Mapping Anxiety

The triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident that struck eastern Japan in March 2011, reconfirms the criticality of space and location in the cruel happenstances of human life. The disaster experienced by each individual depended very much on where one was located, whether downtown Tokyo or a coastal fishing village. The tremor strength differs greatly by whether you are standing nearer the epicenter or on solid ground or in lowland landfill or on higher floors of buildings or in a train. For tsunami victims, only a few meters may have differentiated life from death as the water crashed through their hometowns, which may or may not have been placed within pre-designated tsunami vulnerability zones. The residents of Fukushima and its neighboring prefectures are adjusting to new background levels of radiation determined literally by the vagaries of the wind and rain depositing variable amounts of radiation at different times and places.

Located in a disaster- prone part of the globe, Japan is well aware of the criticality of space, and the recent disasters may become one of the best mapped in history. Within seconds of the earthquake, seismic activity maps emerged on TV screens and multiple web sites. The severe tsunami warning map appeared in a corner of the TV screen, highlighting the eastern coast in red, invisible ironically to the coastal villages that had lost electricity. The national geospatial authority has provided ortho-rectified aerial photos online of the entire coast devastated by the tsunami for the world to confirm villages swept away or ships run aground. Thousands of maps of radiation levels allow the public to track the micro-Sieverts in ever increasing detail. Geographers are tracking down the town halls, hospitals, and other public facilities now swept away. Agricultural authorities estimate the field areas that need to have salt water or radiation removed. The electric company publicized maps of planned blackout areas in Tokyo.

At the same time, the massive mapping efforts only indirectly express some of the most important maps of all, the personal mental maps of the residents of eastern Japan. Even beyond the immediate disaster areas, residents needed to envision their personal landscape of risk in order to gauge their own sense of anxiety or assurance. With the first tremor of the earthquake, a person could conjure their own mental map of their location in relation to myriad threats to judge their next step in the unfolding disaster. Should I/we/they stay where I am/we/they are? What is the shortest route to high ground? Are the roads closed? Have the trains stopped? Where is my family? How many hours to walk home? Do we evacuate, temporarily or permanently, or simply wear a dust mask, buy more bottled water, and go on with life in place regardless of sporadic transport, mud, or radiation issues? The personal maps may be based partly on official maps, but may also be informed by more immediate sources of information, such as family, neighbors, lines at the gas station, or the availability of food at the local supermarket. An issue for anthropologists will be whether residents of eastern Japan continue to nurture personal maps for their own cultures of safety in competition with the official maps of safety or hazard that may be issued by various scientific and government authorities. (See below for a list of these.)


Geospatial Information Authority of Japan (in Japanese only, but follow the thumbnail images)

e-GOV Japan, Information on the Great East Japan Earthquake

Japan Meteorological Agency

National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention

Emergency Mapping Team, Disaster Prevention Research Institute, Kyoto University