We spent the night at a unique Japanese "ryokan" accommodation called San-san-kan, which used be a local elementary school that was reformed as accommodation after it closed. The old wooden building did not get any serious damage by the the consecutive major earthquakes, although it is located in Minami-sanriku city, which is close to the epicenter of the 311 Great East Japan Earthquake. This disaster caused a myriad of tragedies by the huge tsunami, however, it also revealed that buildings in snowy regions are robust and resilient against earthquakes. In addition, the amendment of the Building Standard Act after the Great Kobe Earthquake in 1995 also contributed to keep the damage by the earthquake very small.
Staying in the home-like dwelling reminded us of school camps in old the days when we had a dinner all together along long tables, got in a bath together, and laid on a few Japanese futon beds in a room. That was a very traditional Japanese school camp style, but not something I imagined I would ever experience with UCLA classmates. Also notable is that four of my friends kindly came over to San-san-kan from different areas and stayed there with us. Through half-an-year preparation for this Japan trip, I have felt that the tragic earthquake and tsunami tied all people together very strongly. Indeed, we have received warm support from many people in LA and Japan. These four friends joined us to support our volunteer in Minami-sanriku.
On March 29th, after we left San-san-kan, we visited around several spots in the devastated area in Minami-sanriku. Here, we were joined by Hibiki Nakajima, the founder of a nonprofit Yomigaere Minami-sanriku (Reborn Minami-sanriku). Before the 311 earthquake and tsunami, he had been living in Kyushu, the island in the south edge of Japan, but after the tragic event, he resigned his job and moved to Minami-sanriku on April 20th, just by himself. At that moment, he thought he would regret all his life if he would not have gone to the devastated area. He spent several months with his car as his house even through snowy winter and kept working as a volunteer. Since the earthquake in Kobe showed us, total recovery of the major disaster requires a lengthy time around 10 years. Hibiki's nonprofit was established for reconstructing Minami-sanriku and, as a temporary organization, will continue its activities for 10 years.
For this disaster recovery, it is not very uncommon to see such kind of person. Most of them quit their jobs and have been working in the devastated area almost without any pay. As a policy expert candidate, I think one of the deep-seated problems of my country is that our society has not developed adequate supporting system for nonprofits or volunteers; those people who are volunteering in the devastated areas are struggling with funding issues and their future working position after the volunteer is not guaranteed as lifelong employment is common in Japanese society and career change is still socially uncommon. Therefore, we have to rely on those rare people's strong passion and brave decision, but on the other hand, this social structure prevents people in general from engaging in volunteer or philanthropic activities.
One thing that surprised me very much was that Hibiki-san is now living with Miki Endo's parents. Miki Endo, who is well-known as the tragic heroine of the tsunami, was a 24-year-old worker of the town office and was in charge of vocal announcement of disaster siren system. She stayed in the disaster prevention center building even when the tsunami was hitting the town, and continued to announce with the speaker. Sadly, the center got hit by the tsunami and she passed away. I realized that Hibiki-san's hard effort was admitted by the local people so that now he could live with her parents.
With the guide by Hibiki-san and Mari-san, at first, we visited Utatsu, one of the districts in Minami-sanriku. There used to be a small settlement of 1,500 population, but almost all of them were gone by the tsunami. Utatsu station of the JR Kesennnuma line, which was located on the top of the hill which looked at the same elevation as three-to-five-story building, was mostly washed away by the tsunami and we could only see part of its remnant. A huge Utatsu Bridge was also demolished. Prevoiusly, we had come to know how widely the tsunami destroyed Ishinomaki city, but in Minami-sanriku, we learned how high the terrible tsunami was.
Then we moved to Natari district to see Natari elementary school whose building was totally destroyed by the tsunami. Although it has been one year, the building was still left unattended. The tragic traces of the tsunami conjured up an image how pupils were scared when the tsunami came. The impact of this school building was so shocking that, even now, it still remains in my mind.
After the lunch in Heisei-no-Mori (the Forest of Heisei), we separated into two groups: one stayed in Heisei-no-Mori and the other moved to Shizugawa middle school. The group of Heisei-no-Mori joined aid delivery, working with Erwin Ortiz and his daughter Angela Ortiz from O.G.A. For Aid, a local christian nonprofit. They delivered a set of beverage bottles to 240 households in the temporary housing area in Heisei-no-Mori.
I was a member of volunteer team at Shizugawa middle school. A temporary housing area was built on the school ground of the middle school and we visited the community center of the area to play with children there. The elementary school kids, especially boys, were unexpectedly vigorous. It was almost impossible for us to control them. They kept asking us to play soccer with them. We ended up playing soccer and kickball for almost 1.5 hours, and gave them soccer balls which we had taken. Before the trip, I had thought the kids would care about language gap, but indeed, the gap was nothing to do with them.
The girls showed great interest in picture drawing with us. They first saw signatures in English and they also tried making their own signatures. In a different way from how boys did, the girls enjoyed communications with foreign people. We will send the girls a few post cards, from LA, on which their drawings and our signatures are put.
When we were leaving, the boys and girls spontaneously came over around our bus and we had a memorable moment. Some of the kids told me to come back to Minami-sanriku, saying "If you are living in America, please bring Ichiro Suzuki's autograph for us!" I had not thought about going there several times, but now, I am thinking about visiting there again, although going to Seattle to get Ichiro's autograph is also tough.
When we were planning this trip, we have talked with a few advisers in LA and one of them told us that communication with local people would give us strong insight when we visit the devastated area. Through the experience in Minami-sanriku, I came to feel how tough and vigorous the victims were though they had lost everything. The town was totally destroyed and debris were still there, but the scenery of the bay was so beautiful that I felt like recovering this invaluable environment and people there. The fundamental direction of the Japanese government's policy is the transmigration of residents to other safer areas. However, most of the people in the devastated area have economically or psychologically lived with the sea. We are studying public policy to be a policy analyst, but visiting Tohoku made me think that we should not be a mere academic analyst but an analyst who can take people's actual living conditions into account.