SENDAI – Akira Miyasada drives his Kobe-registered car along the deserted beaches in the Ogatsu district of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, stopping to speak with locals and listen carefully to their stories from the devastating March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.
He hears accounts of loss, damage and struggling fishing businesses, interspersed with lessons on local history.
At one of the beaches, he even stops to help scallop farmers.
The 37-year-old representative director of the Kobe-based nonprofit organization Machi Communication hails from Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and was a student preparing for college entrance exams when the Great Hanshin Earthquake devastated the area in 1995.
He saw firsthand how less than 30 percent of residents returned to an area in Mikuradori of Kobe’s Nagata Ward after rezoning, despite a resident-led community rebuilding project.
“In the beginning, there were many people who wanted to return,” he lamented.
In the case of Ogatsu, more than 80 percent of its approximately 4,300 residents have moved out since the district was hit by the tsunami after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Much of the temporary housing for Ogatsu residents was built outside of the district.
“The economy is at a standstill. The lessons from Kobe, which saw people moving away from their home districts, have not been learned,” he said.
Having a hard time finding a place to live and work supporting community building in Ogatsu, Miyasada spent about five months living in his car. Last summer, he finally was able to move into a rented house in downtown Ishinomaki after being approached by a landlord who wanted to support people helping the community.
In Ogatsu, where administrative-led relocations to higher ground are under way, Miyasada said he is worried about those who do not show up for consultations and those who cannot speak their minds at such occasions.
“In me, there is this regret from Mikura and I feel I will be sorry for the Tohoku region if things are left as is,” he said.
Ikumi Kitamura, 30, who was involved in supporting villages hit by Niigata Prefecture’s 2004 Chuetsu Earthquake, has been helping out in Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture, since immediately after the meltdown calamity started Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
“An evacuation shelter in Fukushima is in awful condition,” Kitamura recalled being told in Niigata. She felt it was some kind of “fate” and that was the beginning of her journey to an evacuation shelter in the city of Koriyama, where as many as 2,500 people from Tomioka and other places found refuge.
There she worked to create space and opportunities for evacuees to relax and interact.
She was then recruited to work for Tomioka. People around her were opposed because they worried about radiation, but Kitamura took up the offer as she recalled the faces of the residents she had met.
“I have always wanted to be involved, and I believe I received a precious opportunity,” she said.
Since beginning the work last spring, Kitamura has focused on creating employment and offering something for town residents to live for amid the dim prospects for them to return to their hometowns due to the nuclear contamination. She is also attending graduate school at Fukushima University as a way to contemplate “what it means to lose one’s hometown.”
Kitamura, whose parents’ house in the city of Mitsuke, Niigata Prefecture, was partially destroyed in the 2004 temblor, recalled an episode that took place when she worked at a village after the Chuetsu quake.
At the end of an event that included making “mochi” glutinous rice cakes and other activities to lift residents’ spirits, she heard a resident sighing and saying, “I’m exhausted.”
“Even when we meant well, sometimes it turns into a burden for the other party,” she realized. While supporters from outside the community have a significant role to play, the residents are the main actors. Kitamura learned the difficult balance between the two to make things work smoothly.