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Disaster-hit communities in Tohoku using local specialties to survive, asahi shinbun, 10/9/14

Like many other local communities around Japan, towns in the Tohoku region have tried to brand their specialty products to promote sales.

Three and a half years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami crushed those industries, the northeastern communities have resumed their brand image efforts–but now with the survival of communities at stake.

In early September at the Koishihama fishing port in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, fishing boats hauled in large catches of Koishihama Hotate, a scallop raised artificially in Okirai Bay.

The scallops, farmed where the Oyashio (Chishima) and Kuroshio (Japan) currents meet, are known for their thick, tough texture and sweet flavor.

The Koishihama community started scallop aquaculture about half a century ago.

To broaden the market, the fishing cooperative in 2008 branded the scallops Koishihama Hotate, replacing two kanji characters with the phonetic reading “koishi” (pebble) with different characters having the same reading but meaning “beloved.”

The Sanriku Railway also adopted the alternate kanji for the name of Koishihama Station. The station’s waiting room contains a plethora of votive-offering tablets made from scallop shells that people have hung up to pray for fulfillment in love.

On March 11, 2011, the tsunami swept away the young scallops and the rafts at the farms. Only two of the 40 boats survived.

Ryoetsu Matsukawa, a 62-year-old member of the fishing cooperative, fled from the coast in his boat.

“When the tsunami receded and I returned to the port, there was nothing left,” he recalled.

Sixteen of the 17 scallop-farming families have resumed their work with young scallops ordered from Hokkaido. The remaining one decided to retire because of advanced age.

In September 2012, they shipped their first products since the earthquake. The Koishihama Hotate Teriyaki Bento, a popular boxed lunch, has also made a comeback.

The Sanriku Railway fully reopened in April. Passengers on a special train are served scallops at the station.

“If we didn’t have the scallops, the young people would be gone,” Matsukawa said. “Our community is vibrant because of the scallops.”

The Momonoura fishing port in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, is also banking on marine products for survival.

Momonoura was already facing an aging population and difficulty in finding successors to family businesses when the 2011 tsunami washed away 65 of the community’s homes and the majority of its aquaculture facilities.

Fifteen local fishermen set up a limited liability company in August 2012 to create jobs and attract workers.

Working with a trading firm in Sendai that specializes in fisheries, the fishermen are attempting to achieve year-round shipping and high quality under the brand name Momonoura-san Kaki (Oysters made in Momonoura).

They ship their products to such buyers as nationwide chains of major supermarkets and restaurants.

“If we can brand our product, then the fishermen will be motivated and also help us revive (the local economy),” said Katsuyuki Oyama, a 67-year-old representative of the company.

Farmers in Fukushima Prefecture have a different hurdle to overcome: The rumors about radiation that have hurt their reputation.

The prefecture is placing hopes on reviving the original Tennotsubu variety of locally-grown rice.

The Fukushima Agricultural Technology Center spent 15 years developing the strain and released it in fiscal 2011.

The plant itself is sturdier and more difficult to knock over. It can also grow easily even in fields that have lain fallow since the triple meltdown at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The release of radioactive substances in the disaster led to planting restrictions and voluntary bans in the prefecture. The area of rice fields in Fukushima in 2011 fell from the fourth-largest in Japan the previous year to seventh.

Municipalities in the Hamadori area along the coast and the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives are presenting Tennotsubu as a “symbol of reconstruction” and giving priority to planting the rice variety in reopened fields.

The town of Inawashiro in the prefecture created its own production standards, starting with last year’s harvest. It is selling the rice under the name Inawashiro Tennotsubu.

“We want people to remember that Tennotsubu is made in Inawashiro, just like they know that Koshihikari is grown in Uonuma, Niigata Prefecture,” a town official said.

preparing for tanabata festival in the sakari neighborhood of ofunato

for my last work day in ofunato, i had the pleasure of helping prepare for the tanabata festival, which unfortunately was happening after i left. but putting up the decorations in the street was pretty fun! the decorations are attached to huge bamboo poles, which have to been carried, set up, and lashed to the electric poles, all with the correct angle and without getting them snagged on any power lines. the first one took a long time, but our team got better after that. actually i didn’t do much heavy lifting, but mostly trying to translate for the guys from all hands who didn’t understand japanese, as we guided the bamboo up and down the street and angled it. the streets were destroyed by the tsunami, so when they rebuild them, they built in little holes to hold the bamboo. we worked together with some local guys, and there were also student volunteers from a university in tokyo, and also high school students.

also, for the last few nights, i had the chance to help a local neighborhood group who was preparing their float-a wooden frame, which is then covered with paper panels hand painted with scenes (in this case, it was the kid’s float, so lots of cartoon characters) and hand painted geometric trim.

