Nationwide association of volunteers and an army of helpers bring sweet relief to tsunami-hit Miyagi Prefecture fishing town

Market network helps community bounce back

by Skye Hohmann

Special To The Japan Times

On a bright, warm late November day, an open-air market hums with activity. Children dart among strolling tourists, vendors cry out their wares to visitors and locals alike, who are looking to stock up on produce, cheap clothes and handicrafts from around the country.

There’s a festival atmosphere, and the air is full of the scent of fried seafood, the sweet, buttery fragrance of freshly baked madeleines, hot savory soup, and steaming rice being pounded into fresh mochi. There are citrus fruit from Shikoku and apples from Nagano, buckwheat soba noodles being rolled and cut by hand, and grilled meat Hokkaido-style. At the fish stall, plump local octopus, squid and salted fish catch the eye. Market tents spill over the plaza and into the parking lot, where tour buses vie for space with the cars.

A little beyond the parked buses is the area’s Red Cross headquarters. Farther still are forested hills that block the view to the sea where there still remains an area of total destruction even eight months after the massive tsunami devastated this coastal town last March 11.

This is not an ordinary market serving an ordinary town. This is Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture. The market — properly called the “Fukko ichi” (Revival Market) — is one of the town’s ways of getting back on its feet and beginning the process of rebuilding.

It will be a long process, but Minamisanriku isn’t in it alone. Since the massive tsunami devastated the Tohoku region coast, communities from around Japan have been pitching in. Almost as soon as cellphone networks came back online, the town’s requests for supplies began getting through a network of people and organizations across the country — a network that was ready and waiting to be mobilized.

Since the Great Hanshin Earthquake hit Kobe and neighboring areas in 1995, people and organizations across Japan have been looking for new ways of preparing for disasters, and improving response systems for when disaster does strike. One such organization is the Disaster Preparedness Morning Market Network (Bosai Asa Ichi Network).

Between 2008 and last March, the group organized regular morning markets in port cities across Japan. Using the catchphrase “sweet relief (oishii kyuuen),” the markets sold produce and products from around Japan, raising funds and awareness, and in the process building a social network of community activities across the country.

Minamisanriku was part of this network.

While no one was prepared for the magnitude of the March 11 disaster, these connections allowed local-level groups across the country to mobilize help for Minamisanriku almost immediately.

Yuko Kasai, a market volunteer from the town of Shimosuwa in Nagano Prefecture, helped coordinate the shipments of relief goods in the early days after the earthquake and tsunami. “They wanted really basic things, like disposable chopsticks and chlorine bleach so swimming pool water could be used for cleaning,” she said while busily ladling out bowlfuls of sweet bean soup at the November market.

In a rapid response to the first request, individuals and organizations in Shimosuwa collected iodine, face masks, rubbing alcohol, toothbrushes and miso to send to the devastated area. Once the supplies were collected, however, there were still severe logistical problems. Kasai recalled how the volunteers coordinated their initial shipment.

“The main roads to Minamisanriku were in terrible shape, and many of the delivery companies had been hit hard by the tsunami. So we shipped them to Sakata (in Yamagata Prefecture),” she said.

Sakata, on the Sea of Japan coast, was relatively unaffected by the earthquake. Shopkeepers in the town’s Chuo-dori shopping district then shuttled these deliveries cross-country on the back roads that connect to the Pacific coast some 200 km away. Thanks to this quick thinking, the shipment arrived on the morning of March 19, a week and a day after the disaster — and only half a day after the request came through.

The Revival Market emerged from these early relief efforts. Once the basic needs for food, warmth and hygiene were met, the next step was to get the community of Minamisanriku up and running once again. After all of the shops and nearly all of the local industry had been swept away by the tsunami, it seemed crucial to start rebuilding the local economy.

Word was sent out across the network, and offers of market tents came pouring in from all over Japan. Shopkeepers drove overnight with produce from as far away as Ehime Prefecture to set up stalls.

The first Revival Market opened at the end of April, drawing 15,000 shoppers and raising ¥2.7 million for the town. Local octopus, for sale beside donated goods, showed a glimmer of hope for the eventual recovery of the local fishing industry.

Turnouts and proceeds increased as the market, held once a month, grew in popularity. Local businesses, though still struggling to recover, started once again turning out their famous sasa kamaboko fish cakes, and the fishing cooperative added more variety each month.

By the fall, tour buses were bringing in visitors to support the market as well as to learn firsthand about the disaster. Many hailed from other disaster-stricken communities, including Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, and Minamisoma in Fukushima Prefecture. On a record-setting day in October, the market raised ¥7 million.

The produce and products available each month vary with both the season and the participants. In November, the family of Ryota Nagashima, whose bakery was built with assistance from a Shimosuwa nonprofit group Think Tank Alliance, quickly sold out what has now become their signature product, dubbed the Revival Madeleine

“There aren’t really any jobs here in Minamisanruku,” said Ichio Ota, of Think Tank Alliance. “A lot of young people have had to move away, since so much of the local industry was destroyed in the tsunami. It’s really important to support these businesses, and get the community here working again.” Ota intends to keep up the connection by selling the madeleines at his own shop in Shimosuwa, helping what he believes will be a growing business.

Boyo Fujimura coordinates the activities of the Disaster Preparedness Morning Market Network. A dour-looking man with a surprising and sweet smile, Fujimura looked on as the last of the madeleines vanished into bulging bags of shoppers at the market.

Volunteers, up from a university in Osaka, whisked away the tables as the Nagashima family headed for home, tired but elated.

While sales fell slightly from their October peak, the substantial funds raised will go toward rebuilding the area’s shopping district, which is scheduled to open in temporary buildings this month. One last Revival Market, at the end of January, will celebrate the reopening of the shops.

The market has become a monthly high point for Minamisanriku. Locals, grinning broadly, seemed genuinely happy that they are taking the first steps toward rebuilding their community. While there’s still a long way for Minamisanriku to go along the road to recovery, it was also reassuringly clear that the townspeople, who have lost so much, won’t be left alone to walk it. Sweet relief, indeed.