Hideki Shiraiwa, Sakae Sasaki and Taiichi Ikejiri / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers
Their members forced into temporary housing units or living in other prefectures, many neighborhood associations in areas devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake have been dissolved or stopped functioning.
Before the disaster, neighborhood associations supplemented the functions of local governments and supported their communities. With these vital networks crippled, residents fear community ties will be severed and they will have no intermediary with local governments on matters related to reconstruction.
In farming and fishing villages in the Tohoku region, neighborhood associations called gyosei-ku (administrative districts), keiyaku-kai (contracted associations) or chiku-kai (district associations) have strengthened the bonds between residents.
Municipal governments establish administrative districts in local communities to facilitate their administrative work. Leading residents in each district are appointed part-time district chiefs and administrative committee members, becoming special-status public servants responsible for relaying information provided by local governments to other residents.
Administrative districts usually decide such questions as which schools local children will attend and where to set up voting stations for elections.
Together with other local groups that organize festivals and activities for children, administrative districts work to keep local residents united.
“We’d planned shishimai lion dances for the autumn and New Year festivals,” 73-year-old Katsuhiko Yamashita said sadly in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. “The tsunami deprived us of ties that we established over many years.”
Yamashita served as the chief of the Ogatsucho-Funato administrative district in the city, but the district’s board decided to dissolve itself at an extraordinary meeting in late May.
About 170 people in 68 households once lived in the district. All the houses were destroyed by the tsunami, and 16 residents were killed or remain missing.
Residents had to evacuate to different areas because there was no place capable of accommodating them all. As a result, the board of the administrative district concluded it would be impossible to maintain the community.
About 13 million yen in funds managed by the board was distributed among the member households. The last activity of the administrative district was to insert the cash into envelopes.
Yamashita currently lives with his wife in an apartment about an hour’s drive from his hometown.
He often gets calls from his former neighbors, now in other prefectures. Yamashita said many talk to him for a long time, saying they want to go back even though they know nothing is left in the district.
According to the Ishinomaki city government, there are 20 resident groups in the Ogatsucho area, in addition to the administrative districts.
Association members worked to bring residents and local governments together by distributing newsletters and compiling residents’ opinions.
Since the disaster, however, associations in at least eight places have taken steps toward disbanding, the city government said.
In Minami-Sanrikucho, Miyagi Prefecture, many administrative districts became unable to function. The town government therefore established a new rule as of July 22 creating new administrative districts out of groups of temporary housing units.
It also came up with a plan to appoint unit residents to positions equivalent to the heads of administrative districts.
“To proceed with reconstruction, collaboration among residents and cooperation with administrative entities are essential,” a town government official said. “Even in temporary housing units, we have to organize strong residents’ associations.”
There have also been attempts to maintain community ties even after local associations have ceased to function.
In the Tomari district in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, about 100 residents in 36 households decided to suspend the activities of local associations, including those for administrative districts and children, for two years.
Nevertheless, administrative board director Yoshihiro Kumagai, 64, puts out the organization’s newsletter at his own expense so residents can contact one another even during the suspension period.
Copies of the newsletter carry residents’ new addresses and updates on their situations, as well as information related to the reconstruction of their hometown.
Kumagai had mailed three editions of the newsletter as of the end of July.
“Unity among local residents is essential in presenting our demands to the city government,” he said.
Minoru Watanabe, 60, a journalist specializing in disaster prevention and crisis management, said: “To reconstruct the town, administrative authorities need to form a consensus among local residents. Local communities are very important in this regard.
“It’s also easier for administrative authorities to do their work if ties among local residents are preserved. So each local government should consider measures for maintaining the local communities.”
(Aug. 6, 2011)