i still feel like there are a lot of challenges involved with bringing outsiders into a local community in general, and all hands is not immune, and is in fact working on this. in fact, the night before i left there was a meeting about how to improve the role of the translators on job sites.  but when the local neighborhood groups are welcoming the international volunteers to join in their festival, and i have the chance to work next to the local ladies as they are brushing glue on the frames for the paper, as we are carrying the bamboo together down the street, i’m not worried about this relationship. we (foreign volunteers) may be strange and different, may sometimes be awkward or accidentally rude, and we definitely are a new sight that was not in ofunato 6 months ago. but it feels like the local people have embraced all hands, the volunteers’ smiling faces that are as bright as the clothes are dirty after a day in the ditches. i feel that huge credit is due to the folks who organized all hand volunteers’ participation in the tanabata festival, which you can see more of here.

gutting at O san’s house

i’ve already been here a week, which has passed very quickly.  today’s work was continuing the floor gutting job at the O’s house, for a mother and son. the work is actually putting in styrofoam insulation between the joists, before putting the floor boards back down. for this architecture student, who hasn’t built a model in years, it’s really fun to cut and fit styrofoam.  non-architecture-dorks might not understand why. today i wasn’t the official translator of the team, which was relaxing, and nice to have more than one J speaker. the boys started practicing their japanese, which was great, and also hilarious. mrs. O made us delicious lunch in addition to our bento.

when the tsunami came, mr. O (the son) was at work in the city office, and mrs O was at home. she went up to the 2nd floor when the first wave came, and then when the wave receded, she ran out of the house and escaped on foot up to a higher place.

on the first day at the O’s house, the contractor came by and took a group photo of all of us. the next day, he brought back laminated copies for each of us, with a message of gratitude from the homeowner.

this work is probably the most rewarding activity i have ever done. not because of the thanks we get from the homeowner, but because of how great it feels to be able to help these residents with the work in their homes, to talk to them. and to feel like there is something that we can do, and we are doing it together. it’s a simple thing, to work together with a shared goal to help people. but it’s powerful.  through this shared experience, it doesn’t take very long to form connections and friendships that feel like they have a much longer history, and will last longer than the brief time we overlap here, where volunteers are always coming and going. it’s something that is difficult to put into words, but when people say their goodbye speeches, when we have to face the fact the we are leaving this place, it’s hard not to cry. and want to come back as soon as we can.

working with all hands in the Y’s house

i had arrived at all hands right in time for dinner, which is a yummy spread that local ladies cook for the volunteers every night. along with a free place to stay, all hands provides food for volunteers, which includes dinner and bentos that are delivered for lunch everyday. i was glad to see that they had this system in place, as supporting local businesses instead of having volunteers bring their own instant cup ramen is something that i had been thinking about before. also, breakfast was bread and peanut butter, and as an american living in japan, the thrill of seeing a giant jar of peanut butter never wore off, at least not in the 10 days i was there!

every night there is a meeting where the current jobs and future jobs are discussed, at then people sign up for the work they want to do the next day.  my first night, there was a new job on the board, a gutting job for the Y. family. i signed up for the bilingual slot on that team. in the morning, our team of 5 gathered up our tools and were dropped off at our site.

mrs Y is the grandma of the family. she remembers the tsunami that came here in 1960, after the Chile earthquake. she had just moved to her house near the sea to join her husband several months before. she had been processing oysters with other local women when the alarm rang. since no one had felt the Chile earthquake, they didn’t expect the tsunami. but they evacuated to the top floor of the oyster processing building, and were safe. this time, not everyone in the neighborhood was so lucky. mrs Y’s house is above the road that runs along the long narrow port that is the center of Ofunato. we mentioned that there is a beautiful few of the ocean and the port, and were told that it is strange for them to be able to see the sea. there used to be a row of houses below the road as well, but they were destroyed and now there is only a row of empty lots, with low concrete walls marking their boundaries. mrs. Y tells me this story during a break on one of the later working days, resting her arms on the fence looking towards the ocean.  she points to the lot below and to the left of the house: that neighbor, who has 1 grown daughter, went back to her house to save some important things, and she was there when the wave came. as the water came in to the house she thought it was the end, but survived.  now this woman is living in a temporary housing unit nearby–people moved in last sunday, 4 months after the disaster. the neighbor from the lot on the right is still ‘missing’. which means that her body hasn’t been recovered.

