In September 2010, Hiroshi Inomata was appointed consul general of Japan in San Francisco. Just six months after his arrival, Japan was hit by a major national disaster, devastating areas of Northern Japan and causing energy and radiation concerns throughout the country.
In the months since the earthquake and tsunami, Inomata and his staff have served as a conduit for the latest news, information about safety concerns, and updates for travelers. The Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco has also launched a fundraising campaign, raising nearly two million dollars to date.
Inomata spoke with the Nichi Bei Weekly about his thoughts on the disaster and its repercussions.
Nichi Bei Weekly: Where were you at the time of the earthquake?
Hiroshi Inomata: I was at home. I was back from a dinner meeting and I had a phone call around 10 minutes to 11 p.m. I switched on the TV and saw what was happening. That was quite shocking, especially the tsunami. That was quite an unprecedented thing. I couldn’t believe it. Although we saw a tsunami case in 2004, this is totally different.
NBW: As a diplomat, what kind of actions did you have to take immediately and soon after?
HI: I had a phone call from the Consulate General’s office. They were still in the office, so I set up a special team to stay over, because there would be some inquiries from Japanese residents of Northern California, asking about their families’ case, as well as Americans who might have family living in those areas. So we needed to set up a certain communication line with Tokyo. Although the general line doesn’t work well, we have a special communication line, and we tried to get information from Tokyo, confirmed information. Many communications came in from that time until next morning.
Mayor Ed Lee made an announcement the next morning that they would do whatever efforts they can because Japan did assist at the time of the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes, and San Francisco will always remember that. … But, as you may know, the local government was quite confused because there were so many things going on. We are very much pleased to accept assistance, but it’s hard to accept goods, in-kind donations. (Note: the Consulate’s office, regrettably, had to reject donations of goods in favor of funds, since material goods were too difficult to process).
NBW: Now, four months later, what kind of efforts is your office making for disaster relief?
HI: Still, many activities continue. There are fundraising events, and I try to be present as my time allows because I’d really like to express my gratitude. In the United States, you have a big tornado and wildfires, but still many people try to help Japan, so I really would like to respond to the goodwill.
NBW: Almost immediately after the earthquake, Bay Area groups like the Japan Society of Northern California and the JCCCNC (Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California) launched fundraising campaigns and events. The JCCCNC’s fund has raised over $3 million to date. What are your thoughts on such relief efforts here in the Bay Area?
HI: I’m very much grateful for those who participate in those activities. I attended the inauguration of the JCCCNC fund, and the mayor came and [board] supervisors came to help the activity. Actually, in the [Northern California] Cherry Blossom Festival, the JCCCNC and other activities were working hard. I’m really grateful.
NBW: What kind of impact do you think this disaster has had and will continue to have on relations between Japan and other countries?
HI: The basic relations haven’t changed, but this time, especially the U.S. lent us a helping hand. At first, [for] search and rescue operations for the nuclear power accident, we had help from the Department of Energy and the nuclear commission. They helped quite a lot technically and physically. As you might have heard, Operation Tomodachi is well-received. U.S. forces and Japanese forces worked closely together to help people in need. We feel that we are really good allies. We are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the signature of the Japan-U.S. original Security Treaty.
NBW: What effect do you think this disaster has had on the collective Japanese psyche?
HI: This time, as you see on the TV screen, many people tried to help each other. Especially the area, Northeastern Japan, they have a long history of helping each other and the community is quite close. So they’re caring for each other even more than they care for themselves. So we saw that scene, and that gives some good effect to the people. Many young Japanese are trying to be volunteers in that area, and that seems to be a good uniting force … I think that’s very positive. Also, we have to refrain from using much energy to try and cooperate with each other. That’s another way to unify ourselves.
NBW: Do you know people who were directly affected or lost their lives? How has this tragedy affected you personally?
HI: Fortunately not. I have a friend in Sendai. He’s safe and his family is safe. But surely people lost their lives, their families, their friends. I feel sorry for them. I can’t believe the scene you see, the tsunami. I heard a story that in Ishinomaki, an elementary school just finished and students were just getting out and so many students drowned. It just happened that school had finished and they were on their way home. It’s a terrible story. But a high school in San Francisco knew that story and had a connection with that school, and they set up the Jizo Project, and packed 500 backpacks filled with clothes and pencils and things — that’s great.
NBW: How have you had to shift your focus from other areas you might have been concentrating on?
HI: Actually, not that much. What I’d like to do from the beginning is to visit as many places and meet as many people as possible. So, with this as well, I try to visit as many places to express my gratitude for their support. I think it’s mostly on the same lines. So in that context, not much changed at all.
NBW: What do you see as the biggest challenge of the aftermath of this disaster?
HI: Japan has to [have a] rebirth. We have many people still in shelters. To reconstruct society is quite hard. Also … we are now trying to remake our energy policy. The government seems to not stop but gradually decline the use of nuclear energy, but I don’t think it’s the right thing. Surely, in the future, if the time comes, we should switch to renewable energy, but at this moment we can’t rely on that.
In order to recover from this difficulty, we need industry, but without electricity, we can’t have production. It’s a vicious circle. That’s what I’m worrying about now, the energy policy of Japan. If you think about it realistically, what we need for the future, we need to some extent to rely on nuclear energy. And I feel sorry for other countries, to affect their policy of energy because of this accident. Some people use that incident to stop nuclear power, but that’s bad.