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  • Place-Making Before and After 3.11:The Emergence of Social Design in Post-Disaster, Post-Growth Japan
  • Christian Dimmer (bio)

In the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011 many Japan-observers initially hoped for a broad renaissance of social and political life and a departure from what they saw as an "ageing, dysfunctional (socio-political) system" that proved unfit to reform. However, such initial optimism soon disappeared.1 Political deadlock persisted despite the national crisis, and Japan's famously inflexible institutions and segmented administrative landscape stymied far-reaching socio-political reform and swift reconstruction.2 Although such pessimism might be confirmed by an examination of the actual seemingly slow recovery process or warranted on a macro-political level, I argue that 3.11, as the day of the cataclysmic disaster has come to be known, has also spurred strong positive energies in the place- and space-forming disciplines. To make my argument, I begin by raising the following questions: 3.11 has been often depicted as a hallmark event and critical juncture, but did it really create entirely new place-making practices from scratch? What is the role of 3.11 in the fusing of different design domains and what are the other drivers? What are the established alternative place-making practices that existed prior to 3.11, which co-emerged with the post-disaster situation? Why did 3.11 lead to an unprecedented collaboration of so many different creative domains?

To answer these questions, the approach I adopt is more synthetic than analytic and broadly maps linkages between various different yet related contemporary trends. The objective is to sketch out the larger currents in order to provide an overview of the emergent, new geography of more openly socially-engaged place-making practices in Japan—a term that will be defined below—and explore how 3.11 has led to a fusion of and a blurring between different established place-making domains into the new, more comprehensive field of social design (shakai dezain). The concept appeared in literature at the end of the 1990s and gained broader momentum throughout the 2000s. 3.11 has accelerated the development of this more holistic design field, which is marked by a [End Page 198] high degree of place-specificness, attention to co-creation and participation and a focus on process design and open-endedness. These alternative practices will undoubtedly have far-reaching implications on how future communities will be designed, built, and governed by architects, artists and designers, community designers, creators and makers, as well as citizens.

3.11 as Game Changer?

More than five years have passed since March 11, 2011, the day that many thought would profoundly change contemporary Japan.3 Nearly 19,000 are dead or missing. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced and widely scattered across makeshift homes. Cities and towns still lie in ruins along hundreds of kilometers of the Pacific coast. The Fukushima nuclear power plant was, and to this day still remains, in critical condition. A looming energy crisis has paralyzed the country's economy in the months following the disaster. In the face of such crisis, the initial shock among people in creative industries was quickly permeated by an urgent sense of duty. Architects, artists, and designers, community planners, social entrepreneurs, and engaged citizens soon utilized whatever skills they had at their disposal to aid the recovery of individual survivors and whole communities.

The distress of the early days gradually gave way to the realization that the gaping emptiness the disaster had left behind should be filled with better, healthier, more sustainable communities serving as future models for the rest of the aging, depopulating Japan. This spirit is reflected in the words of Matsumura Gōta, founder of the prominent recovery initiative Ishinomaki 2.0:

Ishinomaki is reborn. It is unthinkable to return to the (desolate) state before 3.11. The city of tomorrow should be better than yesterday's and today's. With the free and open-minded DNA of the people of Ishinomaki, we must create a completely new Ishinomaki. Let's Go Ishinomaki 2.0! We are creating a new Ishinomaki, from the grassroots up.4...


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pp. 198-226
Launched on MUSE
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