Update from Tohoku: October 2013

Tohoku Two and a Half Years On

A visit by Christopher and Phillida Purvis and Heidi Potter

4-9 October 2013

As we drove over the hills from the shinkansen line eastwards towards the sea, the countryside was just the same as on our first visit to Tohoku after the earthquake a little more than two years ago.  The rice fields were again turning a yellowy brown; the mountains were swirling with mist.  And the questions we asked ourselves were the same: what would the towns and villages be like; what would be the extent of the damage; what would be the mood of the people?

As before we were struck by the small number of people out and about – and those we did see were elderly.  Where were the children?

It came as a shock when we reached the sea that little had changed since our visit one year ago.  We were in the north, at Otsuchi, and the pace of progress seemed slower the further north we were – and yet what little we read in the press about Tohoku is limited to the nuclear power plant in the south.  Rikuzentakata and Yamada were both towns built in flat areas just above sea level.  Although work had been done on the port area at Yamada precious little change was visible in the main part of the town.

Older generations had known the wisdom of building higher up; as the owner of our minshuku told us (the tsunami just reaching the base of the building), grandmothers had drummed it into them that they should not build lower than this level.  But this wisdom had been lost: whole towns had been built at sea level.  It was not surprising that it was now taking time to decide whether and where to rebuild.

We spent six days driving down the coastline from Yamada in Iwate prefecture in the north to the south end of Miyagi prefecture.  We visited a number of the projects to which the Japan Society Rose Fund had given support.

We went to see a gardening project in Otsuchi called Midori to Shizen o Ayumu Kai, led by Kibou no Hana Iwate. They were bringing together dozens of local, older people with the purpose of making their small village colourful and attractive to live in with planters and hanging baskets. They were also landscaping a safe path up into the mountain to their new evacuation area.  It is clear that such projects, simple though they may be, play an important role in recreating a sense of community and purpose, and there was certainly plenty of enjoyment in the buzz of activity we witnessed.

But some communities were finding it impossible to recreate any sense of community.  We visited a village of 600 people called Sakihama not far from Ofunato. The community leaders seemed desperate about the mood of their people.  Six people had turned out at the last meeting to discuss the village’s future.  It was an ancient community: the leaders were 8th and 9th generation fishermen.  Indeed the work on foundations for some new housing at the top of the hill had thrown up Jomon remains: eight thousand years ago they knew not to build at sea level.  But the village had lost its sense of unity.  The leaders ascribed this to too much aid being handed out in the early weeks and months after the disaster and this had created a sense of dependency and entitlement.  In the last major tsunami in the Showa period there had been no aid – the village had just had to rebuild itself.  The leaders were scornful about any possible advantage from the 2020 Olympics. What would be the benefit to this little village 300 miles away from Tokyo? This sentiment was echoed later by Anne Kaneko in Koriyama: when the building contract for replacement housing was put out to tender there were no bids; there were greater profits to be made on projects elsewhere.

The lady running the newly rebuilt convenience store asked us if we had ever been inside temporary housing. When we replied that we had only been in a communal area she rang her parents and off we went to make our call.  Her father was the head of the local group working on the new housing plan with the local authority. They were sitting snugly in their 4½ mat room and we joined them under the kotatsu and were pressed to have tea and eat delicious oranges.  Although in their seventies, they had both of them been active in their fishing boat.  Charming as they were (although difficult to understand – the very thick dialect was said to originate from Kyoto as the Heike clan fled to Tohoku after their defeat by Genji in the twelfth century), there was sadness in their eyes.  All they could talk about was the length of time it was taking for decisions to be made about their relocation.  We did not get the impression that they left their small room often.

Our days in Kamaishi were rather brighter.  It happened that my old firm, now UBS, had a group of some 35 employees from Tokyo (a couple of whom remembered me from 20 years ago), Singapore and Hong Kong volunteering there for a few days and we joined them for their final session.  Their last task had been to create plans for four different communities in the area and it was good to hear of ideas enthusiastically expressed.

