Young returnees aiding post-disaster Tohoku

Hometowns, bonds rebuilt even stronger

by Tomoki Fukae

Kyodo

A rising number of young people who had left their hometowns in Tohoku before the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami wrecked the region have started returning to support its recovery.

Mamoru Kondo, 27, is one of many young Tohoku natives who had moved to urban areas elsewhere but, after the March 11, 2011, catastrophe, realized they were gradually losing their roots. Raised in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, he returned to the devastated coastal town after spending a decade in Aichi Prefecture.

After graduating from a university in Aichi, Kondo landed a job with a company that markets eyewear and lived in Nagoya. Since he felt settled there, returning to see his parents once a year was his only remaining link to his hometown.

“I thought I would never return to live in Otsuchi,” Kondo admitted in an interview.

But after much of Otsuchi was destroyed by the twin disasters, he had a change of heart.

When the 9.0-magnitude quake struck deep beneath the Pacific, Kondo’s father, Toshio, a seaman, was in safe waters off Mie Prefecture, down in Kansai. But Kondo couldn’t reach his mother, Chiyoko, and spent an anxious few days searching for information on television and the Internet until her safety was confirmed three days after 3/11.

When he was finally reunited with his mother a month later, Kondo recalled, he felt a strong urge to “witness the recovery of Otsuchi together with my parents and friends there.”

He left his job with the eyewear firm that October and returned to the town, or what remained of it. He currently lives with his parents in temporary accommodations and is employed as a contract worker by a recruitment agency that receives state subsidies to promote job creation in Tohoku’s disaster areas.

His job is to support those who lost their homes to the tsunami and are living in temporary housing units like his family, more than two years later.

Kondo’s activities include listening to their needs and using the information to provide feedback to municipal authorities, as well as organizing such events as movie screenings and dancing lessons to help alleviate their tedium and get them to interact socially.

“Maybe what I can do is little, but I want to support my hometown,” Kondo said.

His salary is 20 to 30 percent less than what he was earning in Nagoya, and his contract is due to expire next March, but Kondo said he finds his new work satisfying.

“I feel a strong sense of responsibility to do what I can” for Otsuchi, he said.

Meanwhile, the Entrepreneurial Training for Innovative Communities nonprofit organization is implementing a program to support the northeast’s recovery by dispatching young temporary volunteers to the region. According to Koji Yamauchi, who oversees the program, more and more young people are willing to return and help rebuild their shattered hometowns.

The Tokyo-based ETIC has doubled its target and now plans to send 200 volunteers to Tohoku in the first three years after the quake and tsunami struck.

Mariko Takada, 28, one of those dispatched by the NGO, spent several years in Tokyo, studying at a university and then joining a local real estate company after her graduation.

But after seeing images of the scale of the destruction along the northeast coast, Takada, a native of Hanamaki in Iwate Prefecture, said she felt frustrated at not being able to play any role in the rebuilding effort.

After quitting her job and enrolling in ETIC’s program, Takada was tasked in June last year with training people and teaching them how to support those still living in temporary shelters in her hometown. She is also involved in publishing a monthly newspaper for evacuees in temporary accommodations, with whom she enjoys communicating.

“It feels satisfying to work for them,” she said.

  • Suzanne Rees Glanister

    very touching stories, thank you