Rikuzentakata’s Symbol of Hope and Recovery

Miracle Pine

The Final observations

The computer monitor was as blank as my mind. My thoughts strayed. “Funny, I spend a bundle on word processing software and I can’t find the thread I need. The thread to tie together the sights and sounds I collected during my two trips to Rikuzentakata.” For five nights I wrestled with opening statements. None sprang to mind. Finally, I remembered my former editor’s advice. “Simplicity is the key that opens the door to incisiveness.” Simply stated, during my two trips I was observing a work in progress.  I recorded the construction work taking place in nearly every disaster-stricken sector of Rikuzentakata. The construction work indicated to me the city’s determination to replace the infrastructure and to rebuild a community. I was impressed by the energy I experienced as I watched heavy equipment and workmen  repair roads, elevate the level of the former downtown district, transport tons of earth, build high schools and other public buildings, and raise new neighborhoods of temporary and permanent housing. My observations combined with the information from the Rikuzentakata Facebook and other sources indicated that the rebuilding is necessary before people can return to their normal patterns of life. As Amya Miller stated in a March 7, 2015 Japan Times article, “Rikuzentakata isn’t just rebuilding in terms of infrastructure. It is aiming to become a new kind of inclusive and open community that welcomes people from all walks of life, including single parents, foreign nationals and those with handicaps. Our message is simple: Come and visit and get to know us.” http://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2015/03/07/travel/rikuzentakata-looks-future-new-tourism-ventures/#.VR5Tuly-38s Simply stated, the city officials and residents of Rikuzentakata need to face challenges posed by the demographics. One of the most obvious challenges struck me as I was shopping in the EON Supermarket near Yonesaki Post Office. The supermarket was about a thirty minute walk from the Capital Hotel 1000 where I was staying. In Yokohama, I take the bus to the EON Supermarket near Higashi Kanagawa JR Station. In the supermarket, I am often assaulted by the screams and cries of tiny children in the aisles. My septuagenarian ears are particularly sensitive to children’s squeals. In Rikuzentakata, I could have called a taxi, but I preferred to walk along the unpaved roads among the rice fields to the store. In the Rikuzentakata supermarket, I was struck by the sound of cash registers, people talking to clerks, and announcements of sales items over the PA system. But no sounds of bawling children. I did see two or three mothers with babies wrapped under their coats and pushing strollers with sleeping toddlers. But they were the exceptions. Elderly people fingered the vegetables and squinted at the ingredients of packaged foods. The employees appeared middle-aged in their thirties and forties — similar in age to those working in the Yokohama supermarket. The observation reminded me of the demographic statistics about Rikuzentakata. Over one-third of the population of nearly 20,000 is 65 or over. The statistics mirrors population trends nationwide. Japan’s population pyramid is progressively teetering on a pivotal point. The population of those 65 and over overshadows that of 14 and under. In rural communities, the problem is acute. Young people leave for the cities to attend universities, or to explore greater opportunities for employment than what they can find in their hometowns. In the primary industries, children leave farms and fishing boats to find work more rewarding financially and less arduous. After the tsunami ravaged the city, Rikuzentakata witnessed an exodus of residents to other locations. Rikuzentakata Population The challenge facing Rikuzentakata is two-fold:  (1) how to attract young people to return from the cities and (2) how to entice people who desire to live away from the hustle and bustle of the cities and to relocate to their coastal city. In his book, Mayor Futoshi Toba wrote that few people ever heard of Rikuzentakata before March 11, 2011. Immediately after March 11, the media focused on the damage, the plight of the survivors, and debris clean up. The mayor pushed forward the plan to create a monument of the Miracle Pine paid by special donations separate from the money specified for the rebuilding of the city. Today, the Miracle Pine has become a tourist attraction. An attraction that creates a positive image — a symbol of recovery and hope for the future. Among the other steps the mayor, vice mayor and other Rikuzentakata residents have taken to demonstrate a dynamic and forward looking posture  include the Facebook postings and the Marugoto Rikuzentakata Project. The purpose of the project, as reported in the same March 7, 2015 Japan Times article, is to create a unique tourism venture “with the aim of letting visitors and residents interact  in a way that brings tangible benefits to both sides. The Marugoto Rikuzentakata Project offers visitors the opportunity to work alongside local farmers, fishermen or craftspeople to get a taste of their daily activities. . . ‘Marugoto’ roughly equates with ‘entire’ or ‘whole’ in English, conveying the hope that participants in the program will get to know Rikuzentakata on a deeper level.” (Contact the Marugoto Rikuzentakata Project by calling 0192-22-7410 or emailing info@marugoto-rikuzentakata.com English or Japanese) Simply stated, Rikuzentakata must find answers to questions plaguing residents whose businesses and residences remain in limbo. If I were a shopkeeper or homeowner, I might ask questions that include the following.

  1. As the level of the downtown land area elevates, the surface areas on top is reduced. How much smaller will my property become? Will I receive compensation for the loss of property?
  2. The government will pay for half of the cost of reopening my business. At my age, should I take out a loan to pay for the other half?
  3. And even if I take out the loan and reopen the business, considering the demographics will there be enough customers to cover the overhead costs?
  4. When will I be able to move into a house of my own again?

I could write more questions, but I suppose the residents of Rikuzentakata have asked them in public meetings and in conferences with city planners. Simply stated, Rikuzentaka holds a lot of attraction for me as an individual. I could write an op-ed piece about the tug of war between the localities in the Tohoku Region and the central government in Tokyo for funds. And I could ruminate about the resources diverted from the Tohoku recovery projects to the construction of facilities in preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. But those are issues I have no control over. I do have control, however, over how I will contribute in a small way to Rikuzentakata’s recovery. Now what was that email address again? Ah, here it is: info@marugoto-rikuzentakata.com https://vimeo.com/124135739

The End of Observations

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