German associations donate halls in Tohoku

by Maiko Sugano

Kyodo

On barren land in the Kamiosabe district of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, where many homes were swept away by the tsunami spawned by the March 2011 earthquake, a brand new wooden building has become the local community center.

Sporting a sky blue exterior, the facility known as Berlin Haus was completed in December 2012 with about ¥15 million in donations from Deutsch-Japanische Gesellschaft Berlin, an association aimed at promoting exchanges between Japan and Germany.

“It’s nice here as I can relax and feel refreshed since it is more spacious than the community hall at our temporary housing,” 74-year-old Katsuko Yamada, who lives in a shelter nearby, said with a smile on her face.

The house is designed to let in ample sunlight, and insulation keeps the interior warm and cozy. Once a week, local residents and others gather there for a small party, enjoying each other’s company over tea, conversation and dancing.

While not a Kamiosabe local herself, Yamada started joining the gatherings after dropping by with a friend from the same temporary housing facility.

“You don’t get bored when everyone gathers and we talk about lots of different things,” she said. “You forget all the unhappy things.”

Joerg Gutschow, the 72-year-old German architect who designed Berlin Haus, said facilities like these play key community roles.

“Every district in Japan has its own community hall where residents gather,” he said.

The interior, which boasts a spacious main room with a wood stove, was designed to resemble the atmosphere of a German home while also being functional enough for gatherings, according to Gutschow, who lives in Kai, Yamanashi Prefecture.

Similar facilities built with overseas donations are popping up in other areas devastated by the 2011 disasters, serving as venues for promoting exchanges between residents and foreigners.

At Berlin Haus, for example, events such as concerts by a Serbian accordionist are held.

“We wanted to donate something that could make an everlasting contribution in the disaster-hit regions,” said Munehisa Takeya, the 65-year-old vice chairman of Deutsch-Japanische Gesellschaft Berlin. “We are glad (Berlin Haus) is being put to good use on a daily basis.”

In the Yoriiso district of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, where the local community center was lost to tsunami over 20 meters high, a new facility is under construction, also thanks to donations from Germany.

The project was initiated by Johannes Harumi Wilhelm, a 43-year-old lecturer at the University of Vienna who was researching fisheries management on the Oshika Peninsula, where Yoriiso is located.

With ¥90 million in donations from the German Red Cross, a 440-sq.-meter community center is being built on the grounds of an elementary school on a hill and is scheduled to be completed next month.

Tatsuya Inai, 60, head of Kaiyu Shientai, a local support organization coordinating arrangements between the Ishinomaki Municipal Government and the Red Cross, expressed hope the facility can serve as a venue to welcome those who return to the area after volunteering in the immediate aftermath of the disasters.

Meanwhile, 62-year-old Yoetsu Watanabe, a local fisherman and head of the Yoriiso district, said: “I would never have imagined that our community center would be built with donations and support from overseas. We would very much like to make good use of it.”