December 23, 2016


Disaster-Affected Ishinomaki -- Present Status (Part 1)

Keywords: Disaster Reconstruction Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.171 (November 2016)

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Nearly five and a half years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake. Tatsuya Sugiura has established an organization, the Third Stage, with the goal of improving community livelihood to support earthquake victims as they take steps toward recovery.

The chief executive of Japan for Sustainability, Junko Edahiro, visited Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, and interviewed Sugiura about the post-disaster situation and new developments in Ishinomaki. In the immediate aftermath, it was simply not appropriate to talk about the disaster because the victims were completely exhausted from it.

On March 11, 2011, the great earthquake occurred while I was on my way home. In less than an hour, a massive tsunami arrived and cars were swept away. I rescued people who were washed away by the tsunami. Everyone was in a panic, and we helped each other. In the evening, it started snowing lightly and became cold. I spent the night in my car at the top of a mountain.

After sunrise, from the mountaintop I looked down on a darkened town. My car was running out of gasoline, so I parked it in a secure place, and walked around to look for my relatives and friends. Most of the streets leading to the city center were inundated. There was only one path atop a river bank that was accessible. Hundreds of people were walking back and forth, sharing what information they knew.

I saw some of my friends, but not the relatives I was looking for. It was getting dark, so I went to the nearby evacuation center, which was my junior high school alma mater. I continued my search. Hundreds of anxious people had gathered there.

The following day, I kept looking for my relatives. Amid conflicting information from acquaintances I encountered, I heard things like "That route is accessible, but this one is completely blocked," as well as false stories including "That bridge is submerged" and "Someone was killed fighting over goods." I gained information gradually, but I could not take much action.

On the first and second days at the evacuation center, I had nothing to eat. I think it was in the evening of the third day when the owner of a company in our rural mountains kindly delivered frozen manju (steamed buns stuffed with red bean paste) he had been storing. I remember eating only half of a manju because there were too many people for everyone to have one and we had to share at the evacuation center, which was packed with many refugees.

One thing that really impressed me during my stay at the evacuation center was the children. Some junior high school students cleaned the restrooms and performed other work voluntarily. I think the adults learned something from them.

At that time, I had to be busy with something to feel at ease. That was when I learned about the activities of the Japan Emergency NGO (JEN). I decided to join their group, thinking "I can ponder over the situation around me and help other people even if just a little."

From late April to the end of August, I worked hard in charge of allocating relief goods to temporary housing. With emergency aid from around the world, I allocated more than 60 everyday necessities such as futons and toothbrushes to about 8,000 temporary housing units and 134 residential complexes across Ishinomaki before the refugees moved in. I was so happy to be able to deliver relief supplies to all those households and see people coming in earlier than otherwise would have been possible.

Together with part-time workers, I distributed supplies to the victims. The best thing about this I discovered was that the victims were able to work in their local, affected communities. By doing something, they could divert their attention from the crisis and earn some money as well. As they checked conditions, the sufferers could take action to help the affected areas. This provided a basis for the next step.

From around July, while distributing supplies to temporary housing, we conducted surveys in Ishinomaki and Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture to find what kind of support from us was needed. We were particularly thorough in surveying needs on the Ishinomaki side of the Oshika Peninsula, visiting almost all of the seaside communities -- more than 30 in all. We have provided support according to each community's needs.

The Oshika Peninsula is located at the edge of Ishinomaki City, and because of its location, it was difficult for aid workers, including administrators, fire fighters and police, as well as volunteers, to reach it right after the earthquake. It was left completely on its own because the roads to the peninsula were blocked after the tsunami. I heard the lifelines to the area took longer to recover than those to the city center.

We discussed how the Oshika Peninsula had been left totally without support, and decided to go and support them. That is how our support activities started. We took various actions, one of which has evolved into a series of major Oshika Peninsula projects, such as Hama-yu (meaning, "friends of the beach"), Hama-kon ("matchmaking party on the beach"), and Hama e iko ("Let's go to the beach!"). We found meaning in offering what was really needed in each seaside community.

