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Ondagumi president Chuya Onda

by Judit Kawaguchi

Chuya Onda, 68, is the president of Ondagumi, one of Japan’s biggest hikiya companies. Hikiya specialize in deconstructing, rebuilding and moving buildings. They are also experts at lifting up houses in order to make them earthquake-proof with special high-tech materials. Since the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, Onda’s company has been overwhelmed with the demolition aspect of his business. If a building is too dangerous to use, Onda and his team must demolish it. If it is merely tilted, then Ondagumi will straighten it out. Onda is well known as a tough guy who knows no fear when it comes to blowing up buildings, but when it comes to his wife — even after 42 years of marriage — he still gets weak in the knees.

Anyone can demolish a structure, but the real trick is to lift up and move a whole building without spilling the tea on the table. That’s what we do. We prepare for two weeks and then voilà, we raise the whole building with all the furniture inside it and move it so smoothly that everything stays exactly as it was when we began our work. The furniture, the dishes — nothing is disturbed. The homeowners could even sit on the sofa and sip tea as we move their whole house, but usually they want to watch the process so they remain outside taking photos.

Japanese buildings might look weak, but they are strong. Three top U.S. demolition teams came to Japan and tried to blow up typical Japanese homes with dynamite. The results were surprising: no team succeeded! The spots where the dynamite was placed were damaged, but the rest of the building was undisturbed. The kind of effect one sees in other countries, where even high-rise buildings crumble once some floors get severely damaged, just doesn’t happen in Japan because all structures are built to withstand quakes.

Instead of cutting down a tree or demolishing a house, save it by moving it to a new location. Japanese cities grew quite organically, so their roads are very narrow. Once the need for wider roads arose, starting in the Edo Period, Japanese moved trees and buildings by a few meters to make room for road construction.

If you’re hungry for something, you don’t age. Company presidents stay young forever. Both in business and in private, they strive for success at all times so they are very energetic. They have to be in order to make it. So even when they retire they don’t turn into “old people.” They might not want to make money anymore, but they still want something out of life and stay hungry for information. That might be the key to staying young.

I was born in the wrong time period. Today women are stronger than men, so my wife bosses me around all day. When I was young, men were strong so my father ordered me around. All my life, I have been told what to do.

As we age, we become more honest. People accept the truth, no matter how painful, from an older person. We older ones can tell it like it really is. Also, we have less fear about losing something because of our honesty. “Whatever happens, happens” is a motto that becomes even more true as we age.

Destroying something feels great! I think that’s the child in all of us, to push a button and watch a building collapse is so much fun. Yet so few people get the chance to do it. I feel very lucky to be in this line of work.

Parents need to kick their children out, just like animals do, to teach them the survival skills they need. We have four children and once they entered high school, they were out of the house except for when they had to sleep. We didn’t allow them to hang out at home. They went to school, worked and stayed at friends. On school breaks, they had to go backpacking abroad — alone. We paid their plane tickets, gave them a little money and waved them goodbye. I cried with my wife as we thought that at least one could end up dead somehow. Still, we had to throw them into the deep water. Luckily, all four survived and became strong.

A man must build his castle. Western homes live longer as many generations use the same structure. But in Japan, every generation wants to build a new house and one that is more expensive than they can afford. The average home costs more than 10 years’ income.

Work is a duty. No matter what the job is, once we choose that profession, we must stick to it and do it as well as humanly possible. Same with marriage: Once our destinies have connected us, we should work on our relationships till death do us part.

True love lasts. I respect and love my wife so much. I had to beg her for three years to marry me. I suffered a lot to convince her that I was the man for her. I took her to places she loved even though it was mostly a pain for me: museums, classical concerts and dance parties. It was the toughest assignment I ever had and it’s still not over. I am still working at it daily! We’ve been together every day for 42 years, and I never want to be without her, ever.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “journeys in japan.” Learn more at: juditfan.blog58.fc2.com Twitter: judittokyo