises, we too are expecting a massive earthquake and tsunami comparable to what Japan experienced in 2011. Unfortunately, our region is nowhere near as prepared. to the impact of such an event. The goal of my work is therefore to empower diverse local populations to generate new ways of thinking about risk and vulnerability, and to mobilize their resilience in ways that they can use them today without the need for expertise. technocratic.

I hope that by diversifying participation in disaster planning, this approach will ensure that all people are better protected in the next disaster.


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