Iwate Philippine community in for long haul

by Setsuko Kamiya

Staff Writer

One of the major issues facing Philippine nationals who survived the March 11 earthquake and tsunami is finding new jobs. With Japanese locals in the same position, securing new employment is a major challenge for everyone in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture.

Erva Sugawara, 50, said she is fortunate that she got her job back when the bar she worked for in this small fishing town reopened in late May. Many businesses and homes along Ofunato’s coastline were simply swept away by the tsunami.

Sugawara’s bar was also washed away, but the Japanese owner has reopened the business in a different location, securing work for Sugawara and her colleagues. “I’m really grateful, because others are having a hard time finding jobs,” said Sugarawa, who has lived in Japan for 22 years. She is married to an Ofunato native who is working in Tokyo to save money for their future.

Sugawara’s Filipino friends, Maria Raquel Kon, 43, and Ana Nishimura, 31, both Ofunato residents, are looking for new jobs because the bars they worked at were wrecked by the waves. Kon has lived in Japan for 15 years and Nishimura for eight.

Kon, a single mother with a 15-year-old daughter, had to move because seawater ruined their old home, while Nishimura’s house was washed away and her family is living in a shelter, waiting to be placed in temporary housing.

“My daughter will start school next year, and we’ll need to prepare many things for her. But we lost our house and car, and we’re living day by day,” Nishimura said.

Ofunato’s small Philippine community worked for parts makers, or in fish processing factories, restaurants and bars, but most businesses were damaged by the tsunami, according to Sugawara. Fortunately, the apartment she lives in with her 20-year-old daughter was spared by the waves.

“I helped them look for new jobs at City Hall and Hello Work, but there’s only cleaning up debris, which can be too hard for women,” Sugawara said. “Clerical positions or jobs as receptionists are a bit challenging because we can’t read kanji very well.”

After the disaster, Sugawara spent days visiting shelters in Ofunato, searching for her Filipino friends. She also got in touch with friends in the neighboring city of Rikuzentakata. “I was relieved every time I learned that someone was safe,” Sugawara said. Dozens living in Rikuzentakata have lost their homes, however.

Some have returned to the Philippines, but Sugawara, Kon and Nishimura said they are determined to stay in Ofunato for the sake of their children and families. There aren’t any good jobs back home in any case, Nishimura said.

“My mother in the Philippines said I should come back,” Sugawara said. “I do want to go see her, but I have my daughter and husband, and we have our home here. So I tell my mother that I’ll be fine,” she said.

Sugawara said the Filipino communities in Ofunato and Rikuzentakata are now connected with Philippine nationals in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture. Such ties didn’t exist before March 11.

They have been receiving aid from nonprofit organizations, but Sugawara said she especially appreciated the Mass celebrated in Tagalog at the local Ofunato church in late May, through the support of a Catholic church in Tokyo.

But after 22 years in Japan, Sugawara said she feels Japanese in terms of her lifestyle and way of thinking. And she feels closer to the Ofunato locals since the catastrophe. She will never forget how happy and grateful she felt to eat an “onigiri” (rice ball) handed to her on her first day at the evacuation center.

“It was as if we were one family. We were strangers but we helped one another. I felt so warm inside,” Sugawara said. She soon joined in with the locals to make and distribute onigiri to other evacuees.

While their lives in Ofunato are clouded with uncertainty, Sugawara said they will persist.

“We won’t be defeated. Maybe things won’t change so quickly, but I believe good times will return,” Sugawara said.