Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami Creative Industry Survey Results

Report by Naoki Matsuyama

Edited by Tomomi Sasaki and Chris Palmieri

Special thanks to Hirano Tomoki for his advice and encouragement throughout this project

From May 11 to 27, AQ conducted an online survey with the help of Tokyo Art Beat to find out about how people who work in the creative industries were affected by the events following the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11.

We hope that this survey will provide an overview of the conditions experienced within the creative industries, so to allow each one of us to gain an additional and more overarching point of view when looking back at our own experiences. We also believe that identifying patterns in the way people reacted and think about future prospects, can be of help for companies and individual creators alike, when thinking about solutions to overcome this difficult situation.

We are extremely grateful to the 491 respondents who took time to answer the survey. We hope we have made good use of your time.


Demographics of our survey
Infographic: Demographics of survey respondents.

First of all, let us give you an idea on what kind of people answered the survey. There was a rather strong slant to the demographic category of the respondents, so let us just look at the numbers here. The majority of respondents were young, with 78.7% of them in their 20s (35.7%) and 30s (43.0%). They were based in Tokyo (70.7%), were single (68.9%), and worked for clients in Japan (56.1% only in Japan, 33.7% mostly in Japan). A lot of designers (40.2%) and fewer but significant amount of people in the advertising (26.8%) and art (19.5%) industries. Full-time employees accounted for just over a half (51.8%), followed by freelancers and self-employed people (40.8%).

Given the fact that so many people fell in this latter category, it is perhaps not surprising that 49.4% answered “less than 5” for the question on the number of employees, and the rest were more or less equally spread in different sized companies (the second largest group at 17.9% answering 20-100 employees). Most were low (39.5%, less than 3 million yen per year) to mid-income (39.0%, 3-5 million yen per year) earners. Last but not least, more women (58.8%) took time to answer the survey.

We attribute this slant to the fact that this survey was web-based and was largely diffused through Tokyo Art Beat, a website which attracts people who are interested in art and design related events in Tokyo and around, and tend to have high affinity with Internet services.

Effects of the disaster

Infographic of effects of the earthquake
Infographic: Effects of the Earthquake.

What strongly emerged from the answers was the fact that despite most respondents live in Tokyo, which did not suffer major direct damages from the earthquake and tsunami, nearly everyone felt that their work was affected by the disaster in one form or another. Only 2.3% answered that they were not affected at all. Those who feel that their work is still affected accounted for 65.5% (44.5% somewhat affected, 21.1% strongly affected), and many (39.3%) have no idea how long it will take for things to get back to normal. Only 5.9% believe that they will recover within a few weeks. The damage varied according to the place. Comparing Miyagi prefecture, which suffered severe damages from the tsunami, with Tokyo that only suffered minor physical damages, the difference is clear. While 71.4% answered that they were “strongly affected” in Miyagi, only 17.1% answered the same in Tokyo. Moreover, no one answered that “there have been problems but they have been solved” in Miyagi, whereas 13.7% of those in Tokyo seem to have overcome such problems.

One of the experiences that many of us who were in Japan shared in the weeks after the earthquake, were the ubiquitous TV ads by the Advertising Council Japan (AC) that distributes public service announcements. Private companies pulled their ads for the potential danger of them being regarded as “inappropriate”, resulting in the only remaining AC ads to be broad-casted repeatedly. The term jishuku, which stands for self-censorship or voluntary restraint in Japanese, was heavily circulated over both the media and the Internet and was also applied to this phenomenon. The advertising industry did in fact have the highest proportion of people answering that they were or are still affected by the earthquake (86.5%). But similarly, 57.2% of all respondents (41.7% somewhat feel, 15.5% strongly feel) continue to sense a mood of jishuku in their industry.

“This may sound like a platitude, but we should avoid needless self-censorship (jishuku) and instead keep up high spirits in our daily lives so that we can build a Japan that would make everyone want to come back.”

Decreased demand was experienced by 62.9% of respondents (most prominent in the publishing industry with 83.9% and least prominent in the art industry with 48.3%). Related to this, cancelled and postponed events (as we remember from the controversial cancellation of an exhibition on nuclear power at the Meguro Museum of Art and the cancellation and postponement of many other art shows including Art Fair Tokyo), lack of ink and paper (popular weekly manga publications went momentarily out of print just to raise an example), unexpected budget cuts and the sudden departure of foreign employees were also cited as problems. The second most common effect of the disaster was psychological, with 46.4% having experienced them. Temporary workers and full-time employees showed contrasting results in this respect. Whereas for temporary workers, 60% felt psychological effects but only 33.3% experienced decreased demand, 37.7% of full time employees felt psychological effects while a significant majority of 69.1% experienced decreased demand. This points to the fact that unstable working conditions may have exacerbated the emotional impact of the disaster.

In addition, survey takers indicated new born concerns about the validity and meaningfulness of their work in society, a new awareness of the need to relate with people, a feeling of powerlessness in front of the events combined with the realization that what they were doing was perhaps not actually necessary and was merely a luxury. Moreover, respondents pointed to the fact that the disaster exacerbated existing problems, creating a new awareness about the need to be less dependent on the employer and to earn a skill that would allow someone to quickly find alternative employment should the employer falter, and about the stronger need to start doing business abroad in order to survive in their industries. The fact that many people were unable to go to work for a while due to damaged buildings or erratic transportation also brought the realization that the need to be physically in the office was actually much more limited than previously thought.