We then walked a short distance from the town office across now bare land that had previously been covered with buildings to a four storey building that had survived – a local hospital run by a husband and wife doctor team by the name of Hori.  Our friends the sculptors Hironori Katagiri and Kate Thomson had been commissioned by them to do some pieces and these now livened up the street.  We all together went to the Horis’ flat on the top floor for tea.  They had in remarkable fashion got all their 100 patients up onto that top floor where they had remained for several days.  Now the original building was restored.  All the buildings around had been swept away; but those buildings of solid construction survived and the key was the height. They had been surprised to find their hospital marked up (by the British emergency team) as uninhabited; no-one had come up to enquire and they were all inside!

One such solid building we came across had a delightful bar on an upper floor.  The malt whisky selection was first class – and the collection of several thousand jazz LPs had survived and were playable.  And – just as miraculously – the bar owner was still in business in spite of the move out of town of so many people.  We helped the local economy with the purchase of some glasses of Laphroaig.

Out in the street our friend Junichi Kano was running an event – stalls, music, a wonderful artist from Kyoto dressed up in a red dress and high heels serving tea in chawan he had first made and fired on the spot.  Kano had run a family cake shop before the earthquake and had then set up @RIAS (reflecting the name of the north Iwate Rias coast), now employing 120 people in the business of reconstruction support.  Two years ago he did not smile – now he was laughing.

The Kamaishi Kitchen project of Jin Sekiguchi too had flourished, from the one temporary mobile restaurant in a van we saw two years ago, to a collection of about a dozen vans, around a lively community space, which provide food to the many temporary housing areas during the daytime.

In Ishinomaki we found another old friend laughing.  We called in on Ishinomaki Revival Support Network. To our great delight we found its director Yoshie Kaneko, who had been in a terrible state of shock when we met her two years ago, raising the spirits of ladies with make-up and fashion in her newly established ladies community café.

How depressing then to find ourselves at the Unosumai Bosai Centre (Disaster Prevention Centre) on the day of a memorial ceremony for the 200 people who died inside it, the last occasion that it would be open to pilgrims and to the public.  There it was, a solid building on the plain of Ohtsuchi.  But it was only two storeys high.  The water had kept rising and rising – we could see the water mark one foot below the ceiling of the first floor.  Just 20 people survived by clinging on to curtains – together with four fireman who had known there was a ladder onto the roof.  Tragedy upon tragedy: people who had been trained to come to the Disaster Prevention Centre had actually come down from the hills when the earthquake came.  At this memorial event were gathered together the families of those who had died, visiting little shrines they had set up within the building.  This was the most poignant moment in all our visits.

The flat plains of Rikuzentakata and Minami Sanriku have almost been cleared, with tons of gareki rubble now hidden under curious enormous rectangular mounds and new buildings rising up on the sea front, as flat spaces are cut and prepared up the mountains for the projected new housing.

In a trailer building set up in the grounds of a temple a dozen miles from Kesennuma Shanti Volunteer Association has its office.  Shanti was founded with and always benefited from Shotoshu temple connections.  There we met Kazuki Kasahara, who until the earthquake had been working in a fish processing factory in Sendai and had returned to his wife’s village to be spotted and trained up by Shanti to work with the local community. The head of the office, Kota Shiratori, who had come back from working in Afghanistan to lead this capacity building work, said that there was much to learn from the Tohoku experience in disaster management.  Some of the lessons had already been applied in the floods in Japan this summer.

Like the community leaders in Sakihama, they were aware that aid could be a mixed blessing. Many people in the local community were unwilling to engage in discussion about their future at least not while they were in temporary housing. Once they were in the new housing stock, they would be ready to take control of their lives again; but it was still uncertain when the new housing would be ready (in some areas it was said to be 2015 or even later) and some decisions needed to be made now (where, and how high to build sea walls, for example).  Government funding would not be available indefinitely.

