Disaster tourism can be an unsettling descent into voyeurism as visitors ghoulishly gawk at, and photograph, those caught up in catastrophe as if they’re at a petting zoo. The concept has prompted widespread condemnation of insensitive tourists and travel companies exploiting disasters as marketing opportunities.
In the years following the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, opponents of disaster tourism have claimed that its economic benefits are overstated while the ethical shortcomings are legion. Advocates counter that the economic benefits can be significant, crucial to regional recovery, and that there are important lessons to be learned.
There is no longer much to gawk at along the Tohoku region’s tsunami-ravaged coast, however, save for some shattered buildings preserved to memorialize the tragedy. Bus companies and hotel operators pocket profits, but they also generate jobs and expose outsiders to a region that has always been a neglected backwater.
Recently I witnessed large buses from one local tour company disgorging dozens of sightseers for snapshots of the skeletal disaster management center and the derelict Takano Kaikan hall in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture. These tourists are spending money in local shops and restaurants in a remote place that has poor transport links and is in the middle of a noisy, messy all-encompassing rebuilding phase. What used to be the center of town is now a vast construction site dominated by giant berms of earth that will raise the town by about five meters.
I met a young man from Osaka who came as a volunteer and then decided to remain in the area. He pointed out that for devastated local businesses, disaster tourism is a welcome lifeline. Elsewhere, a big-screen TV in a hotel lobby features a 3-D video of the tsunami that allows guests to don special glasses and watch the unfolding tragedy. I suppose this could be educational, but the prevailing holiday atmosphere dissuaded me.
Denunciation of disaster tourism in Tohoku is grounded in sympathy for the victims and concerns that devastation is an unseemly attraction, but Australia National University’s Simon Avenell, author of “Transnational Japan in the Global Environmental Movement,” says he is not a purist in this regard.
“From a financial perspective, I’m generally supportive of disaster tourism, certainly because it brings people and some money into the region, but also because it offers local people a chance to express their feelings directly (rather than mediated through the press or TV),” he says. “As time goes by, 3/11 becomes less and less of a news item, so tourism can be at least a small communication pipeline for locals.”
However, Avenell also has qualms about the potential for masking serious unresolved issues, because by promoting a sense of normalization “it could actually hamper fundamental change (and) … its political benefits might be limited or even deleterious in the long run.”
The infamous Kyushu port of Minamata, which put mercury poisoning on the global radar in the 1970s, is now perhaps the most visited sight for school excursions by Kyushu students after Nagasaki’s atomic bomb park and museum. Chris McMorran, a senior lecturer in Japanese studies at the National University of Singapore, takes his students there. He says tourism officials from Tohoku visited Minamata to learn about the city’s educational disaster tourism initiatives and the role of kataribe (storytellers) in them.
“Using an itinerary to create an opening for reflection and communication has long fit the learning objectives of overseas field learning experiences,” he says. There are “packages that continue to attract visitors to Tohoku who want to hear from survivors, witness the destruction and (most intriguingly to me) view (and photograph) disaster monuments. In some areas, there are also new shopping areas targeted at tourists, which feature locally handmade products and restaurants. It seems like these places are actively promoted by locals trying to start businesses in the absence of other major economic activity.”
McMorran posits there are phases in Tohoku’s disaster tourism.
“First, through volunteerism, then volunteer tourism (or ‘voluntourism’), then disaster (recovery/support) tourism. It’s a fascinating evolution that has effectively controlled the potential anarchy of large-scale volunteerism and steered it into consumption (via tourism and the purchase of local goods) as the preferred disaster recovery response from citizens.”
The media has played a significant role in this latter phase. Philip Seaton, a professor of modern Japanese studies at Hokkaido University, has studied the role “contents tourism” has played in Tohoku’s recovery. This is where television shows, films and anime promote an area specifically by featuring it.
Producers chose sites “in disaster zones in the hope that the ‘contents tourism’ induced by popular culture would help in the more general economic revitalization efforts of disaster areas,” Seaton says. Prime examples include NHK dramas “Yae no Sakura,” set in Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, and “Amachan,” set in Kuji, Iwate Prefecture. It is estimated that the latter generated ¥30 billion in economic benefits for Tohoku as fans of the series flocked to the gorgeous coastal location to sample local delicacies from the show.
It is also clear that a variety of organizations, ranging from religious and education institutions to NPOs and activist groups, are conducting study tours in the region that are explicitly educational. As I wrote two weeks ago, the ruins of Okawa Elementary School in Miyagi Prefecture are now a site for school tours that aim to improve disaster preparation. Universities are also running study tours in the region.
Hiroko Aihara, a journalist with Japan Perspective News, notes that the Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation has issued guidelines for responsible disaster tourism but remains ambivalent over “dark tourism,” which involves places associated with death and suffering. She is concerned about a lingering radiation risk in Fukushima and worries that if tours don’t involve local residents and the evacuees, visitors might get a skewed impression that downplays the nuclear disaster — which could be “converted to political propaganda by the ‘nuclear village,'” she says, referring to pro-nuclear interests. She also cautions that schools and teachers should disclose information about the dangers of radiation exposure near the stricken nuclear plant and suggests bringing individual measurement devices. If properly led, she agrees that educational tours can be beneficial, but she is not in favor of mere casual observation.
Fukushima Prefecture is sponsoring trips to Namie, an abandoned town just 9 kilometers away from Tepco’s three nuclear meltdowns, that convey a powerful message to visitors about the hubris of nuclear safety — underscored by the continuing ban on overnight stays. Nearby Futaba, however, has taken down the iconic pro-nuclear energy welcome sign that spanned the entryway into that ghost town because it had become a favored photo op for tourists. Some disgruntled locals feel it should have been preserved for posterity to help future generations learn the lessons of Fukushima, but abashed town officials claim the aging sign had become a safety hazard. At least that’s their story, and they’re sticking to it.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.
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