Tohoku Report : Christopher Purvis

Views and Impressions on Visiting Tohoku Six Months On

– A lecture given to the Japan Society, 11 October 2011 –

Good evening.  In case you don’t know us, I am Christopher Purvis and this is Phillida, who happens to be my wife, but, more importantly on this occasion, is a member of the Society’s earthquake committee.

She and I returned from Uganda last night where we met many subsistence farmers.  These people have nothing apart from their one acre of land from which they feed their family of six or seven – and, when the rains come late, they starve.  This year the rains came four months late.  But still there was laughter and there was hope.

Just three weeks earlier we were in Tohoku.  There no one is starving. But there was not much laughter – just an overriding impression of shock and depression.

This evening I shall begin by telling you about our Tohoku trip, the people we met and some of the reasons there might be for hope also in Tohoku. There will then be a short film made by our friend Tom Kilburn, who has recently graduated from Camberwell and who came with us to record our visit.  Phillida’s main work during the last 15 years has been with the Japanese not-for-profit, or NPO, sector.  She will talk in more detail about the role of the sector in the recovery.

Let us go back to 11 March.  That very weekend we received at the Japan Society our first donations – the trustees quickly agreed that, given the position of the Society at the heart of the UK-Japan relationship, we should set up the Tohoku Earthquake Relief Fund.  So far £636,000 has been received.

We established that the government and major NGOs such as the Red Cross were doing admirable immediate work. And we decided that our limited funds would be used to best advantage in helping longer term recovery through the support of local NPOs working on the ground.

Phillida, Tom and I made our trip exactly six months after the earthquake.  The main purpose was to confirm with our partners in Sendai the arrangements for the disbursement of our funds; but we also wanted to see the situation for ourselves.  We visited all three prefectures affected, travelling from Soma in Fukushima in the south, through Sendai, Ishinomaki and Kessennuma in Miyagi to Rikuzentakata and Kamaishi in Iwate.

Everyone can remember where they were on 11 September 2001.  But many have already forgotten 11 March 2011.  And yet the enormity of this disaster is almost beyond belief: the figures (more than 15,000 dead, 5,000 missing, 90,000 in temporary housing) tell only a tiny part of the story.

At the volunteer despatch centre at Rikuzentakata we met a man who was briefing the volunteers on the local situation.  His house had been three kilometres from the sea – no one imagined that a tsunami could reach so far inland.  But this one did.   He lost his brother.  Many of the kids in the high school at which he had taught had died.  We asked him what the most important message was on the six month anniversary and he replied, “That is easy: don’t forget Rikuzentakata.”

If Tohoku is reported on now it tends to be in the context of the nuclear power plant in the south.  But important though that is, the continuing work far up the coast is going to have to go on for years.

Stranded ship at the docks in Kamaishi

We met a only a few journalists even on 11 September – in Kamaishi we talked with a photographer from the Yomiuri who was as fascinated as we were by a ship that had been smashed down into a concrete embankment and remained lodged there.  We only met two foreigners on our trip – Jamie El-Bannah working in Ishinomaki and Anne Kaneko, an erstwhile trustee of the Society.  The lack of news had led us to believe that the immediate crisis was over; but the physical clean-up has a long way to go.

When we arrived in Soma, our first seaside town on the journey north – just 45 kms from the Fukushima power plant, we drove towards the port.  Everything seemed normal.  And then we noticed a bus, sitting in the sea with water up to its windows – and beyond it, a quarter of a mile across the estuary, a house, slightly lurching but looking intact, surrounded by water, apparently having floated downstream.  The fishing boats were all lined up neatly in the harbour; but there was no activity – we learned later that they were not allowed to fish as the water is contaminated. This surreal feeling, this combination of the normal and abnormal was a recurring feature of the trip

Soma had suffered from the tsunami;  but there were just two parts of the town that had been destroyed – the majority of the buildings were unaffected.  This was the first place we visited on the coast – and of course our reaction was one of horror.  But Soma was mild compared to what we would see later.

For Soma the real problem is not the physical damage or loss of life: it is the impact of  the nuclear plant.  The main sources of employment were fishing and farming.  Now the fishing boats are not allowed out.  No one outside the prefecture will eat food grown in Fukushima.  We drove though the beautiful valleys with rice fields just turning colour. But who will buy Fukushima  rice?

We visited the famous shrine where the daughter of the head priest showed us the stables.  Soma is famous for its traditional horse racing festival.  On 11 March many horses had been grazing near the sea and many were in the evacuation zone.  Some had been without food for a month and had probably drunk sea water when the shrine recued them.  They were now desperately thin but were being well looked after.

