Hand in hand, ‘outsider’ supporters help disaster-hit residents rebuild

Kyodo

Risa Hikata used to listen with half an ear whenever her father praised Kyoto Prefecture, their hometown, as a “great place.” But when the kudos came from visitors from afar, somehow she was able to accept it genuinely.

Now as an “outsider” herself helping out in the posttsunami reconstruction of the Kitakami district in the city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Hikata believes her role is to “praise Kitakami to the skies.” Walking side by side the city’s residents almost two years after the devastating March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, she hopes to be able to provide as much encouragement as possible.

The 29-year-old native of Kyotango, Kyoto Prefecture, is one of 67 “reconstruction supporters” working in the three disaster-hit prefectures of Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi as of the end of January.

Hikata joined Miyagi’s supporter corps last year after being a staff member of PARCIC, a nongovernmental organization involved in international cooperation that was also supporting the Kitakami district.

Partnering with three other local corps members, Hikata’s team publishes a community paper distributed to over 900 households in the area and is also involved in other activities to help revitalize the district.

Wherever she goes, locals greet Hikata like one of their own. “Long time no see,” many will say.

Miyagi Prefecture launched its supporter corps by utilizing a program created by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. The other affected prefectures have similar programs, albeit under different names depending on the municipality.

Supporters recruited can work for a maximum term of five years and their duties range from supporting residents’ daily lives to promoting tourism in response to the local needs. The central government pays their wages.

“(The supporters) are being welcomed as they blend in well with the community and help brighten things up,” an Iwate prefectural official said. Iwate aims to hire 20 supporters for the fiscal year starting in April.

Separately, a municipal official from Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, said, “As a bridge between residents and local governments, I hope (the supporters) can build a network that the administrative offices would not be capable of doing.”

In addition to the disaster-hit regions, a similar trend of young people from other parts of Japan moving to live in rural areas faced with aging and decreasing populations has also been gaining momentum in recent years.

For example, a joint briefing in Tokyo organized by regional governments nationwide in late January for recruiting “community revitalization supporters” was packed with young people.

These developments draw on the experiences of the reconstruction supporters program in the aftermath of the 2004 Niigata Chuetsu Earthquake.

Under the program, supporters from outside the affected areas were deployed by Niigata Prefecture to help get the villages back on their feet. These supporters played an active role in bringing the spotlight to the areas’ specialties and charms and helped educe residents’ initiatives.

In Hikata’s eyes, the Kitakami district has an abundance of treasures to offer: ancient Shinto music and dancing, the local lion dance, seaweed, reed fields that shine golden orange at sunset, and an abundance of natural beauty, including the sea, mountains and rivers.

“There are countless treasures here. As long as we keep going, we are bound to find yet another one,” she said.