Aerial view of tsunami and earthquake damage is seen from an SH-60B helicopter assigned to the Chargers of Helicopter Antisubmarine Squadron (HS) 14 from Naval Air Facility Atsugi [Image Source: US Navy/Getty Images]

Tōhoku Region Matters for America


The record-breaking March 11th earthquake off the coast of Japan caused skyscrapers to sway in Tokyo and tremors across the main island of Honshu, but it was the Tōhoku region, Japan’s northeast, that bore the brunt of nature’s fury. The three Pacific-facing prefectures nearest the epicenter, Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima were devastated by the subsequent tsunami that reached up to 6 miles (10 km) inland, sweeping away homes, businesses, and lives in a matter of minutes.

Compared with the political and economic centers of Tokyo and Osaka, many non-Japanese may have been unfamiliar with Japan’s northeastern region and the prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima before watching the recent tragic events unfold on the news. Despite the characterization of a quiet agricultural region with sleepy fishing villages, this region contributes to the greater US-Japan relationship.

The data collected for the Japan Matters for America project reveals numerous, intimate linkages between the United States and the prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima:

  • Trade: According to a 2009 survey, the United States was Fukushima’s largest trade destination, accounting for 17% of its total exports. At the same time, over a quarter of the total imports to the Miyagi prefecture (26.2%) came from the United States, making it their number one import partner.
  • Foreign Direct Investment: These three prefectures are home to 137 US corporate affiliates: 23 in Iwate, 73 in Miyagi, and 41 in Fukushima. Among these include branches of such high-tech firms as Cisco Systems and Hewlett Packard.
  • American Residents: More Americans live in Japan than ever before, with the numbers rising in each prefecture. Tohoku is no exception, with over a thousand American residents living in Iwate (187), Miyagi (541), and Fukushima (339) in 2009.
  • JET Program: Of all participants in the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme in these three prefectures last year, over half were from the US. Iwate hosted 22 American JETs, Miyagi 52, and Fukushima 63.
  • Sister Cities: Twenty-six communities in these three prefectures have formal sister relationships with communities in 15 US states: 7 in Iwate, 9 in Miyagi, and 10 in Fukushima. Additionally the Port of Everett in Washington State maintains a longstanding exchange relationship with the city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi.
A map depicting the devastated prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima - Image from edited by Grace Ruch

Crossed with mountains and bordered by the Pacific Ocean, these three prefectures were traditionally considered, along with the rest of the Tohoku region, to be a rural backwater. Today, linked by bullet trains and expressways, they are famous agricultural areas and tourist destinations.

Fukushima is the gateway connecting Tohoku with Tokyo. Electricity generation is a major industry and the now beleaguered nuclear complexes are the largest in Japan. Miyagi is home to Sendai, the largest city in the region with a population of 1.03 million, and regional center of manufacturing, as well as transportation and commerce through its large port. Miyagi is particularly noted for its high-quality rice production and fisheries. Iwate, conversely, is rugged and sparsely populated. With forests covering 75% of the prefecture, forestry is a major industry while its natural beauty has been a draw for tourism. CSIS expert Mike Green explains that most of the population in this area of Japan is elderly – the average age is 65 years old. Together they are three unique prefectures that enrich the US-Japan partnership in their own way.

The US-Japan relationship extends beyond the Tōkaidō; the prominent region from the Tokyo metropolis to Osaka. As the United States joins the international effort to aid Japan in its time of need, it is important to understand the deep and direct connections between our country and the stricken Tōhoku region.

Many organizations are accepting donations online to support the ongoing disaster relief efforts, including the American Red Cross, International Red Cross Red Crescent, Nippon Foundation, Save the Children and Mercycorps, all of which currently have strong organizational capacity in Japan, according to Sheila Smith at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Other information and donation resources: