Mari meets residents in the temporary housing
During the first week of April, GlobalGiving’s president and co-founder Mari Kuraishi and director of programs, Britt Lake, visited the people and organizations that were supported by your donations to GlobalGiving’s Japan Relief and Recovery Fund. Below is Mari’s account of the time they spent in the Tohoku region.
As I sat in the train back to Tokyo thinking about the week I had just spent visiting GlobalGiving partners in the Tohoku region, three things stuck with me:
- The tsunami damage stretched for hundreds of miles up the Japanese coast north of Ibaragi prefecture all the way up to Iwate. For most of the trip we drove a car up the coast roads; as we would round a bend high above the coast, the road would then descend into a low lying flat area--and there would be the tell-tale signs of a vanished town: concrete house foundations. Sometimes we’d see ten or twenty foundations; sometimes they would stretch far into the horizon. Town after town after town, all low-lying communities were gone.
- People are rebuilding. This rebuilding is almost always commercial structures – often gas stations, convenience stores, and pachinko parlors. In some instances entire factories have been rebuilt – a pulp factory in Ishinomaki was one of the most visible examples. The debris is all neatly piled and sorted, but it looms over the damaged areas in piles that are sometimes several stories high, clearly with no place to go. Residential housing, on the other hand, is in limbo. Many multi-story houses remain standing with their first floors gutted by the tsunami, but people still live on the intact second floors. Other homes remain abandoned. In many areas the government has not given permission for residents to rebuild. The lack of explicit permission to build does not yet amount to an outright ban, and no compensatory payments have been issued for people whose homes and business are in what will likely become no-build areas.
- Many people are still living in temporary housing compounds. These temporary homes are built from containers and are about 300+ square feet per household. They are generally located far uphill and away from the coast, so people are now living quite far from where their homes were originally located. The temporary housing placements were determined through a lottery system, so communities and neighbors are split up and are often located far from one another. People are making do by buying cars and driving to where their jobs, schools, or family are located. But for those who do not drive, the temporary housing compounds are a lonely place – far from anything familiar, and filled with people they have never met before the disaster.
We visited over almost a dozen organizations in towns and cities across Iwate and Miyagi prefectures. Along the way, we delivered origami cranes and messages of hope from GlobalGiving donors like you. (Click to see how how the messages were created and then delivered.) We left every visit amazed at how people were beginning to pull their lives back together, but also daunted at the monumental tasks still left ahead.
We visited one temporary housing complex dedicated to families with special needs where a woman kindly invited us into her home. It was immaculate, but tiny. The 300+ sq ft per-household size really hadn't hit me until we followed her in and found ourselves immediately in the main room. It was a combination kitchen, living room, and bedroom, where her immobilized son was on the heated carpeted floor that she explained was essential to his avoiding joint pains that would cause him to cry out. She explained that the size was fine with just the two of them – it got a little crowded when her husband came home once every 3 months. He works as a fisherman in the far south of Kyushu. Despite the size and the location, she said was happy to be in the housing complex. Because every household in the compound had a family member with special needs, they had actually known each other before the disaster through various service centers in the area, so they had a support network within the compound – something most other people didn’t have in their temporary housing. She hoped the families could all stay together once more permanent housing was built.
In a temporary shopping center much further north, we went to a lunch pot in a food mall and, because Britt is vegetarian, got treated to a beautiful set course of , or Buddhist cuisine. It was the last thing I expected in a food mall, but there it was. The chef had owned a highly rated restaurant in the city of Otsuchi before the disaster that was destroyed in the tsunami. He had scraped together enough money to pay for some basic cooking equipment and set himself up in a temporary shopping center and he was beginning to make a living by cooking basic lunch foods for all the workers who had nowhere else to go. He had been thrilled to show off his skills by cooking this special lunch for us.
At site after site, we came across young men and women who had deferred graduate school abroad, given up promising corporate careers at major multinational companies, or had given up jobs abroad in South Sudan, Paraguay, or Uganda to help rebuild their country. Some had grown up in Tohoku, but others came north with no other desire than to serve. Japan is by-and-large a society with very rigid expectations and sense of hierarchy. If you are successful, you attend one of a handful of good schools, then subsequently join the federal civil service, become a doctor or lawyer, or join a major multinational company. And when you do follow that path, there is a pretty long path of seniority to tread. The people who were supporting and leading non-profits or social enterprises, on the other hand, were all getting to make substantive decisions about what made sense, what provided the highest value, and long term benefit to the communities where they lived. Even more, they all seemed happy and fulfilled, if not somewhat exhausted. It was by far the most vibrant group of young Japanese people I have come across ever.
That gave me hope. Or, as a bumper sticker in Ishinomaki, said, "”It's tough to translate, as it's local dialect, but its spirit is closest to: "Don't mess with us, tsunami!"
If you’d like to Mari and Britt’s accounts of each specific project they visited, you can read their postcards from the field on our Japan Updates page.
A building near Ishinomaki
A fisherman helped by JEN's program
One of the temporary fish markets