We stopped off in Koriyama, which is 56 kilometres from the power plant, to see Anne Kaneko.  Of course there was no direct impact from the tsunami there; but the earthquake was felt more strongly inland.  Her own apartment building will eventually be repaired – but was severely damaged.

But for the people of Koriyama the problem is the nuclear power plant.  27,000 thousand people have left Fukushimaken; the local economy has shrunk.  Sales in Anne’s company have dropped by 15 per cent.  Of course there is a hope that the reconstruction work will help to boost the local economy – and there are rumours of some major government investment – but from her perspective there is little sign to date.

With Anne Kaneko in Koriyama

Families are divided as those with children have sent wives and children to live elsewhere; although the count in the air is now at lower levels, there is considerable concern about radiation levels in the ground.  People are worried about what they eat.  Life is not easy.

But in Rikuzentakata the problems are completely different – and different again in Kesennuma 20 kilometres away.  Rikuzentakata was completely flattened.  The town stood in a flat plain just a few feet above sea level stretching two kilometres by three.  From the middle of what was the town we looked out towards the ocean.  Other towns were protected from the full force of the tsunami at least to some extent by peninsulas or islands; but there was no such protection for Rikuzentakata.  We stood for a while beside the hospital, whose image – the only building standing with water swirling round and nurses and doctors struggling to take patients to the roof – remains horribly clear to all of us.

Kesennuma, on the other hand, has a large amount of its town rising steeply up out from the port area.  While the port was destroyed the majority of the town survived, although there were still 1,500 dead or missing.  The problems there are around the loss of employment –the increase in depression.

Ishinomaki is an important port and processing plant for fish. Tohoku used to provide a large part of Japan’s fish products.  But the land has dropped by several feet.  Popping up from the water were road signs and traffic lights.  Before the port can be reopened tons of earth and rubble will have to be poured in to raise it up again.

The size of the challenge of dealing with these diverse problems and rebuilding the physical infrastructure is mind boggling.  Our impression was that in the circumstances the government authorities have done pretty well.  The temporary housing – and the speed with which it was built – is remarkable.  Most housing blocks are made of metal – and must boil in the sun; but they have been fitted with water and electricity and air conditioning – and inside there is nice tatami.  In the immediate response to the disaster, government, NGOs and the army all worked together; this has never happened before.

But there were frustrations expressed about the slowness of government. Decisions as to whether people would be able to rebuild their houses in certain areas were taking for ever. It is not yet clear whether Rikuzentakata will be rebuilt at all.  How disturbing must this uncertainty be.

One horrifying frustration with government was in connection with data protection.  You cannot obtain from government sources any information about a friend or neighbour – whether they are alive or dead, where they are.  Several people told us of the distress caused by this dottiness.

Those who have lost family members or homes or livelihoods are receiving some financial compensation from government and there are donations from companies and charities.  Our friend Hideto Nakahara of Mitsubishi told us of their donations to individuals and no doubt other companies are doing the same; and an element of the support of major NGOs such as the Red Cross is such monetary donation to those in hardship.  Mitsubishi Corporation is also collaborating with The Japan Society of New York in providing scholarships to Tohoku students to study abroad.  But the totals of all these donations per family are not large.

There has been a huge amount of volunteer work in the region.  Nakahara described to me the rotating programming through which at any one time there were 20 Mitsubishi employees working.

We spent time at the volunteer despatch centre at Rikuzentakata. We met a young advertising sales executive who had left her job to come and help run the centre  – an example of a dynamic and intelligent and capable young woman making things happen.

At Tono, Yoshida,  who was running Kanagawa Prefecture’s’s volunteer groups told us that most of the work being done there was of a physical nature – but he was quick to point out that the move into temporary housing was creating new challenges: How did one get people to talk to each other? Could volunteers from Kanagawa help in this?

But there is a limit to what financial donations and untrained volunteers can do in the face of the depression of individuals and the breakdown of communities.

We talked at length to a 72 year old gentleman, a resident of Minami Soma now living in temporary housing at Soma to which the people of Minami Soma, which is even closer to the nuclear plant, have been moved.

The centre was a long way out of town – and there was hardly anyone in evidence.  The housing had been built on land that had first been flattened and tarmacked.  There was no green – no seats to sit on.  Our friend now lived in this temporary housing together with his 92 year old father and his son and his family.  He described all this philosophically.