Shanti had also been carrying out projects over the summer to bring children back to the sea.  Cooped up in their homes, most had not played by the seaside since the tsunami. With many suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, it was important to create a safe and supportive environment for such activities.  We were also taken to the local village’s magnificent newly rebuilt community centre – which had benefited from much international, mainly American Lutheran church, funding.

In downtown Kesennuma, the port area is now flattened and cleared. As we drove in at dusk we saw the flames of metal cutters dramatically and symbolically cutting up the famous stranded ship that had been washed inland.

Outside Sendai we met the leaders of ARCT – Art Revival Connection Tohoku.

Immediately after the earthquake this group of Tohoku-based performing artists had been asked to give workshops at an old people’s care facility in the Higashi Matsushima area. It was clear that these workshops had to be tailored to suit the needs and abilities of the participants; so ARCT began a programme to train performers to deliver workshops at an appropriate level for different groups.  Now its mission has evolved and ARCT offers a menu of many different workshops run by performers who volunteer to visit schools, elderly care and other facilities, bringing opportunities for creative expression to people in the disaster-hit areas of Miyagi in a way that was not possible even before the earthquake.

On our last day we went down to the south of Miyagi prefecture and spent time with two marvellous ladies, who were galvanizing their communities to get out again and do things.  Hiromi Taguchi, a strikingly tall and dynamic lady, runs Kobo Chikyumura in the town of Yamamoto.  It is set in some local government buildings attached to a special needs school; and next door had been built some temporary housing.  The main activity of the project is to act as a day centre and sheltered workshop for disabled people.  However, it soon became apparent that the project was as much about all the people of Yamamoto as it was about the 25 disabled.  Many volunteers were joining in with the disabled in the making of bath bombs, cookies, pastries, tenugui cloths, knitted goods, creating a lively community atmosphere with purpose and positivity.  A café had been set up in a trailer in the car park which was doing good business as all the town restaurants and cafés had been destroyed.  Beside it a Jizo-sama statue, with little children beside, decorated for Hallowe’en, was a poignant reminder of how many children had died.  As we sat with Taguchi san and a group of her volunteers she said, “The reason that it is so important to do this here is that, although Sendai has a population of one million and Yamamoto only 10,000, we lost the same number of people in the tsunami.”

Ten miles away, in Watari town, Teruko Baba, an “ordinary housewife” as she described herself, had seen that the community had lost its sense of purpose.  It had been a great strawberry growing area.  She set up her social enterprise Watari Ichigokko, which is now a thriving restaurant and postal sales company of frozen and other strawberry and tomato products.  All of this work was providing activity and opportunity for the community.

In Koriyama, Taiki Iwasaki explained how the Fukushima Fukkou Rrenkei Centre had had evolved into a new NPO, Costar, still dedicated to the development of future community leaders. Working with university students and young employees of companies and voluntary organizations, they provide training, network and encouragement to get actively involved in community projects.

Our friends and partners the Sanaburi Foundation are still providing an excellent service in giving support to NPOs up and down the coast and acting for the Japan Society and other funders.  Our visit demonstrated that our small grants being administered by Sanaburi were providing just enough funding to allow these community groups to develop programmes with real impact.

Tohoku is still in bad shape. A lot of money was spent, but not always wisely, creating a culture of dependency, rather than self-sufficiency.  However, these small community organizations led by exceptional people are making significant inroads. Notwithstanding all of the money spent by government and leading disaster relief charities, there is still much work to be done.

There will be one final tranche of grants from the Rose Fund made in the next few months; but it is clear from our visit that it will be many years before these communities will cease to be in need of support.

Christopher Purvis

25 October 2013

A total of £736,073 was contributed by 1,710 donors to the Japan Society Tohoku Earthquake Relief Fund.  All of this fund has been passed on to Tohoku. The Japan Society has worked with the Sanaburi Foundation to identify and support local activity. The fund is known in Japan as the Japan Society Rose Fund.  For further information on all the projects supported by the Japan Society Rose Fund see: http://www.japansociety.org.uk/earthquake/supported-projects


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