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Kamaishi mounts a soft-power recovery to revive tsunami-hit community

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

The city of Kamaishi is betting on soft power to fight the demographic drain plaguing its tsunami-fractured community.

Once known for its thriving steel industry and peerless rugby team, the population of this coastal city in Iwate Prefecture was already graying and shrinking when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off Japan’s northeastern shore on March 11, 2011, triggering enormous tsunami that surmounted its seawall and submerged the downtown area, killing more than 1,000 people and destroying nearly 3,700 buildings.

This was not the first time in modern history that Kamaishi was devastated: It experienced major tsunami in 1896 and 1933, and its steel plant was the target of heavy artillery fire from U.S. warships in the closing days of World War II.

Each time, the city managed to get back on its feet, backed by periods of national economic growth and its famed blast furnaces. The city’s population peaked in the 1960s at around 90,000 after its steel mill reopened.

But the steel industry underwent a nationwide rationalization in the late 1970s, and Kamaishi shut down its last steel mill in 1989, shifting production exclusively to wire rods.

The population now stands at 34,624 and is forecast to slump to 21,503 by 2040.

“The significance of reconstruction work varies from an era of high population and GDP growth to an era when that’s not the case,” said Kazunori Ishii, Kamaishi’s director of strategic management and chief orchestrator of its five-year strategy to promote local innovation and community-building. With limited funding and resources, the city needs to think differently to survive, Ishii said.

The tsunami, while crippling, also prompted many Kamaishi natives living elsewhere to return to help. The city has also welcomed roughly 100,000 volunteers from around the nation, and some have decided to stay on.

“Our biggest asset is the new network of people from inside and outside the city. We want to use this to create a sustainable community, while downsizing,” Ishii said.

The plan involves multiple projects, including career workshops for high school students, the promotion of rural tourism and migration through partnerships with various firms, and the bolstering of public relations campaigns to spread Kamaishi’s cultural and historical allure.

In terms of tourism, Kamaishi has a distinct advantage compared with similar coastal cities decimated by the 2011 tsunami: It is one of the 12 hosts of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, thanks to the mark it left on the sport.

Sponsored by Nippon Steel Corp. in the late 1950s, the local rugby team, fondly known as the Northern Iron Men, achieved nationwide fame by winning seven national rugby tournaments in a row from 1978 to 1984.

In 2016 the city became Japan’s first municipality to partner with Airbnb Inc. to seek the vacation rental giant’s expertise in alleviating the hotel crunch expected for the event. Airbnb’s “superhosts” have visited Kamaishi to conduct study sessions with residents interested in offering space to visitors.

The city is also supporting efforts to draw outside talent to launch startups, using the framework of a government program funding young Japanese willing to be dispatched to rural municipalities to help support localities.

“It’s about promoting new work concepts in Tohoku that don’t involve wearing suits,” said Kanako Ishikura, a former volunteer who in 2015 helped open a subsidiary of staffing company Pasona Group Inc. in Kamaishi that is dedicated to local innovation.

From a renovated co-working space in a deserted shopping street, the 29-year-old has been recruiting those interested in starting businesses in the city.

Gaku Fukuda is one of six who have answered the call. The 40-year-old former salesman for a Tokyo printer said he had always wanted to do something for his mother’s hometown in the prefecture.

“Two years ago, I visited Kamaishi on a cycling trip and was enchanted by the view of the setting sun from the coastline,” he said.Fukuda is now devising routes for half-day bicycle tours he plans to offer by teaming up with residents to provide meals for cyclists that make use of the area’s seafood and other produce.

Near the new stadium being built for the Rugby World Cup is Horaikan, a ryokan (traditional inn) on the Nebama Coast that took damage up to its second floor in 2011.

Satoshi Ito was working at Horaikan when the earthquake hit. He immediately ran up a hillside behind the inn, and a minute-long video he shot from higher ground, available on YouTube (bit.ly/311video), depicts the confusion as townspeople run for their lives while dark waves quickly turn violent, swallowing cars and debris. The video ends with indecipherable screams.

Akiko Iwasaki, the owner of Horaikan, was not about to call it quits. Along with Ito and other survivors, she began rebuilding the inn, which opened its doors again in January 2012, 10 months after the disaster struck.

Ito knew similar help was needed in every corner of the community, and he began coordinating the crowd of volunteers entering the city. Born and raised in Kamaishi, he had acute knowledge of who needed what, and where to dispatch manpower.

But he didn’t want the volunteers to just work and leave. Ito founded the Sanriku Hitotsunagi Nature School in 2012 and began devising culture experience programs for volunteers and interns, collaborating with the city and other groups to host meet-up events to introduce visitors to the cultural attractions the city had to offer.

“I want more people to become fans of Kamaishi,” he said.

It’s unclear at this point whether Kamaishi’s efforts will bear fruit, but there are some uplifting statistics. The ratio of local high school graduates finding work in Kamaishi, out of all recent graduates from the city landing jobs, hit a record 70.9 percent in fiscal 2017, compared with 48.9 percent five years prior. Net emigration has been reduced to around 100 in the post-disaster years, compared with around 300 to 500 that was the trend over the previous two decades.

This could signal the city is slowly succeeding in retaining its younger generation while putting the brakes on population decline, said Ishii, the Kamaishi city official.

Ishii himself was an outsider who gave up his career to delve into the region’s reconstruction efforts. The 31-year-old former Tokyo-based business consultant was the first employee the city hired from the private sector after disaster struck.

“Hope can’t be rekindled by simply rebuilding the city to what it was before. We need to explore various new possibilities to pave the way for our future,” he said.

This is part of a series looking at how the Tohoku region is attempting to rebuild itself seven years after the March 11, 2011, disasters.