Build Back Better Tohoku

by Architecture for Humanity

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.

Hiromi Tabei, our intrepid liaison between Architecture for Humanity headquarters, Students Rebuild and the Japan team, recently recounted her trip to Japan in August. On the one hand, there were the festivals, the design student charrettes, the Mediatheque exhibitions...and a characteristically youthful ambition to keep moving. On the other hand, the frustrations of meeting with community and government representatives have left a very real understanding of the invisible factors impeding a timely restoration of so many people to the familiarity and security of their pre-quake lives.

Trip Highlights:

The Sendai Mediatheque might be the most famous contemporary building in the northern half of Honshu known as Tohoku. The building is–along with its architect Toyo Ito–admired by designers and engineers around the world. A popular local tourist destination, the Mediatheque serves the one million residents of Sendai as a powerful community resource. In it, Ito has employed an innovative and elegant structural system that flows between its six floors of playfully reimagined library space. In August the building was only half open to the public.

August 2011: Sendai Mediatheque

The Mediatheque itself suffered only minor damage following last March's earthquake (tsunami flood waters did not reach most of residential Sendai), but at the close of Summer employees couldn't come for their shifts–their domestic lives still being in shambles. Many people working in Sendai lost their homes to the earthquake or the resulting tsunami. At the Mediatheque, and throughout the city, a policy developed to conserve electricity–rolling blackouts threatened the Tohoku region while the damaged Fukushima power plant conducted extensive safety tests. Indoor spaces remained dark and warm through the summer.

Yet these setbacks haven't stopped a modest art exhibition from occupying the Mediatheque's lobby: Minna No Ie, or "Everybody's House," shows drawings from many ranks of Japan's post-tsunami landscape, drawings from local schoolchildren sit beside those of world-renown architects Steven Holl, Tadao Ando and Frank Gehry. Prompted by Ito, the exhibition invited illustrated thoughts on "places for people to share memories" and "houses of hope through difficulty." The exhibition is one small attempt at correcting to an exacerbated situation–offering solace to a region in many ways paralyzed by bureaucratic sluggishness and the sheer volume of work required to simply prepare to rebuild. In an environment like this, small gestures become indispensable for the resolve of the disaster victims. It's a long road ahead.

Sendai, August 2011: Sendai Mediatheque

Sendai, August 2011: Sendai Mediatheque "Minna No Ie" Exhibition

Sendai Saiwai-cho Center

Across town from the wounded Mediatheque, Hiromi had her first encounter with the complications of devastation, far worse than the Mediatheque's. The 20-year-old Sendai Saiwai-cho Community Center & Youth Center suffered extensively from the earthquake. The roof is caving in. Glass blocks have fallen out and continue to be knocked loose during aftershocks, to shatter on the sidewalk. The Center had flown under the radar of Sendai's City Hall, and thus no inspections have been made or action taken.

Sendai, August 2011: Sawai-Cho Community Center

Sendai, August 2011: Sawai-Cho Community Center, caved-in roof

Sendai, August 2011: Sawai-Cho Community Center, shattered glass blocks

During their stay in Sendai, Hiromi and fellow Fellow Kumiko Fujiwara (who in her spare time operates SOAT–Supporting Organization for Artists of Tohoku) saw to raising attention for the Youth Center from the City of Sendai, and pursue repairs. The two ended up leaving their pleas in a questionable status–City Hall was not immediately responsive, and the tour of Tohoku needed to continue.


Hikado Marketplace during lunch
Hikado Marketplace during lunch

We are very excited to report that the first project of our Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami Rebuilding program, a community-led endeavor called Hikado Marketplace,(ひかど市場)has been recently completed!   You can view videos and updates (much of which is in both Japanese and English) on our project page on the Open Architecture Network.

This urban acupuncture project was undertaken in Motoyoshi, which is in the Miyagi prefecture of the Tohoku region of Japan.  It is because of your support that we were able to help to create this small but very important community gathering place in a neighborhood that has been scattered due to the placement of temporary shelters.  Thank you again for your generosity.

With the marketplace open, the local community can once again gather to eat, relax, and even make plans for further reconstruction.  Higashi-san, a resident of Motoyoshi and carpenter who worked on this project, explained that although this project seems simple in the scheme of things, it will boost everyone's spirit and is important to the rebuilding process. 

At the opening celebration he told our resident design fellows that "everybody is excited to have this community deck. This marketplace is going to become the new hub of this neighborhood. We're going to help each other to rebuild our community."

A second project that our Japan team has in motion is the Ooya Green Sports Park(大谷グリーンスポーツパーク).   This project, also in Motoyoshi, will allow local students to once again play games and participate in sports programs.   Students and community members are no longer able use their school yard as it is being used for temporary shelter.  A nearby farmer has generously offered some of his land and we are now are helping to develop a soccer field and running track.  Videos and images of this project are also found on our Open Architecture Network project page.

The third, and last project we wanted to touch on, is another economic development project, the Maeami Village Reconstruction Project (集落の再建). We have begun to work with the entire fishing villlage, which is also in the Miyagi prefecture, to develop a holistic plan to build back both the local residents' homes as well as their businesses  The entire village, which was comprised of a total of 27 houses, was wiped out by the tsunami and 100% of Maeami's resident families rely on fishing for their livelihood.   The community's specific request is a floating dock, a small storage 'hut' and place to have tea before and after fishing.  Design fellow, Autumn Ness Taira, introduces us all to the village in a video update

You can find a more extended list of projects on our website and we are continuing to explore additional partnerships and projects that will assist Japanese communities in rebuilding and will be sure to keep you apprised of new information.   Hiromi Tabei, our design fellow stationed here in San Francisco, is in constant communication with the team in Japan, so if you have any questions or ideas please feel free to reach out to us - we welcome your continued support.

Beautiful Japanese tools used during construction
Beautiful Japanese tools used during construction
Decorative column made from salvaged wood
Decorative column made from salvaged wood


Dear all,
We have been really overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for our efforts to rebuild after the tragic earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region of Japan. Thanks to you and thousands like you we've raised close to $1M for long term reconstruction work. This will help us rebuild over the next few years.

Our team in Sendai has been reporting regularly as they are hosting community workshops and meetings. Each meeting brings new opportunities and new hurdles. As we evaluate where to make the greatest impact we've begun to identify 5 or 6 projects that range from small scale - temporary housing and community storage lockers - to large scale - rebuilding an entire fishing village and supporting economic stability in affected communities.

We have two clearly identified youth projects, an orphanage and a school, that we are implementing thanks to tens of thousands of young philanthropists through Students Rebuild (who created over 1M cranes, only 900K more than the target!)

We have started a page on the Open Architecture Network, our system for managing, monitoring and evaluating projects. You will find the range of work we are implementing, maps and updated videos and images from the ground -

Our Program Staff
Yuji Tiara, Autumn Ness, Tohru Horiguchi, Tomoro Aida** and Hiromi Tabei**

Our Advisory Group
Hitoshi Abe, Mark Dytham, Astrid Klein, Yutaka Takiura, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, Ryo Yamazaki, Toshiko Mori and Cameron Sinclair

We will be positing these updates at least once a month to keep you informed and updated on the projects. If you have any questions or are interested in getting involved in a deeper way do not hesitate to contact us at or 415-963-3511.



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Organization Information

Architecture for Humanity

Location: San Francisco, CA - USA
Website: http:/​/​
Architecture for Humanity
Project Leader:
Hiromi Tabei
San Francisco, CA United States

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