Right after the earthquake hit northeast Japan on March 11, the small Pacific coastal town of Yamada, Iwate Prefecture, was almost wiped out by the massive tsunami. Hundreds of its residents were killed, while many of the survivors lost family members, their houses and jobs.
The town has had a strong connection with the Netherlands since 1643, when a Dutch ship stopped at its port to replenish its water and food and its crew had some exchanges with the local residents.
One of the islands off the coast is named “Orandajima” (Holland Island) as a sign of friendship between the two countries, and Yamada has had a sister-town relationship with Zeist in Utrecht Province since 2000.
Martin van der Linden, a Dutch architect who has lived and worked in Tokyo for more than 16 years, felt a strong urge to do something immediately after the disaster struck the Tohoku region.
Van der Linden waited to see if the Dutch Embassy and the Netherlands Chamber of Commerce in Japan, of which he is a member, would take some action to help the tsunami-ravaged areas, but he heard nothing from them and decided to take the initiative himself, he said.
Three days after the quake, he sent out an email to the chamber of commerce saying, “We need to do something.”
Some member Dutch companies such as Rabobank, a financial services provider, DSM, a chemical and food manufacturer, as well as members of Trekpaert Foundation, a club of about 50 Dutch company executives, quickly offered donations and support for whatever van der Linden would be doing.
Around the same time, van der Linden was introduced through DSM to Rio D. Praaning Prawira Adiningrat, secretary general of Public Advice International Foundation, which has its headquarters in Brussels and an office in Tokyo.
Praaning, who also had a Dutch friend living in Yamada handling relations between the town and Zeist, proposed a project to build a community house in the tsunami-ravaged town.
PA International Foundation “assists governments and international or national institutions or enterprises in developing new approaches to transboundary and transcultural problems” through giving them research-based strategic advice and operational support to its clients,” according to the group.
It built a community home in Indonesia’s Aceh Province after it was hit by the massive earthquake and tsunami of 2004, “so we had the expertise to build a similar kind of house in Yamada,” Praaning said.
They plan to work with the World Health Organization, UNICEF Japan and the U.N. Development Program to build a community house for both children and elderly people in the town. Originally, they thought of building a home just for the children.
“The heart of our activities has always been children” because children are often unable to express what they really want in disaster situation, Praaning said.
Children don’t really understand why things happen, why they’ve lost their parents, why they’ve lost brothers and sisters or friends, he said.
“They don’t understand why society looks as it does after an earthquake or tsunami. What you need to do is to re-create an environment where they can relax, where they can be themselves,” he said.
Van der Linden agrees. “Local authorities from Yamada told us that children were OK. The mayor says, ‘Luckily, there were only a few children who died or lost their parents.’ But we think they are not OK. Children need something to get over this trauma,” he said.
“I’m so happy as an architect (to be involved in this project). I think space has a huge impact on the development of children. It creates hope, and a new direction for the future,” he said.
After talking with the local authorities in Yamada and finding out that the local home for the elderly was destroyed by the tsunami, they changed their plan and decided to design the facility so it would serve the needs of senior citizens as well.
At the request of the mayor, van der Linden added a Japanese-style bath to the blueprint.
A property owner offered more than 660 sq. meters of his land, on which they plan to build the one-story building with baths, counseling rooms, a tatami room, a kitchen, a multipurpose space that can be used for meetings and a small garden. They hope the house will eventually be used for gatherings of the whole community.
Van der Linden says he is happy to use his experience working for the Japanese government in building community centers and schools.
Both van der Linden and PA International will take part in the project free of charge, and they will be supported by Jin Sasaki of Arup Japan, a company of construction engineers, consultants and technical specialists.
All the materials used to build the house will be produced locally, “if possible, in Iwate Prefecture,” said van der Linden.
Also, the local companies can build the house, so that jobs can be provided to local residents who have lost their jobs.
For the first two years, PA International will run the house, and then they will hand it over to the municipal government, Praaning said.
“We hope to name it “Japan-Netherlands Friendship House” or something. It’s up to Yamada to see what they want to do with the house so that it gets to function for the society as the society itself chooses,” he said.
“It’s very important in all the disasters that I’ve seen that you create something, that it will be sustainable, so that it doesn’t disappear after a while, and it continues to function.”