community, journal, network, relief, sendai plain, volunteer, watari

visit to watari cho, june 7-10

after the Kobe earthquake in 1995, my friends in the Nagata part of Kobe received help from a few monks from Sendai. my friends in Kobe have been doing non-profit disaster recovery community-building (in Japanese, machizukkuri) since the Kobe earthquake.
after the tsunami, they wanted to find out if their friends in Sendai were ok, but of course at that time all communication networks were down. so my friend drove all the way to sendai, by himself. it’s about an 8 hour drive. the temple in Sendai was ok, but they told him that the folks in Watari cho (cho means town, or small part of a larger town) needed help. so they have been helping in Watari cho since then–helping clean the temple (which was completely filled with tsunami mud) and bringing and distributing relief supplies.
the local temple has also become a distribution point for relief goods for people who have move into temporary housing or are still staying in evacuation shelters.
we helped hand out some supplies. in typical japanese fashion, it was a very organized distribution system. they are open for ‘business’ 6 days a week, and there were about 300 people who came through on the day we were there. the goods are divided into separate areas–i was taken under the wing of the local monk’s mother early in the day, so i was in the clothing distribution building (a portable unit) all day. the other areas were outside, or under tents. there was a dishware section, and food and vegetable section, and book section, and a coffee/tea corner. people lined up and waited, and then had a certain amount of time to pass through each section with their cohort. so groups were staggered, and we ‘restocked’ between each group. things were rationed, which makes sense because of the large number of people they are supporting. for example, 1 box of Kleenex per family, and 1 bathtowel per family.
the volunteers were mostly older people, there was a noticeable lack of youngsters in the volunteer group, but a number of young families came by to pick up donations. in japan’s aging society, this is to be expected, and will be a big challenge throughout the rebuilding process. however, the japanese obachans and ojichans (grandmas and grandpas) are really genki! (lively/energetic) they chatted and joked around with each other and me, and the folks who came by. they were really welcoming to this random foreign girl.

it was my first time to visit this part of the disaster area, which is geographically the Sendai Plain-the land is flat and expansive, with ricefields. it’s basically flat all the way to the ocean. people in this area don’t experience tsunamis as often as those folks who live further north up the coastline. and didn’t expect the tsunami to come here. there is an elevated highway running parallel to the ocean coast where we were, and between Watari towards Sendai. this highway acted as a break for the tsunami wave, and even now, 3 month later after a lot of clean up, you could clearly see the difference between the area in front and behind the highway.

different from the Sendai Plain,
much of Miyagi and Iwate prefecture is known as the Sanriku coast, which is characterized as a ‘rias’ coast–basically a sawtoothed form, technically related to how the rivers’ meet the sea. the fiords in Norway are an example of a rias coast. in Sanriku, these multiple river valleys leading to the ocean affected the tsunami-which often came up these valleys with a deadly powerful force. in the Sendai Plain, the water just came straight in, across the fields, a rolling black wave.

we slept in tents behind the temple, and in the morning said goodbye to the monk. he has a big smile, and a gentle quiet demeanor. I learned that there is a system in japan, extra-governmental, where there is a designated person in each area to take care of vulnerable residents–elderly, children, etc.–in case of disaster. in wataricho, the monk has this role also. in addition, the temple has the space to store relief goods. this system, where the people relied on the temple for assistance, is old, and natural.

before we leave, they talk about how volunteers come to give, or to help, and wind up being helped, or feeling that they have received something. i feel this too.




About liz

from the u.s., recently moved from kobe to sendai, japan, researching community-based housing recovery after disaster.


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