SUMITA, Iwate Prefecture -- Joni Owada and her family live surrounded by hills, far from the sea, yet their front yard is filled with round floats--the glass type used by fishermen in their nets up and down the Sanriku coast.
Each one, explains Owada, represents a mission to the seaside district of Otomo, part of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, and one of the communities hard hit by the tsunami that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake a year ago.
“Whenever I'd go down there I'd ask if I could take one home with me,” says the American in her sing-song Iowa accent. “Eventually the villagers just got together, gathered a whole bunch from the wreckage and brought them in a mini-truck.”
Owada won't discuss her age, but will admit that she's been a fixture in the rural town of Sumita, in the inland of Iwate, for quite some time--there are young parents who remember her as their first English "sensei" (teacher), long before the arrival of ALTs and JETs.
Coming from a farming family, she says, made it feel like home. It’s here where she met her husband, Chikara, and intends to continue raising their four children. The family live in one of a dozen identical wooden one-story houses--the town’s income-adjusted housing--just across the street from a schoolyard now occupied by temporary housing units--also all wooden and identical--set up by tsunami evacuees by the Sumita town hall last spring. Evacuees aren't a distant news story for the Owada family--they are the set of new neighbors they greet every day.
It may seem strange that a year after the earthquake, with billions of yen marked for reconstruction, that Owada is still delivering fleece jackets, duvet comforters, knitting shears and magnifying eyeglasses to evacuees--across the road, and to Otomo , 30 kilometers away.
“They have the basics, they have enough to survive," says Owada. “But I want to share with them things like sewing and give them a chance to do things they feel that they can’t spend money on, because they don’t know what’s going to happen from here."
The temporary housing looks comfortable enough, with cast-iron fireplaces installed in each unit. Yet the residents know they’re expected to vacate them in two years. Those in Otomo who’ve repaired their homes or gone ahead and built new ones, meanwhile, fear a government proposal to declare areas covered by the tsunami off-limits to housing.
Those are worries they need to occasionally escape with frivolities, says Owada, but giving them yarn and shears, or even a black suit for attending funerals, hasn’t been easy. The items arrive almost daily, donated by individuals and volunteer groups mostly in Japan, but also from overseas.
"Now we get smiles, but the first time we came, boy they weren’t happy to see us," says Joni, as the Owada car, driven by Chikara and loaded with two children and a trunkful of garments and yarn, tops a rise and heads down to Otomo on a recent visit. “A lot of villages are like that, even before the tsunami. They don’t want outsiders to come in--not just foreigners, but anyone.”
Owada broke through thanks to her connection with one village elder, a retired school official who took the American under her wing when she moved to Iwate. Then there are the Owada kids --the youngest age 4--who can warm the iciest hearts and speak the local dialect.
Between the village and the temporary housing, Owada has had to navigate through “can-do” and “mustn’t-do” attitudes tugging disaster-hit communities in opposite directions. The flow of supplies to temporary housing projects has made once desperate residents there picky, while villagers in distant communities such as Otomo go unserved.
“With the temporary housing you have to be very careful that everyone receives the same,” explains Owada, and that you first get the approval of the leader. On one visit she brought two sewing machines--which were almost turned down.
“They asked me to do the same thing (provide enough for everyone) and I said, ‘Sorry, I just don’t have enough.' ” The machines eventually settled into a reserved sewing activity room.
In Otomo, meanwhile, the villagers look dumbfounded when the Owada clan show up with another load of cardboard boxes. After a lot of initial head shaking--lost on the perky Owada--the villagers eventually relent and call each other to the contents. Off to the side a woman cries when she’s handed a digital camera. One fisherman looks at the assembled scrum in disdain.
“If I take care of these clothes I’m wearing they’ll last at least five or six years, no problem,” says the fisherman, who rebuilt his house this past summer despite the pending government decision on the land. “Lots of volunteers have come, they helped me tear down my old shed so I could start again. The problem is that since they’ve started coming the locals don’t move themselves. They just sit under their kotatsu-heated tables, smoking cigarettes and waiting for volunteers to do the work.
“The tsunami debris isn’t all trash--there’s material in there you can use to build a shelter for yourself, instead of moving into temporary housing and complaining about being hot or cold. I’d rather sweat. That’s why I turn down volunteers now and don’t want free things. I don’t feel their value unless I do it myself.”
Still, his face positively beams when Owada catches him to chat in Japanese at the end of her visit.
“It’s a good thing they come here,” he admits. “More than just things, we’re happy that she makes the effort to come out here and check on us. There’s no one here to talk to except family--and we’ve all heard each others’ stories. Now I’m talking to rocks and trees, because I never see anyone walking. I wonder where they’ve gone to, and how they’re doing.”
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