The fact that 74.4% answered that they need to make a change in the way they work and in their careers (47.0% need some kind of change, 27.0% need a big change) could be understood as reflecting the above concerns. People who have travelled to the afflicted areas had the highest ratio of people among them who felt they needed to make a big change in their careers (60.0%) while those who have not done anything to help with the relief work had the lowest ratio (7.9%). It is compelling to see that the age group in which the ratio was highest for those who answered that their career needs a big change was 51-60 years old, with 69.2%. This could be interpreted as the result of the earthquake posing serious questions about decades of work, coupled with the actual difficulty in inducing a big change in one’s career given the advanced age.

Ambivalent feelings were expressed in regards to the care given by employing companies and/or organizations after the disaster. 38.8% answered that the response was neither particularly positive nor negative and the remaining 61.2% was divided into equal parts between those who felt satisfied and unsatisfied. Those who felt satisfied pointed at the fact that they were allowed to go home early or to take holidays, received quick responses in a constantly evolving situation, and were encouraged to help with volunteering work in afflicted areas. Those who felt unsatisfied mentioned slow responses, inability to plan ahead in a difficult situation, scarce information given to employees, lack of any improvements made on emergency manuals, and particularly not being allowed to be late or leave early despite the fact that public transport was erratic for a few days after the earthquake.

Reconstruction efforts

Infographic: Change and Recovery
Infographic: Change and Recovery.

In the midst of such a difficult situation, respondents appear to be actively seeking avenues for helping the afflicted areas. 83.8% made a donation, 75.2% are saving energy as the summer months when electricity use peaks in Japan is looming closer, and 67.2% are avoiding hoarding to prevent supermarkets from emptying out again just like in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, making it difficult for people who are in greatest need to purchase items. 11.4% are involved in volunteering projects and 7.2% have actually travelled to the disaster stricken areas to help with the removal of debris. Some also cited purchasing items from the afflicted areas, or even commissioning work to companies located there that are struggling to restore their businesses that have suffered diverse damages.

37.2% believe that their industry can make a contribution to the reconstruction efforts and the number goes down to 32.1% when asked if they can help through their own work. In other words, many feel that it is difficult to make a contribution through their work. There is an interesting correlation with the salary: the greater the amount of salary, the greater the ratio of people who feel they can contribute to the reconstruction efforts. The ratio of people who feel they can make no contribution through their work decreases as the salary goes up. This suggests either that greater income could be interpreted as greater responsibilities and hence possibilities to carry out projects, but it could also be read as economic instability leading to a greater feeling of powerlessness. Despite those variations, many projects initiated by the creative industry have been mentioned as making a significant contribution (to see the full list, please download the results from the link at the bottom of the page). Let us just mention a few:

Act for Japan

A project started by a group of creators who came together to create a platform that enables creators to contribute to the relief work. They have so far organized a number of charity events, including charity parties and art auctions.

Art for Life

A website platform with a SNS function created through a collaboration between Roppongi Hills and loftwork that allows projects initiated within the creative industries to be freely registered and shared.


Created by designer Nosigner, the wiki-style website presents design ideas for creating articles for daily use and for satisfying elementary needs out of material that can be found even in disaster stricken areas.

Tasukeai Japan

Project initiated by creative director Naoyuki Sato which takes the form of an information portal website related to relief work for the 3/11 earthquake that provides comprehensive information for both people who need help and those who want to help.

Although these and other projects have made and continue to make a great contribution to the relief work, some respondents (14.5%) raised concern over some of the projects initiated by creators. These included questionable effectiveness, modest scales and immaturity in running projects in comparison to other industries, projects being self-complacent or being used as publicity stunts, and the fact that some projects seemed to have lasted only temporarily when reconstruction efforts require long term contributions.

A few last words

The survey brought to light the fact that the disaster affected almost everyone. Although most of the physical damage was suffered in the Tohoku and certain parts of the Kanto region, an overwhelming majority of the people living in other areas, including Tokyo, suffered damages ranging from decreased demand to psychological harm. It made many of us question whether what we do is meaningful, and many of us now seek a change in our careers. The large numbers suggest that employers, only some of whom appeared to be playing a major role in helping employees cope with the disaster according to the survey, should be making renewed efforts not just to assure the physical and psychological well being of employees during a crisis, but to provide opportunities for employees who seek work that direct contributes to society and the people around them.

It is also important to note, that while the earthquake did unquestionably affect most of us, the effects that it caused were varied among industries, salary groups, locations, age groups and other factors. Clearly, there is no single solution to all the problems that the disaster has caused. This is reflected in the mixed feelings about some projects initiated by the creative industries, which earned both praised for their effectiveness, and scrutiny as PR stunts.

The numbers clearly showed however, that a large number of us were emboldened to take action to help those who were in a more difficult situation than ourselves. We hope that the results of this survey will inspire people to overcome their difficulties, to renew the confidence and vibrancy of the creative industry, and join or even create recovery efforts that make sense for their passions and their community.

Resources and Notes

July 3, 2011