Earlier this week, I had a moment to catch up with Hiromi Tabei, Architecture for Humanity’s Program Coordinator for Japan, to talk about the status of Students Rebuild’s projects in the Tohoku region. Her recent visit with community partners throughout Tohoku offers insight on how the needs of Tohoku’s young people are inspiring our rebuilding efforts in Japan.
Last year, I about wrote how Architecture for Humanity and Students Rebuild create community partnerships and select which rebuilding projects to support in Tohoku. I learned that the political landscape of reconstruction is complex in Japan: While the Japanese government welcomes support and services of voluntary groups like Students Rebuild, it often requires charities to pay for projects in their entirety. Because schools in Japan are so large and expensive, and because the Japanese government’s building standards are very strict, large NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are best suited to execute most school rebuilding efforts in Tohoku. I was left with questions like, ‘Where does that leave smaller players like Students Rebuild?’ and ‘How can Students Rebuild still help to rebuild the lives of Japanese youth?’
Zac: How does Architecture for Humanity find the right youth partners who will benefit most from its support?
Hiromi: In Japan, I think that Architecture for Humanity is better positioned to meet the needs of young people by rebuilding in smaller communities outside of big cities. In these communities, the Japanese government has fewer resources. Even modest interventions can make a big difference in the quality of life for youth and their families. Usually, the first priority of the government is to repair large pieces of infrastructure in big cities – like highways and utilities – which leaves fewer resources available for rebuilding rural livelihoods.
Zac: How does the decision to work in smaller communities impact the kind of projects Architecture for Humanity ultimately supports?
Hiromi: By working with small communities, we can talk directly with leaders and ask them to identify needs in their community. On a recent trip to Tohoku, community leaders told me that there was limited space for young people to study and socialize after school. I learned that several schools were destroyed in last March’s earthquake and tsunami, leaving students from two or even three schools to share one school – usually far from their homes. Many of the region’s libraries were also devastated, leaving students without many meeting places. For the many families who lost their homes, living in temporary government housing also means that young people often live far from their friends and relatives. This doesn’t begin to account for the everyday meeting places – the streets, the stores, the parks, the places where local kids usually meet up – that were lost in the earthquake. In that sense, rebuilding isn't just about building schools or homes, but also inspiring a renewed sense of community and belonging.
This youth and community center in Sendai was destroyed during last March's earthquake.
A classic example of temporary housing in the Tohoku region.
Zac: The Japanese government has worked hard to provide temporary community facilities for local groups to meet and discuss community efforts. Are these spaces available for young people?
Hiromi: Many locals are quick to acknowledge that adults usually dominate community space. I’m always working with village leaders and our field staff in the region to identify projects that specifically address the needs of young people. Over the last few months, communities have made youth projects a priority. On my last trip, I received several proposals for youth centers. In the past, it wasn’t like that. I’m optimistic that leaders recognize the important role of youth space in a healthy and renewed community.
Zac: What projects are on the horizon for Tohoku’s young people?
Hiromi: Right now, we’re exploring a number of possibilities, including a community and youth center and a daycare. I expect that the money raised by Paper Cranes for Japan will allow Architecture for Humanity to build two or three youth facilities in Tohoku. Each potential site has issues that they need to sort out. For now, we’ll continue to work alongside local communities to find the most beneficial projects for young people.
Local youth hang out during the final stages of construction of the Ohya Sports Green, designed by Architecture for Humanity. The previous local sports field was removed to make way for temporary housing, leaving local youth without a place to play soccer
Lending a hand laying turf
Testing the nearly-complete field
I look forward to checking back in with Hiromi in a few weeks time. For now, Hiromi and Students Rebuild are preparing for the public unveiling of the Paper Crane Installation in Sendai Train Station. The centerpiece of the installation is a beautiful sculpture featuring 100,000 of the paper cranes folded by Paper Cranes for Japan participants. In addition, dozens of young people from across Japan will converge for a 3-day workshop following the unveiling ceremony on January 13th. At the workshop, titled "Gift by Gift for a Better World," children will make gift boxes filled with your paper cranes and decorate them. These gift boxes will be sent to schools across Japan on behalf of Rebuilders across the globe.