HIGASHIMATSUSHIMA, MIYAGI PREF. – In a coastal city flattened by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, a project is under way to rebuild the area as a self-sustaining community that will be in harmony with nature by making use of Danish knowhow on renewable energy.
The city of Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, has a population of about 40,500 and was picked by the central government in December 2011 as a site for its Future City Initiative, which will address the environmental challenges projected to accompany Japan’s rapidly graying society.
Higashimatsushima lost some 1,100 residents to the March 2011 tsunami and its aftermath, many of whom died of hypothermia because the disasters wiped out the electricity and gas lines they would normally use to warm themselves during the winter.
The city has set a goal of achieving a 120 percent self-sufficiency ratio for energy in 2026 by adopting wind, solar, biomass and other types of clean energy sources.
“The city came up with the idea of becoming energy-independent after many residents died of low body temperatures despite having heaters because they couldn’t use them due to the lack of electricity,” said Hisayuki Akahira, a member of the group set up in October last year to carry out the project.
“Since the disaster reminded us of the fact that human beings can only live within a natural cycle, the central pillar of our project is natural providence,” said Shinji Sato, secretariat chief and project manager at the entity called Higashimatsushima Organization for Progress and E (economy, education, energy).
“We will change our lifestyle to become permanently sustainable,” he said. “Now is the only chance for us” to transform the community after such a calamity.
At present, less than 1 percent of all electricity consumed is provided by renewable sources in the scenic Pacific coast city, whose main industries are farming and fishing. Higashimatsushima also receives state subsidies for hosting an Air Self-Defense Force base.
HOPE, which was launched by such entities as the Higashimatsushima Municipal Government and the city’s chamber of commerce, acts as the coordinator for the participants, who include academics, domestic and foreign government bodies and companies.
Among others, Sumitomo Forestry Co., Mitsui and Co. and a consortium of eight Danish firms that specialize in areas such as renewable energy solutions and architecture are involved in the initiative.
Sumitomo Forestry has been helping the city promote its forest business, while the trading house will build a solar panel plant near the coast that is scheduled to go online in October 2013.
Denmark has extended financial and moral support to the city since the disasters, with Crown Prince Frederik visiting the area in June 2011 to encourage the residents and 16 Higashimatsushima children invited there for homestays in September that year.
In July 2012, the Danish municipality of Lolland, known as a front-runner in adopting renewable energies, signed an accord with Higashimatsushima to cooperate on its sustainability drive.
Sato and other officials from the disaster-hit city have visited Denmark to inspect its advanced technologies.
Commercial Minister Counselor Hans Peter-Kay of the Danish Embassy in Tokyo is in charge of the consortium and said some of the Danish enterprises are supporting the city as part of corporate social responsibility programs and do not intend to make a profit because the scale of the project is so small.
But others may be interested in “showcasing Danish products and technologies in a future city” to find future business chances in other parts of Japan, he said.
Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who was prime minister at the time of the triple calamity, and C.W. Nicol, a Welsh-born writer and conservationist who writes about nature for The Japan Times, are among advisers to the organization.
HOPE now plans to start about 30 projects in the city, including a model self-sustainable community for about 700 households in a tsunami-hit area, using subsidies and private-sector investment.
The projects include the promotion of renewable energy, the promotion of electric vehicles, which can also function as storage batteries, and the construction of wooden buildings that can be used for biomass fuel when emergency energy is needed.
To create jobs and boost the regional economy, where more than 20 percent of residents are 65 or older, HOPE will encourage residents, including the elderly, to grow weeds and straw that can be used as biomass fuel and to take jobs in the ecotourism industry, Sato said.
HOPE plans to organize programs that allow visitors to explore local forests and deploy horses to carry timber generated by forest thinning as a means of low-carbon transportation.
As examples of energy-efficient programs, HOPE also has unveiled plans to install solar panels above rice paddies to secure both electricity and food production. The group also aims to introduce a combined heat power system that draws on Danish technologies.
Sato said the idea of rebuilding the city as a sustainable community emerged from a bottom-up approach that resulted from the brainstorming of more than 2,000 residents within months of the disasters.
He said the initiative of creating a self-sufficient economic model would benefit the city more than inviting manufacturers to set up plants that could be sent overseas depending on whimsical exchange-rate fluctuations and other external business conditions.
Under the government’s Future City Initiative, Higashimatsushima will eventually aim to transfer technologies that are tested there to other parts of Japan or abroad, Sato said.