Rikuzentakata, Iwate: 9 Months After the Tsunami

Thanks to Vancouver-based JET alum Alison Dacia Brown (Rikuzentakata, Iwate 2005-08) for sharing this article. It also appears on page 8 of the latest issue of the JETAA British Columbia Newsletter and on JETwit. This is a follow-up to her previous article, “Rikuzentakata.”

The last article I wrote for JETAABC was just a few weeks after the tragedy happened.  I lived in Rikuzentakata, a small city in Iwate prefecture on the coast, whose location and landscape could not have been worse on March 11th. Over nine months has passed, and even though Rikuzentakata, or Takata for short, is far from being fully healed, it’s unbelievable what has been accomplished to make the city liveable again in such a short period of time.

Temporary housing has been built. Grass has begun to grow again.  Debris has been cleared.  The Tanabata festival has been celebrated.  A Lawson has been opened. Possessions have been returned to their owners.  Possessions thought to have been lost forever.  As an example of this, could you imagine losing your home and possessions and barely escaping with your child and a few clothes?  Could you imagine the happiness you would feel when a volunteer is able to give you a memory card with pictures on it you thought were lost forever?  There was one volunteer department responsible for this ‘Photo Recovery Project’.  In an online video, I smiled when I saw those blue laundry hangers with the clips holding photos that had been recovered and carefully cleaned.

I was devastated when I saw the images of the destruction in the days that followed the tragedy.  What was worse was seeing a video taken of the city from a helicopter.  It wasn’t just destruction; it looked apocalyptic.  I recognized about three buildings which were some of the biggest:  The Capital Hotel, City Hall and the building that housed Daiso and the town supermarket, Maiya.  Even though they were spared from the waves which swept mostly everything away, they seemed to stand there like ruins, completely gutted from the inside.  In the days that followed, a closer look at these buildings showed trapped trees, cars, and probably people which were swept into their paths.  Boats on top of buildings seemed commonplace.

I keep in regular contact with my friends in Rikuzentakata and Ofunato, the city next door.  In addition, I do some volunteer editing on the Save Takata website.  I feel like doing all these things is keeping my spirits up.  What also keeps my spirits up is hearing all the stories about my town from volunteers and friends.  The day-to-day activities that show that life really does go on are amazing.  One of humankind’s best qualities is the ability to adapt, and the residents of Rikuzentakata have certainly adapted and carried on.  Enzo Caffarelli, a good friend and former ALT from Takata, has since returned with the volunteer group All Hands.  I remember messaging him back and forth on Facebook after he arrived and he told me was doing some work at a rice harvest cooperative, and being managed by a dirty old Japanese man who loved women and sexual innuendos.  Awesome.

In addition to cleaning ditches and digging canals, he was able to do some salvage work for a friend of ours who was the art teacher at the local high school.  He was able to find pieces of art, photos, slides and documents which made her very happy.  Another project he helped with was in making a local cemetery accessible again.  Stones had been toppled and the paths had been uncut for months.  He said it was great to see people coming back to visit their ancestors.

A new ‘Takata’ has appeared outside of the central town which houses many of the businesses and public buildings that were destroyed in March.  This new Takata now has our post office, city hall, a Lawson, a couple of bars, an AU shop, among others.  This sleepy area has now had to absorb new migration from the disaster zone.  Makeshift laundry shops and hair salons have popped up to service the people who live nearby in temporary housing settlements.  In the neighbouring town of Senmaya, Takata’s sake brewery has been reopened.

Twisted train tracks have been removed from banks, buildings and bridges.  Debris sorting areas have been organized.  Highly organized debris sorting areas.  Concrete foundations for new housing have been poured.  Children continue to go to school.  Life goes on no matter how difficult it may be.I haven’t been able to return to Rikuzentakata but amazingly Rikuzentakata was able to visit me two days ago.  I was able to connect with Hiromaru and Nobuko, a couple from Takata who lost everything in the tsunami. Hiromaru spent two months in the hospital recovering from leg injuries.  Many countries have stepped up to the plate and offered temporary residence for survivors on a temporary basis.  Canada was one of them.  They were offered airfare, homestay and a scholarship to study at a local ESL school here in Vancouver.  Their time is almost up in Vancouver, but they will travel to San Diego to visit friends and then head back to Japan for a while.  They would like to improve their English and explore other options that are available to them.  I wish them all the best and was so happy to share stories with them.

I was able to connect with Hiromaru and Noki through Yuko Okamura, an American grad student here in Vancouver.  Yuko is doing a master’s degree in architecture.  To my pleasant surprise, she has been researching Rikuzentakata for her thesis which focuses on rebuilding after a natural disaster with memory and sustainability being key factors in the process.  She spent a short amount of time in Ofunato and Rikuzentakata during the summer and had obviously never seen the city prior to March 11th.  She shyly asked if we could meet so I could talk about my memories of the buildings, the beach, and the people of the town.  I was and always will be more than happy to talk about Rikuzentakata.

It is expected that it will take roughly 10 years for the city to return to its pre-tsunami state.  Some people have left, some people have stayed.  Many have accepted the geography of where they live and will not succumb to the fact that nature rules all.  It will be interesting to see the continued progress which I know is incorporating new tsunami contingency plans.  I will document it when it happens.

Alison Dacia Brown
Rikuzentakata ALT, 2005-2008
ESL Teacher, GEOS Language Academy

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