November 11th ~ Bob Stilger’s Notes on Japan #23: Different Ways of Being Temporary

Dear friends,

We* spent a second day visiting four different places in the the Tohoku disaster area.  I’ll just talk about two.

Eight months ago today the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown hit Japan.  Back in the tsunami area of Miyagi Prefecture, I impressed with the extent of clean-up and it is still hard to look at the extensive damage.

We started the day meeting with Watanabe-san, the volunteer coordinator in Minami-Sanriku-cho.  Watanabe-san was born in Sendai, and was working in Tokyo when the disasters came.  A young man, he returned because he needed to help.  He found his way to the Minami-Sanriku-cho area where 7 communities with 2500 people were completely destroyed.  Slightly more than 200 lives were lost eight months ago.  About 700 people now live in temporary housing in the minami-sanriku-cho area.  Others have gone moved elsewhere in temporary or permanent housing.

The system around temporary housing was designed to get people out of shelters as quickly as possible with as much fairness as possible.  That means housing was assigned by lottery with no accommodation made for community or origin.  The 700 people are distributed randomly in 7 shelters and now live in the company of strangers with no former community ties.  They are complete scattered!  Imagine, first the life you know ends, then you live in close quarters with strangers for five months and then you move into temporary housing with even more strangers.

There was one large meeting facility in the area — the County Training Facility.  It sits a short distance from the largest temporary housing project which has 250 people.  Until a month ago, people had use of the facility — that’s no longer true.  The people who work there had to reclaim it so they would be sure to get a budget for their activities for next year.  It’s crazy!  Especially since people are scattered, they need someplace to come together as communities.  But they can’t.  Until they can come together as community, they are dependent on government — at the mercy of government — as applicants.  Meeting with Watanabe-san today the sixties radical was rising up inside of me –  “heck, why don’t you occupy the training center and demand that the county build you a center,” I said.  I know this won’t happen here — but heavens, the current situation is just stupid.  Later in the conversation we talked about the need for a Future Center session (see other blogs for information on Future Centers or visit Future Centers.)  I left Minami-Sanriku-cho feeling sad — how could people here begin to make community again.

Several visits later we ended the day with Chiba-san.  A sea-going engineer whose home was Oosawa, a small village which he finally returned to permanently when he retired.  His village of 188 households was near the ocean and totally destroyed.  150 people lost their lives on that fateful day.  Those who heeded the warning and retreated to higher ground were saved; they had about 40-50 minutes before the tsunami came.  Those who thought they would be safe perished.  What we heard, as we listened to him, was a very different story than the story of the morning.

He and several others from Oosawa got lottery assignments to a temporary housing project about 1 km from the old Oosawa.  Chiba-san immediately approached friends in local government and asked if people could trade assignments — they said yes.  He and his old neighbors started to work and gathered most of those from Oosawa into the same housing project.  So they started with relationships and history.  And they immediate started helping themselves.  They started to self-organize to get things done — no waiting for government here.  Chiba-san is a very modest man, and it is clear that his determination played a key role here.  He’s a natural communtiy organizer.  As I listened to him, I started to hear several key principles:

  • Don’t ever wait for government.  When you want something go to them until you get it.
  • Don’t let problems grow.  Bring people together immediately to talk
  • Make as many relationships beyond the community as possible.  Stay connected.
  • Do whatever is needed ourselves as soon as we possibly can.  Don’t wait for anyone.

Several months ago they told the main nonprofit organization that had been working with them that they no longer needed their help — “please go help someone else who really needs it.”  They made additions and modifications to their housing so it suits them better.  They organized their own security system.  They knew it was also a time for celebration so this past summer they organized a big summer festival.  They have been reclaiming their lives.  I wasn’t surprised when one of my partners notice the Japanese translation of Meg Wheatley’s Turning to One Another on the library shelf.

Much is possible here in Tohoku — and it is going to take patience, perseverance, ingenuity, creativity and leadership.  It is humbling to stand with these fine people as they get on with rebuilding their lives!

*Yesterday’s group grew by three more.  Naho Iguchi, Yurie Makihara and her husband joined me and Susan Virnig, my spouse, who has done extensive work in Japan these last two years; Yuya Nishimura, my dialog partner here and the founder of a new nonproft, Miratsuku (Creating the Future) Kumakura-san, another Miratsuku Board Member and Teacher at Keio Unversity, and Ooki-san, a public relations executive who has created a Youth Community Dialog project in Rikazentakada after participating in the August Youth Leadership Dialog.

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