But there is an emptiness.  The centre we went to in Ishinomaki has 1,100 households.  Again the place appeared deserted – apart for the hundreds of cars.  There was, however, a little gathering sitting outside on a wall to whom we stopped and talked.  The 86 year old obaasan seemed remarkably resilient – and was enjoying the attentions of  a neighbour’s dog; she was busy worrying about us: “Ki o tsukete!” she cried as we took our leave.  But most were sitting in their rooms and not to be seen. It is a couple of miles from the centre of town – and anyway the town had had six feet of water and most shops are still not reopened.  So there was no point in going there.  Someone was going for a run along the river in the early evening. But although the valley was attractive with the mountains all around and the banks of the river grassy and well kept, there was only one person who had got himself outside.

Our Soma friend said that he didn’t talk much to his neighbours.  All he could think was that there was no future.  His son would not want to go back home to Minami Soma with his young family even when they are allowed to.  His father had enjoyed pottering around in their little garden; now he had nothing to live for.  They had little money, the family home would not be sellable and now the family would be spilt up.

A similar but different picture was presented by Nakamura at Ishinomaki, Although his sports shop had been torn apart, he was attempting to rebuild his business – and on the side he was running an NPO encouraging sport.  He agreed that depression was rife; but he was critical: “The Japanese have become spoilt; they have become used to being spoon fed; they have got to be shaken up; they cannot just sit there full of self-pity.”

He explained that evacuees had had everything done for them in the evacuation centres.  Now they have been moved into temporary housing and are just sitting in their own rooms, not communicating, just bemoaning the fact that there is no future.

The very stoicism which has been so admired by commentators is also now in some cases sowing the seed of destruction.  Watanabe of the Ishinomaki Revival Support Network was greatly concerned about the growing number of suicides.  He also told us of an increase in domestic violence as families are cooped up and frustrations explode.

It was easy in the face of all this devastation to throw up our hands in despair about the future of these people.  But we also met some wonderful people who were getting on with their lives and, most importantly, people who were building up the lives of those around them: Nakamura with his sports charity; Murakami a young female social worker in Kessennuma who was giving counselling and advice; Sekiguchi an enterprising social entrepeneur from Tokyo who set up a restaurant business run from the back of vans.

It is on such NPOs that, together with our partners, Sendai-Miyagi, we shall be concentrating our support.

Sendai-Miyagi provides support and advice to NPOs. They had already decided that a fund was an essential part of the recovery process when Phillida approached them about possible collaboration.  We shared their vision that longer term recovery of communities can only come with support from a sustainable NPO sector.

They have set up a foundation related to but legally separate from the Sendai-Miyagi NPO Centre called Sanaburi.  They have other partners in addition to us.  Each partner has its own particular objectives – and our fund is managed separately and will be known as the Japan Society Rose Fund.

Signing the Memorandum of Understanding with Akiko Benimura and Yuji Suzuki of the Sanaburi Foundation

Mitsubishi told us that one of the strands of their support is in the making of grants to NPOs. So Sanaburi is not unique.  But its specialization in this field, the knowledge that Sendai Miyagi has of the NPOs on the ground and the quality of the team gave us great confidence that we had struck upon the best possible partner.

Yuji Suzuki and Aya Fukuda had been hired specially to run Sanaburi.  Fukuda joined us in meetings for the rest of the trip.  We were greatly impressed.

We had a number of conversations both with our Sanaburi friends and with the various NPOs about the business of applying for and reporting on grants from the Japan Society.  We expect there will be four or five tranches of grants made over the coming year.  Sanaburi will invite and then decide on applications from NPOs.

We agreed that we wanted to keep bureaucracy to a minimum. The application forms would be concise.  We also wanted to make our grants unrestricted as much as possible: once we had discovered who were the good people running NPOs we needed to trust them to use our small grants to the best purpose – and the NPOs would be the best judge on the use of funds rather than Sanaburi in Sendai let alone us in London.

However the Japan Society has an educational objective.  We need to inform both our donors and our wider membership about Tohoku and the work of our grantees and perhaps also we can educate those in Tohoku about the UK – for example in discussing (as we did with some we met) best practice in the establishment of NPOs and social enterprises. Therefore, we will seek to have contact directly with recipient organizations where possible.

An experienced health worker with the WHO in Vietnam was full of admiration for the Seikatsu Shien Project K in Kessennuma which he happened to be visiting when we were there.  He pointed out how difficult it was for these newly created NPOs to learn all the business of making funding applications and writing reports.  We need to establish a sensible balance in our grant making.

We came away from our meetings with the bright and energetic people working in the NPO and social enterprise sector thinking that our emphasis for the Japan Society Tohoku Earthquake Relief Fund in supporting such local NGOs was the best possible use of our donors’ funds, that the Sanaburi team were an excellent partner in this process and that with them there was a chance to bring some hope and laughter back to Tohoku.

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