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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Becoming experts : Japanese grassroots NGOs and LGBT communities in post-disaster Tohoku Fox, Natasha


On March 11, 2011 a powerful earthquake in the northeastern region of Japan, known as Tohoku, triggered a devastating tsunami and nuclear power plant meltdown. While Japanese earthquake technology and tsunami preparation guidelines are known as some of the best in the world, criticism has surfaced about the lack of consideration for the needs of diverse people, including inadequate privacy in emergency shelters, and lack of gender-appropriate appropriate supplies. This project investigates this issue by exploring problems faced by LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people in Tohoku communities in response to the 2011 disasters. In the period following the earthquake and tsunami a small number of LGBT survivors in the region began distributing supplies and information to other LGBT people. Some of their activities crystallized into more permanent non-governmental organizations (NGOs), contributing to a growing movement for awareness of such diversity in the region. In 2018 I spent one year in Japan conducting original qualitative research to explore the emergence and features of the NGOs serving local LGBT communities in post-disaster Tohoku. A series of open-ended interviews with organizers and members of 17 NGOs is the primary source of data for this project. The study shows that some LGBT people’s experiences of the disaster environment were tied to a hetero-masculinist approach to disaster planning and response. The ensuing meltdown at the nuclear power plant also underscored a deeply androcentric epistemological base for expertise, informing various components of the recovery and cleanup activities. NGOs profiled in this study presented an alternative view of disaster response expertise, which takes local knowledge and lived experience of marginalized people as its starting point. My analysis indicated that these groups were successful at identifying shortcomings that were not anticipated by standard disaster planning processes in Japan. The study shows that the needs of LGBT people facing disasters are diverse and complex, requiring expertise beyond standard disaster response mechanisms. This dissertation argues that alternative forms of expertise can be effective at meeting the needs of diverse people facing disasters, as demonstrated by marginalized individuals and NGO groups that served them in contemporary post-disaster Tohoku.

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