What can historians do in the face of overwhelming disaster? The answer, unexpectedly, is ‘a lot.’ Disaster destroys not only the material environment, but also shatters the personal lives of people and tears apart the social fabric of the areas it affects. The ability of individuals and communities to be resilient in the face of this kind of shock and massive destruction is gaining attention in both academic studies of disaster and amongst humanitarian relief agencies. It is now widely recognized that appropriate psychosocial support can promote resilience, both in individuals and in communities . What is less widely recognised is that history can play a role both in providing psychosocial support after a disaster, and in promoting resilience. Psychosocial support starts with providing people with food, water, and shelter, but an important part of the ensuing steps includes regaining a sense of ‘normalcy’, putting together parts of people’s pre-disaster sense of life and reality. History tells people who they are, both at a personal or familial level, and also for communities. Being able to reconnect in some way the community’s link to the past can be an important part of enabling people to regain their will to stand up and rebuild their lives and community. This is an important lesson that historians belonging to Miyagi Shiryō Net in Miyagi prefecture, Japan , are learning after the earthquake and tsunami damage of 11th March, 2011 .
Miyagi Shiryō Net was founded in response to a series of five earthquakes of seismic intensity ranging from 5 to 6+ which occurred on 26th July, 2003 . Five major earthquakes occurred on this day, injuring 51 people and destroying or damaging a total of 16,060 buildings. With the depopulation and aging of Japan’s rural society, these communities do not have the social and economic resources necessary to repair and rebuild the damage done to traditional buildings by earthquakes. After a major earthquake, irreplaceable collections of documents recording the administrative, economic and social history of the region are also often quietly disposed of, along with the buildings which housed them. The problem of the accelerated loss of important historical heritage was highlighted after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, centred off the western city of Kobe in 1995 . Historians in Western Japan responded to this loss of invaluable historical heritage by mobilising to found the Network for Historical Materials to identify endangered historical materials and to work for their salvage and preservation . In Miyagi Prefecture, we had experienced a major offshore earthquake in 1978 which seismologists identified as an event which would recur on about a 40 year cycle. We knew that we were in for more, but not when, nor how much, and the events of July 2003 caught us flat-footed. When historians in Miyagi finally got into the field and visited 192 families, we found in many cases that we had arrived too late to prevent the destruction of documents and other historical materials. Before 2011, we were to experience three more major earthquakes. Each time, we had to mobilise to try to salvage what we could from the collapsed and endangered buildings throughout the affected areas.
Salvage operations in Ishinomaki City, June, 2013
‘Historical heritage’ in Japan is overwhelmingly written documents. Japan throughout the Edo Period (1600-1868) was the most literate society in the world in its time. The amount of original written material produced recording the details of governance, administration, commercial activity, and people’s lives within any single village would fill a library on its own. By contrast, the amount of traditional architecture remaining is very limited. In Japan, written documents provide a link to the past history of any community despite a rapidly changing physical landscape. These collections of documents are mostly held in private hands, and only a small portion of them have ever been identified, sometimes even by their owners.
A tea chest containing old documents washed ashore in Onagawa
In order to save the historical heritage of the region, we found that mobilising after a disaster was too late; we had to create an ongoing project of cooperating with the Boards of Education of local governments throughout Miyagi prefecture. Together, we sought to locate, preserve and record both known and hitherto unknown collections of historical materials held by private individuals. This has been an ongoing exercise for us since 2003. Gaining the trust of local government officials, local amateur historians, and then private owners who are not always friendly to zealous historians is the first hurdle we face, but is only the very beginning in a long process. The lists of such collections of documents and other materials that we have accumulated is essential in enabling us to target where we need to go in the vital first days after a major disaster.
However, the events of 3.11 were beyond anything we had anticipated. The building housing our base of operations in Tōhoku University in Sendai was declared unsafe. Petrol shortages, broken communications and sundered roads and bridges meant that we could not get into the damaged areas. In many areas along the coast, there was nothing left at all. However, while much has been lost, we have managed to salvage many documents from the tsunami areas, and from inland areas suffering earthquake damage. A nationwide network of cooperation has materialized to cope with the task of restoring these materials, which is another story in itself.
The most important lesson we have learnt from our activities, especially after the wholesale destruction of 3.11. is that anything which can give people a sense of continuity with their pre-disaster existence is psychologically very important. Being able to present a family sitting on the floor in a relief centre with nothing left but what they wore with the digital output of documents recording their history which we had photographed some years before the disaster can bring back hope and the will to continue. Discovering that an old traditional warehouse left standing in an area where everything else had been razed to the ground could be restored can give a community a symbol to focus on.
History is not only the past, it is also the beginning of our future.
 An explanation of psychosocial support and its role in promoting resilience may be found at the site of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
 While the text leaves much to be desired, an introduction to the location and main features of Miyagi prefecture can be found at Wikipedia.
 An extensive summary of the earthquake and tsunami can be found at Wikipedia. Online materials related to the disaster may be found at the Harvard University Japan Digital Archive. See also Nick Kapur’s article also in History Workshop Online regarding the work of the Japan Digital Archive.
 The magnitude of an earthquake does necessarily predict how much damage it will cause. The more commonly used moment magnitude scale (formerly Richter Scale) measures the energy released by the earthquake itself, but this has no direct relation to the amount of resulting damage. The relevant factor is the degree of movement (‘shaking’) at any given point on the earth’s surface which is measured by the degree of seismic intensity. For a full explanation, see Wikipedia.
 For basic information on the Great Hanshin Earthquake see Wikipedia.
 A semi-official English language blog of this organization can be found at this site.