The 'Hama-yu' Initiative

Near the isthmus of the Oshika Peninsula, there is an area called Sasuhama, in which some 135 people lived in 43 households before the earthquake. Right after the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, many of them were forced to leave the area, and the population decreased to about 20 people in six households.

When I first visited the Sasuhama area, I could talk to only four people -- the local fishery cooperative's representative, the head of the ward and two local mothers. I learned that the local people could not share their thoughts or feelings at all.

With the help of the fishery cooperative's representative and the head of the ward, we invited the local people to an initial meeting to talk. We wanted to talk about the future of the community, but the main sentiments we heard at first were "I can't think about the future yet" and "I don't know."

After that, we intended first to talk about the community, and we called the people to meetings many times. Each time we asked them to talk about the local area, such as their former living conditions, the current situation and visions of an ideal future. After several meetings, gradually they started to open up about the past, saying, "We used to do this and that."

When they could speak out themselves, we guided them to talk about what they wanted to think upon regarding the future of the community. They told us that what they had been most proud of were the oysters they had cultivated.

The oysters in the area were famous for their firm texture and rich flavor, so they launched an oyster canteen that would enable many people to enjoy the local oysters.

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Moreover, we talked about building a prefab meeting place. We took into account their wishes such as, "It would be good to have a place to gather and talk, so the people left out of the community can come back again."

Once the oyster canteen was launched, people started to come together, and local people also returned to the meeting place to talk for the first time since the earthquake. After about a half year the conversation became livelier and the people talked more, so they started to talk about what more they could do there other than just gathering and talking, and how they could do it.

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Many ideas came up. They decided to start a restaurant to feature the very tasty home cooking by the community's housewives, whose their husbands were bringing in plenty of fish each morning with small set nets.

Since the women were passionate about this, they were the ones who talked about the plan and how to carry out it. They expressed their ideas, and concluded that they could create the restaurant and keep managing it so that the volunteers and visitors could enjoy the tasty local food there whenever they came back.

The restaurant could become a place where local women and guests could benefit by being with each other. The ladies could become active and feel rewarded while the patrons could learn about the situation and changes in Sasuhama, including those that were occurring little by little. In addition, of course, they could enjoy the delicious oysters and other local food.

The local women set the prices low, thinking that the visitors would be coming a long way and it would be good to offer the food at the same prices as for local people so that the visitors could enjoy more. The ladies wanted the restaurant to be a comfortable place to be, where everybody could feel at home. The name of the restaurant, Hama-yu, means "friends of the beach," after the local term for people playing by the sea.

After the restaurant opened, the women became livelier than before. Then other people who had moved away to the temporary houses said they wanted to go back there. I am relieved a little to hear that about 10 households so far are planning to return.

I go and eat there once a week. I feel that Hama-yu is loved by everybody. It is one of the reasons I feel proud of our organization's efforts at the front line. It is like my home, and when I visit the restaurant, I always call out, "I'm home!" Volunteers ask me to take them to Hama-yu again.

When it was first built, Hama-yu was a gray shack. While the women and our volunteers were cleaning the area together, they talked about painting the shack lovely colors. Other people in the community worked together, and they agreed to paint the restaurant on the next cleanup day.

Initially we thought the work would take a whole day. In fact, however, it was completed in about a half day, thanks to the power of the volunteers. I am always moved by the fact that not only did the manpower of outsiders become a means of connecting, but also their consideration and feelings for others while working together could move hearts.

All of the volunteers coming to the earthquake-affected area had their own reasons and various ideas, but ultimately they made the decision to come. As we sweat together and discuss what we think needs to be done, I find our communication to be really enjoyable.

In Miyagi Prefecture, we hold a "local production for local consumption" competition every year. Hama-yu won the second prize in the spring of 2016. The restaurant has now become a central place for involvement in the community.

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To be continued in the December 2016 issue of the JFS Newsletter.

Edited by Junko Edahiro