Embodied Vulnerability: Securing Sleep at Japanese Tsunami Shelters

Brigitte Steger explores how an earthquake and tsunami disaster threatens sleep in many ways and what we can learn about sleep health by paying attention to extreme situations. 

Twelve years ago, on 11 March 2011, a catastrophic earthquake hit north-eastern Japan. Remarkably, the initial death toll from this magnitude 9 quake was relatively low. However, the subsequent series of tsunami waves along the coast killed almost 19,000 people and triggered a major nuclear accident in Fukushima (for details see Gill, Steger, and Slater 2015).

In early June, I travelled to Yamada, a town in the tsunami-stricken region. I stayed in a small shelter at a Buddhist temple and shared the daily life of the small community of survivors who had found refuge there. Through formal interviews, direct observation and informal conversations, I learned the process by which they sought to regain some kind of control over their daily – and nightly – lives. I was particularly intrigued by how their situation affected their sleep.

In this article, I explore the factors influencing the sleep of evacuees in tsunami shelters and demonstrate how disasters and other traumas expose the heightened vulnerability we embody during our sleep. Learning the ways survivors responded to such challenges, I reflect on the various ways for ensuring sound sleep. While it is obvious that physical signs of safety and life-line provision are important to the sleep health of survivors after traumatic experiences, the certainty about social relationship is more complicated and very central to the issue of sleep vulnerability.

The initial dreamlike state

When I arrived in Yamada, I expected to hear experiences of nightmares. In fact, very few people recounted frightening dreams of the tsunami. As Michiko (56) explained: “We didn’t actually see the tsunami itself. It never appears in our dreams” (Michiko, interview with the author, June 2011). Living along the north-eastern coast of Japan, they were well prepared and simply followed the government’s well-drilled instructions. They took it for granted that, if they followed the instructions, they would be safe and able to return to their houses a few hours later and continue with their lives. Therefore, most tsunami survivors did not associate their escape with emotions of fear.

emergency route in Yamada
Sign of emergency route in Yamada, June 2011. Courtesy of the author.

The following days and nights were blurred in most people’s memories. The tsunami survivors described how they spent this time in a “dreamlike state” or trance, with many experiencing a surge of adrenaline and – as they put it – “a heightened state of the senses” or “a high”. Some became extremely busy helping others, but the majority were fully occupied with the task of surviving and dealing with very basic issues of life. During the long winter nights, it was too dangerous to go out into the debris-filled town, so people stayed in their corner of the shelter. They told me that although they slept badly – not least because of the constant aftershocks – they did not feel sleepy during the day.

Security and belonging in home-sharing

futons were folded and put away in the tsunami shelter
Inside the Ryūshōji shelter, July 2011. Futons were folded and put away during the day. Courtesy of the author.

People in north-eastern Japan are used to sleeping on relatively hard futon on the floor, and the lack of physical comfort does not appear to have been a major cause of sleep deprivation. Sharing a bedroom and co-sleeping with other family members is also quite common. Therefore, in the early days, staying with strangers in a shelter and being told when to sleep were comforting for many. People helped each other to find food and hygiene articles and offered comfort to those in need. None of my interviewees mentioned any difficulty in falling asleep in the presence of other people. It seems that the shared experience of suffering resulted in a feeling of solidarity in the town and a sense that “we are all in this together”.

The American psychologist John Selby once pointed out that insomnia is “almost always associated with a disruption of one’s sense of communal security and belonging” (Selby 1999, 7). Co-sleeping has long been and still remains an important way of providing a sense of communal security and belonging in Japan. So, although home-sharing with strangers can be disturbing, it helped many to put their worries aside and close their eyes. Unconsciously adjusting to the breathing of people around them, they would eventually drift off to sleep.

Sleep and challenged solidarity

As weeks and months passed, however, internal differences became increasingly noticeable and the sense of solidarity among shelter residents was tested (cf. Steger 2015). While sharing life with others was comforting for some people, especially the elderly who had often led lonely lives before the disasters, others found it increasingly unbearable. As Hiroshi (61), a recently retired high school teacher, described his experience:

During the first weeks, we were all rather agitated and we didn’t bother about things such as how people smelt… But as time passed and more and more of our basic needs such as food and clothing were met, we became increasingly aware of our surroundings. Things that hadn’t previously bothered us, like people snoring, began to get on our nerves. Now we feel as though we haven’t slept properly when we wake up. (Interview with the author, June 2011)

co-sleeping in the tsunami shelter
Co-sleeping at the Ryūshōji shelter, July 2011. Evacuees were taking a nap on a Sunday afternoon after a rare evening out drinking. Courtesy of the author.

