• Kahoku Shimpo

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In a public facility run by the town of Okuma in Fukushima Prefecture, located in a designated no-go zone, stacks of cardboard boxes slowly gather dust.

The boxes are filled with public documents detailing the March 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, the triple meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and the evacuation that followed — outlining the ordeal Okuma and its residents have been through over the past decade.

Entry to the entire town was prohibited until April 2019, when restrictions were eased for parts of it. Since municipal office operations returned to Okuma from the city of Aizuwakamatsu, where they were relocated after the disaster, town officials have started to sift through the public documents.

Limited space

Typically, the length of time such documents are kept depends on the content — from a year to three or five years, or sometimes longer. But the town has decided to keep all its documents from fiscal 2010 and 2011, the years right before and after the disaster, permanently.

Papers related to the disaster and meltdowns from fiscal 2012 onward will also be saved.

“Storage space is limited, so we want to sort out which documents can be thrown away,” said an Okuma official.

Public documents relating to the disaster are important records that show how the town responded right in the days and weeks that followed and then in reconstruction efforts. They can be used as an educational resource for future generations, to analyze what worked and what didn’t.

The government’s Cabinet Office compiled guidelines in fiscal 2012 for the preservation of public documents held by the central government. But the guidelines did not include public documents held by local governments.

With no guidelines to refer to, municipalities are at a loss over what to do, all the while struggling to meet the growing need for storage space. With no special instructions, public documents that age beyond the designated storage threshold could be thrown away — resulting in the potential loss of vital records.

The town of Namie, which neighbors Okuma, is also holding about 100 cardboard boxes full of official papers.

“We know they’re important documents but we can’t build a storage facility,” said a Namie town official. “We need to eventually throw them away.”

There have been cases in which decisions made over whether certain documents were considered public, and whether or not they should be thrown away, led to problems.

The board of education in the city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, threw away a memo containing witness accounts from students and teachers at Okawa Elementary School, where 84 students, teachers and staff died in 2011 after they were swept away by the tsunami.

In the city of Natori, also in the prefecture, officials involved in a third-party panel investigating the deaths of local residents following the disaster, disposed of documents they had used to compile their final report. The incident prompted criticism from the bereaved families that they would not be able to review the materials.

Kobe’s precedent

How should disaster-hit areas store public documents? Four years after Kobe was struck by the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, the city decided to store all the documents it had that were related to the disaster.

But it took eight years from fiscal 2010 to finally finish sorting through documents that had been stored in 6,400 cardboard boxes.

The documents included applications for subsidies and contracts for temporary housing, which contained personal information. In the end, the city threw away 2,700 boxes worth of documents. Those that were retained were archived digitally, and are now disclosed on request.

“As a history researcher, it’s ideal for all documents to be saved, but I can understand that the amount could be overwhelming.” said Kazuko Sasaki, 68, of Kobe University’s graduate school, who is familiar with handling disaster-related documents.

Based on advice from Kobe University researchers, the city kept even materials not considered to be public documents, including labels from bread and cup noodles that were distributed at evacuation shelters and newspapers that schoolchildren wrote for shelters.

In the prefectures hit by disaster in 2011, many public documents are now nearing their 10-year storage expiration date. Municipalities face the difficult task of deciding whether or not each document poses historical value.

“Storing public documents means the municipality is determined not to forget or disregard what has happened,” said Sasaki of Kobe University. “The initial step is to save them, and take time to come up with guidelines with local residents on what needs to be stored or disposed of.”

Digital era

The 2011 disaster occurred in an era when people could capture an enormous volume of photos and videos of the earthquake and tsunami. These have been collected and are shared online as digital archives.

Unlike other platforms such as social media services, the intellectual rights for those digital archives have been resolved — which makes their secondary use easier.

Miyagi Prefecture launched its digital archive system in June 2015, making 227,000 items available to the public online including materials that were only ever digital.

The prefecture’s library, which runs the system, has been adding metadata, such as the date and location where a photo was taken, to make it easier for users to search the materials online.

For example, if a photo has a caption that says “flooding in eastern Sendai,” librarians will gather more information from the photo, cross-check it with a map and add the name of the ward.

But it takes time for them to check each photo and add metadata. They also still need to resolve copyright issues for about 182,000 items, but after all these years reaching the owners has become more challenging.

“It’s hard to look at photos of the affected areas, but it captures how difficult it was back then,” said Natsue Kato, 51, who is in charge of sorting through the digital archives. “We need to make these precious records useful for future generations, or people outside the prefecture.”

Since the 2011 disaster, many municipalities, research organizations and IT companies have started digital archive systems. The National Diet Library’s Hinagiku digital archives portal site allow users to search through 4.45 million items in 53 archive systems across Japan.

Archives for all

Over the past decade, the priority has been on collecting items. But going forward, attention will increasingly be on how the millions of archived records could be used to prevent or reduce the risks associated with disasters in the future.

“Since there are so many items, it’s difficult to search through them if you don’t know the necessary addresses or keywords,” said Akihiro Shibayama, an associate professor at Tohoku University, who is studying digital archives. “There are no librarians who can make proposals on how to use the materials.”

Among the many digital archives, one launched by Iwate Prefecture has captured the spotlight. Launched in March 2017, it contains 238,000 items — making it the largest among those compiled by the various municipalities.

The prefecture has a unique program in which the digital archives are used for “recovery education” in schools, focusing on topics such as disaster prevention.

It has compiled educational materials, textbooks and videos for teachers on how to make use of the archives, with QR codes linking to sites they can draw on for additional materials.

Among 33 Iwate schools that emphasized recovery education during fiscal 2020, 22 used the digital archives. And as more students don’t remember or haven’t experienced the disaster, the archives are playing a greater role.

“In addition to photos and video images, (use of) newspaper clips and having students write essays will allow them to feel that the disaster is something personal to them,” said Hiroki Komatsuyama, 50, a teacher responsible for overseeing the curriculum at the Iwate Prefectural Board of Education. “It will allow them to prepare for disasters and study actively.”

This section features topics and issues from the Tohoku region covered by the Kahoku Shimpo, the largest newspaper in Tohoku. The original article was published June 15.

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