visit to izushima island, onagawa, and public housing

izushima island is a small island, with 2 fishing villages, near onagawa town (politically part of onagawa).

in onagawa, about 300 of the disaster recovery public housing units will be built by local contractors using timber. my friend M san has be involved in organizing the local building companies into a cooperative agreement, so they can be awarded these contracts from the town. the single family detached public housing that is currently under construction on izushima is the first of these projects.

being an island, building on izushima is inconvenient–workers and materials all have to be transported by boat. workers take a small ferry from onagawa every morning, and return every afternoon. building materials are transported by other boats, but both can be interrupted by bad weather, causing construction delays. the current goal is to complete the used before obon, the traditional holiday in august that honors ancestors and home-coming.

however, compared to most of the other sites for public housing in onagawa town (many of which will be raised before construction starts), the land area for public housing on izushima is easier to use, and construction could start earlier.

the other public housing (multi-family reinforced construction) that is already completed in onagawa is the public housing that was build on the municipal athletic field, which also took advantage of available flat land for construction. (although in the process, there was the loss of recreational space).

since the public housing under construction on izushima is the first in this new system of building cooperatives, and different parts are being built by different companies. there are about 30 units planned for construction, 24 in the main area of izushima  (under construction now) next to the current temporary housing, and an additional 7 for the other village on the island (where the land is currently being cleared).

while i was in onagawa, i had a chance to visit izushima with M san, and see the current situation.

we took the early morning ferry that the construction workers take. it was a cold morning, and in warm ferry on gentle rocking of the waves, most of the construction workers were quiet or resting, but the ones who were speaking were using almost unintelligible (to me) local dialect, a smooth lulling sound.

on the island, we got a ride to the work site, where construction is nearing completion of some of the units, and foundation work is starting on others. there are 4 house types, that residents can select from.

architecturally, the houses look great. the materials are high quality timber, the labor is local, and organized with a local cooperative of construction companies. i know that this must not have been easy to organize.  but in the context of accepted principles of housing recovery of the international community of practice, this project is doing all the right things.  this project is also well-designed considered in the context of post-disaster housing recovery after recent events in japan (1995 hanshin-awaji earthquake in kobe, and the 2004 chuetsu earthquake). this project is a small scale collective relocation and will provide residents with high-quality single family public housing. the current temporary housing on izushima are all on one site, but the new public housing will be built in two locations; although this is more complicated and expensive for the construction process, it allows that the residents of terama (the other village–the main village on the island is also called izushima) will have their own reconstructed village.

we walked around the island a little bit, on the main road that runs from one harbor to the other, along the high land area in the center of the island. before 3.11, there was an elementary school on the island, but it has been closed, and abandoned with all the items left just the way they were. the school was in the  high land areas, near where the new public housing is being built.  but the population of school-aged children had dwindled–the last year the new 1st grade class had only 1 boy, who is the grandson of a local man we wind up spending a few hours with. he is 60, and when he entered the elementary school, there were 50 kids in the 1st grade class. he gives us a tour of his garden, taking us from plant to plant, telling the story of each one, where it came from, when it blooms, its name. he has a beautiful garden, and his enjoyment of giving a guided tour of his plants was clear.  his garden is surrounding a new house that he build in the last 5-10 years, which was intended to be the home 4 generations, but he sons’ families have moved away.  before the tsunami, he ran a gas station in the harbor for boats. but the fishing activity has stopped because there are no younger people to do the work.  and families with children have moved away because there is now no school left on the island.

with the excuse of continuing the “garden tour”, we visit one neighbor’s house, who have a beautiful view of terama harbor from above. this neighbor is in his 80s, and his daughter (in her 40s) is the youngest resident on the island. her job is to bring the newspapers to island by boat. she also comes to the harbor to tie up our return ferry when it arrives later.

having coffee and tea with these residents, i was struck by the desperate  situation of this island. in the disaster area, it is not uncommon for people to say “please come and live here” to younger visitors from outside (like us). but the way that these folks from terama asked this was different–it was a more serious request, and came from a place of knowing that their village doesn’t have a future without younger residents.  islanders are hoping that the government will build a bridge to the mainland, and that this will help support the economy. (whether or not the bridge will actually be built is not certain).

i’ve spoken with many people in different disaster areas in japan and in other countries. i’ve heard a lot of terrible, traumatic, sad sad stories. from people whose lives have been destroyed, who have experienced huge loss. of course, these conversations are hard, and can be painful and sad. but they also often show the resilience of human beings, the incredible power of people to help each other, and the strength that people have to look forward.  in temporary housing, or in a landscape of destruction, people have the ability to think about the next step.  or as a researcher coming from outside, can see a future for these residents. this is not to say that the future recovery is usually or always good. is it often not good, and can cause bigger problems for residents, and this is the crux of the reason we research disasters, to try to improve things, to minimize the damage it causes for people. however, as a researcher, i can see multiple outcomes for the future, and some of these outcomes would be good for the residents.

but here, speaking with people who haven’t lost their houses or family members to the tsunami directly, there seems to be no potential for a good outcome.  they are right up against the program of the aging society of japan, one in which the young people more away and rural areas are becoming increasingly depopulated. of course we all know these facts and this situation. but it is different to see it directly. and it is sad, in a different way than what i am used to.

so even if the public housing that is being built on this island is the best possible (residents would probably like slightly larger houses with more space around them) but we can say they are the best public housing that could be built right now. but in this larger context of a shrinking villages, unused harbors, aging residents, it doesn’t seem like enough.

About liz

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


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