Others complained about the rustling sound of plastic bags before breakfast in the morning when people were sorting out their belongings. A particular bugbear was the microphone that was used for a while by shelter representatives in a school sports hall to announce breakfast at 6am and other information. Young mothers were also very concerned about disturbing others when their babies cried in the night and suffered from great stress consequently.

People in north-eastern Japan are known for their fortitude, an attribute that was often evoked during the aftermath of the disaster. However, they also have a reputation for being somewhat conservative and harbour fixed notions of how people, especially young women, should behave. This meant that young women, on top of being responsible for looking after their children and elderly family members, felt that their behaviour was constantly scrutinised. Thus, it was not surprising that it was particularly women who expressed the desire for more privacy measures, such as putting up cardboard walls to divide up people’s personal space, and some developed insomnia.

Thus, partial normalisation of the situation had its own challenges for sleep, especially when shelter residents tried to manage their feelings of frustrations about enforced co-habitation. Nevertheless, the main threats to sound sleep were the continuous need to stay alert, disrupted sense of belonging and lack of information regarding what to do.

Regaining certainty

The biggest worry that tsunami survivors often expressed was the lack of information. This started immediately after the tsunami, when there was great uncertainty over people’s whereabouts and whether or not houses had been destroyed. Realising that one’s house, one’s job, one’s town, one’s livelihood had been destroyed and that family members, close friends or even a pet had died naturally resulted in anxiety and loneliness. Many bodies of those killed had gone missing and were never found, making it the more difficult to find closure. When Rumiko was told that her mother’s body was found sitting under the rubble, she stopped worrying. “Until then, I’d suffered quite a bit of anxiety, but now I thought, thank goodness they’ve found her!” (Rumiko, 60, interview with the author, June 2011). From then on, she slept soundly.

After the basic infrastructure was restored and TV screens and newspapers became available, people most urgently felt a lack of perspective and advice about what they should do to return to normality. Kazuyo made the following point:

Just after the tsunami, we had no information – no TV, no phone. We only heard the earthquake alerts on the mobile phones. Is this what is happening in the world? … Now, they tell us ‘ganbare’ (Fight on! Do your best!). How can we fight on? What can we do? Everyone says, ‘ganbare’, but how are we supposed to do that? (Kazuyo, 64, interview with the author, July 2011)

When I went back to visit the town in 2014 and 2016, large cranes and caterpillar tractors were everywhere, clearing flat areas on mountains and claiming land to provide safe building space. Although there was still a long way to go, the mood in the town had considerably improved due to the presence of governmental planning. Most people now understood more clearly “how and why to fight on”, and this was a great aid to emotional stability and to sleep.

Comparatively, during shelter life, the certainties were limited to small everyday issues. [1] However, even such minor instruction as a stipulated time for going to bed and getting up helped many people to regain stability and normality. Further, I noticed how refugees at the shelter created decision-making rota and established routines related to everyday tasks in daily life, including cleaning and cooking. The fact that there were clear rules of behaviour and that people had and shared responsibilities generated a sense of certainty. Mastering everyday challenges such as preparing a delicious meal from the donated rations gave them a sense of achievement. This was what helped many to sleep properly in economical and emotional precarity.




[1] All shelters in Yamada were closed by the end of August 2011.



Gill, Tom, Brigitte Steger and David H. Slater. 2015 [2013]. “The 3.11 Disasters,” in: Japan Copes with Calamity, edited by Tom Gill, Brigitte Steger, and David H. Slater, 3-23. Oxford: Peter Lang.

Selby, John. 1999. Secrets of Sleep. Natural, Pleasurable Techniques Designed to Help Cure Insomnia. New York et al.: toExcel.

Steger, Brigitte. 2015 [2013]. “Solidarity and Distinction Through Practices of Cleanliness in Tsunami Evacuation Shelter,” in: Japan Copes with Calamity, edited by Tom Gill, Brigitte Steger, and David H. Slater, 53-75. Oxford: Peter Lang


About the author

Dr Brigitte Steger is an associate professor in modern Japanese studies at the University of Cambridge. She specialises in Japanese society, with emphasis on the cultural history and anthropology of daily life. In her research, she has always been intrigued by questions of the cultural and social embeddedness of seemingly natural, bodily matters and daily life.


World Health Day and Disease Day Column

This essay is published as part of our “World Health and Diseases Day” column and coincides with World Sleep Day, which runs on 17th March every year. This column publishes articles to bring insights into healthcare and societal wellbeing in China and East Asia.


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