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Young people are increasingly working to help reconstruction efforts in the Tohoku region, hit hard by the disasters of March 11, 2011, by moving there and tackling challenges such as depopulation and regional revitalization.

Shunsuke Mitsui, 32, representative director of SET, a nonprofit based in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, hails from Ibaraki Prefecture.

He established SET in March 2011, when he was a university student, and has engaged in volunteering activities for reconstruction. Upon graduating, he moved to the Hirota district of Rikuzentakata and served as a city assembly member for four years from 2015.

SET offers private-lodging services and short-term relocation programs for students. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, more than 2,000 young people visited Hirota a year and at least 40 people have relocated there.

“Connections with young people grew. They come as if they are returning to their hometowns,” said Taeko Nagano, a 58-year-old Hirota resident.

“I think a rich life is that people establish relationships of trust with residents and feel the existence of themselves and the value of their action,” said Mitsui.

“A town continues to exist if it has a certain number of young people,” he said, stressing that SET has laid the groundwork for the goal over the past decade.

While many of SET’s projects have been suspended due to the pandemic, it is planning new programs including one to encourage the local production and consumption of vegetables.

Koya Kato, 31, from Fukui, moved to Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, six years ago after quitting his job.

He has established maru-office, an association working on relocation and settlement businesses on behalf of the Kesennuma city government.

Maru-office introduces vacant houses and jobs to potential settlers and holds sessions outside Kesennuma to promote settlements, helping 101 people relocate to the city.

“Previously, people settled after conducting volunteering activities, but the number of young people who find the region itself attractive and relocate has been increasing,” Kato said.

Midori Nishikawa, 24, from Yamaguchi Prefecture, started working for the town planning council in Kesennuma’s Karakuwa district in 2018.

Nishikawa organized a sea urchin-picking workshop in August 2019 to give children opportunities to learn about a key local industry. She said that she was been impressed by the assistance offered by fishery industry workers during the process of obtaining permission for the workshop.

“We can try everything as we, ‘strangers,’ are not bound by local rules — in a good way,” said Nishikawa, who lives in shared accommodation with two other women who moved to Karakuwa.

“I want to spark regional revitalization without losing the value and point of view as a settler,” she added.

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