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Special Report: Riruzentakata after the 2011 Tsunami: A Community in Restoration

By May 7, 2012No Comments

Hiro Sakurai is president of the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security, the United Nations representative of Soka Gakkai International and a NGO/DPI Executive Committee Director.

Tsunami rubble

I was born in Japan, northeast of Tokyo and still have family and friends there, but now I live in New York City, and that is where I was on March 11, 2011. That was the day Japan suffered what was perhaps the most devastating natural disaster recorded in world history. A powerful earthquake and tsunami killed as many as 20,000 people or more. Centered on the Tohoku region, the catastrophe laid waste to a total area of 560 square km (about 217 square mi) and damaged several nuclear energy plants; the radiation they released left some areas uninhabitable, perhaps for generations. Hundreds of thousands of people had to evacuate, and many cannot still, perhaps ever, return home.

In December 2011, I finally was able to make a short visit to Rikuzentakata, Japan. It was a longtime friend, Kiyoshi Murakami, who encouraged me to come. He generously offered to include me on one of his regular visits to his hometown. I had felt worried and helpless, and I didn’t know what to expect. I hoped in some way to help. I knew about the terrible destruction but, even months later I was unprepared for the shock from what I saw. Yet, to my surprise, I was the one who was helped. Amid ruined landscapes and upended lives, I met people determined to support their neighbors and rebuild their communities. Inspiring and encouraging each other, they also inspired me. They showed me how, even in the worst of times, people can come together and restore their spirits and environment

Once, Rikuzentakata was beloved as a tranquil seaside town, known for its wonderful scallops, sea urchins, and oysters. Some 70,000 pine trees towered along its sandy beach, and it was named as one of Japan’s most beautiful sights. It was flattened by the tsunami. News reports described Rikuzentakata as “wiped off the map.” More than 2,000 of its 24,000 residents were dead or missing. Buildings, utility systems, even the trees, were demolished. Stress continues to take a toll and some people seem withdrawn and traumatized. Clean up and re-construction move slowly. Now, instead of one of the most beautiful, it is among the most devastated parts of the country.

Kiyoshi, who once worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is a business executive based in Tokyo. He now devotes all his spare time to Rikuzentakata. “I always keep my antenna fully spread out to find good ideas for the affected areas,” Lee told me. Working closely with Mayor Futoshi Toba – whose wife perished in the flooding – Kiyoshi has helped bring together local residents and out-of-town volunteers. They created a non-profit group – AidTAKATA – to strengthen support from the government and other sources. Their projects have included establishing a radio station, now a vital link to local information. They coordinate efforts such as bringing university students from the Tokyo area as volunteers for farming and other community redevelopment. The students also spend time with children and the elderly, providing physical, emotional, and financial support

AidTAKATA now has a small paid staff with two offices, one in Rikuzentakata and the other in Tokyo. Still vital are the numerous volunteers, called “Friends of Rikuzentakata,” who provide support from around the country. Many make the costly trip (about 30,000 yen or $380) each weekend to the town, staying in a sparsely renovated house. It’s not easy. Yet, residents, officials, and volunteers are not giving up. With energy and compassion, they talk of ideas for resurrecting Rikuzentakata, such as with a national memorial park and a tsunami research institute, perhaps partnering with the UN and serving the entire world as a center for research and remembrance. “We lost a great deal,” people here say. “But we received even more from the rest of the world.”

What I saw while in Rikuzentakata was terrible:  So many lives were lost. So much healing was needed, and there was so much work to be done. But individuals like Kiyoshi give me faith. They helped strengthen my belief in human capacity and spirit and deepen my own appreciation of people. I was encouraged to join their efforts and do my small part of sharing my experience with as many people as I can. It will take many years for the affected areas to fully recover, so I will continue visiting those areas and sharing my experiences with friends, colleagues and UN Department of Public Information associated NGOs.

Hiro Sakurai

NGO/DPI Executive Committee