there were about 2 meters of water in the house, the water lines are still visible on the walls and the windows. we remove the floorboards, take them outside and wash them. mrs Y had broken her foot in the days before the tsunami, so she was in a wheelchair at that time, and was driven to the city office to evacuate. in the days and weeks that followed, she got around on crutches, and couldn’t clean out her house. her four granddaughters, from elementary school to high school age, helped to this work–carrying out the heavy waterlogged tatami mats.  on the first day, a neighbor lady stops by to see what’s happening. she seems old, but very tough! she’s recently done the similar process in her house-removing the floor boards and cleaning the space underneath. she takes one look at what we are doing and jumps into the middle of our work to show use how to remove the boards whole, without cutting them. she is tiny, but powerful, and uses a crowbar easily, demonstrating upper arm strength that probably exceeds mine. later on, mr. Y tells us that she rides around on a motorcycle, and that her boat landed in the Y’s garden after the tsunami.

mrs Y, who grew up in a farm family, has replanted the small garden between her house and her daughters house. she says the garden was an ‘experiment’ and that she had no idea if the plants would grow.  but they are, and one day early this summer, her granddaughter came to her and said “grandma, the plants came up!”  mrs. Y brings us fresh corn on the cob that was picked that morning from a farm that belongs to someone in her family.

mrs. Y’s daughter is a science teacher at a school that was destroyed and has been holding classes in a gymnasium more than an hour away. because of tsunami, and the fact that students are living in evacuation centers and temporary housing, this year many schools had a very short summer vacation and are now continuing to hold classes.  on the last day i was at their house, we finished cleaning under the floor a little early, and i volunteered that we could help with anything else they needed help with, so we pulled some weeds that had grown in the open spaces.  i felt bad leaving them, and i wished i could have continued the next phase of their work, but unfortunately it was postponed until after i left.

a research trip to sumita cho on my day off

several months earlier, i had hear about the temporary housing in the town of Sumita cho from my sensei. the mayor of Sumita had already had a plan (before the earthquake) that if there was a disaster and need for housing reconstruction, they would use the local timber industry. and after march 11, they did. the temporary housing in Sumita is made of wood, which makes it much more comfortable than the steel or pre-fab housing, which is hot in summer and cold in winter. i’m also pretty sure that it’s a more pleasant living environment both inside and outside these small houses.

temporary housing is the second step of the process of Japanese disaster recovery housing, and are built using money from the national government, with the local municipality contracting out the construction to private companies.  they are usually modular, may be reusable, often steel or prefabricated. they cost a lot of money to build, and a lot of money to dismantled. they are designed to be lived in for up to 5 years, which allows them to be built without following the building code requirements for permanent housing. in the case of tohoku, the scale of the housing loss and the unknown factors in permanent housing reconstruction mean that it’s impossible to know how long people will live in these units, which are still being built 5 months after the tsunami in an attempt to meet demand. however it’s almost certain that people will be living in them for more than 5 years.

temporary housing units are small, less than 30 square meters or 830 square feet. the cheapest and lowest quality ones built of steel are especially hot in summer and cold in winter. after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, temporary housing was built in large numbers in remote and locations outside the city, and people were awarded a unit based on a lottery system, which prioritized older or vulnerable people. the result was that community connections were destroyed, as old neighborhoods scattered and people were randomly assigned to new temporary houses. this was later compounded by a similar process for those who entered the new disaster recovery public housing in high-rise apartment buildings. the loss of community connections was especially severe for the older generation; many elderly lost all connections to friends and neighbors, and died a solitary death without anyone noticing their absence.

on the individual house scale, the design and implementation of temporary housing can also give residents more control over their own rehousing process.  the temporary houses in Sumita are small but detached single family units, grouped in clusters at each of 5 sites located around the town. the houses are arranged in several rows, with a main path and space to grow flowers in containers. these little wooden houses can be moved and reused later, or they could be expanded to be part of a larger more permanent house.

on tuesday, which is all hands’ day off, i went on an little excursion to try to see these wooden temporary houses. i successfully found out which bus to take and where, and after a 30 minute bus ride up into the mountain (towards tono) i got off in sumita, which is a basically a 1 street town. however, as i had heard before, it’s very true that weather can quickly change, and be completely opposite at the coast and up in the mountain. so whereas when i left ofunato, it had been bright and sunny, when i arrived in sumita, it was thundering and in the middle of a downpour. and it a completely brilliant move, i had brought neither my umbrella or rain coat. the wonderful old lady at the little tabacco shop by the bus stop didn’t sell umbrellas, but she very kindly loaned me a umbrella, and after dashing into a number of tiny shops on the shopping street, i would up with a rain poncho as well. i set off for the city office (across the river), where they obliged my request for a map of temporary housing. although i got a little damp, i was able to visit the 2 sights that were in walking distance, and catch the bus back to ofunato. and even chat with some local folks on the street, who wanted to know what i was doing. i think if i had stayed in town another hour, i might have been invited to someone’s home for dinner.


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