With a disaster like 3/11, there is no manual for putting communities back together.
In the shattered Tohoku region, signs of devastation are everywhere. There are still so many unknowns.
But with the energetic efforts of people like Akemi Yamauchi, who was born and raised on a farm in Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, and later worked in Tokyo, there is hope.
Yamauchi, 36, has returned to her hometown to confront the problems facing northeastern Japan as a specially appointed researcher at Miyagi University’s Minami-Sanriku Fukko (reconstruction) Station.
The station will seek solutions to the local problems, such as depopulation.
Following are excerpts of an interview with Yamauchi by The Asahi Shimbun:
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Question: What went through your mind when you returned to your hometown?
Yamauchi: The town has shrunk so fast since the earthquake. The exodus of people shows no sign of stopping. The town had a population of 17,000 before the Great East Japan Earthquake, but it might drop to around 10,000. The other day, a seafood processing company finally started up and began hiring, but there weren't enough applicants. That's the reality. Somehow we must make the Tohoku region livable again.
Miyagi University's Minami-Sanriku Fukko Station, where I work, was set up in an elementary school, which was closed before the earthquake, in the mountains. It's my old school. After the earthquake, the school served as a temporary police station. I research modern history. Now I'm working with people in this town to try to build on the community's inherent resources and value to revitalize the community.
Q: How would you describe this inherent value?
A: For example, production of charcoal. Does that sound old-fashioned? People still produce and use charcoal in the settlement where I was born and raised. We even use a wood-burning stove in our office. There is plenty of wood in the untapped mountains nearby, so there is as much fuel as we can get our hands on. I think charcoal, firewood and wood pellets (a type of solid fuel) made from thinnings will become a valuable resource for the town. The town plans to build a pellet factory here.
First we want to try to be self-sufficient in energy so we won't place a burden on somewhere else, like Tokyo did with Fukushima. We want to rebuild the town so that it is self-sustainable in the long term. That's our goal.
I'm not an ecologist, but there's lots of energy yet to be found in the Tohoku region. After this traumatic experience, it is my hope that we can use the energy we have right here. Of course, I'm not saying that everybody across the Tohoku region should use charcoal or firewood. I'd like each place to find its own energy and work with what it has. If you have the sea, use what the sea has. If there are mountains, then use their resources. That's the first step.
Q: After the earthquake, people often praised the disaster-stricken Tohoku region as having a "distinctly Japanese village feel" to it.
A: It certainly did function as a village society back then. My settlement is in the mountains, about 10 kilometers from the coast. Since ancient times, it has been our custom to distribute boiled rice if the town is hit by tsunami. This time, too, after the tsunami, villagers brought rice from their homes. Because power and gas supplies were cut off, people boiled it on hearths. The women made "onigiri" rice balls that the men put in their backpacks and carried to the disaster zone on foot. But that's not all.
Q: What do you mean, "that's not all"?
A: On the morning after the tsunami receded, a local newspaper carried a photo of a woman walking through the rubble and carrying her elderly mother-in-law on her back. That woman was actually Chinese. There are lots of women who came from other Asian countries to be married with men in this town.
Women have a tough life in the fishing villages of the Sanriku region (Aomori, Iwate and Miyagi prefectures). For example, they shuck oysters on the beach in mid-winter. They work in the freezing wind with cold water so that the fresh oysters can line the shelves of supermarkets in cities. It is these women who make it all possible. The Tohoku region was becoming more cosmopolitan before the earthquake. I want to get the word out that the Tohoku village society everybody praised as "truly Japanese" has a lot of foreign women now.
Q: What sort of family did you grow up in?
A: I was a Minami-Sanriku farm girl. We made rice and raised around 160 head of cattle. My younger brother inherited the farm.
I can't forget the damage caused by the abnormally cool summer of 1993. In a normal year we can harvest 550 to 600 kilograms of rice from each paddy, but that year it fell to just 20 kilograms. I was in my third year of high school. It was a shock. I cried in the rice field. We ate store-bought rice for the first time ever. My relatives said to me, "In the past your parents would have had to sell you (into prostitution)."
Q: In your mind, what kind of land is Tohoku?
A: Don't you think that "Tohoku" is an odd name for a place? It means "northeast." Somebody who is not from here gave it that name. But to the people who live here, this is the center. The old names for this region are "Michinoku" and "Mutsu" (meaning "hinterland"). For whom is Tohoku a remote place?
In modern times, Japan used the land for military exercises and survival training. Before World War II, people who were planning to emigrate to distant shores (such as Manchuria) drilled all over Tohoku (to get accustomed to a cold climate).
The Death March in the Hakkoda Mountains (when Imperial Japanese Army soldiers on a training exercise became trapped in a blizzard in 1902) before the Russo-Japanese War is symbolic of the role that Tohoku has played.
Q: Am I right in saying that you take issue with the idea that Tohoku is primarily known for its rice?
A: If you exclude certain areas, the history of rice farming in Tohoku does not go back that far. Rice was originally a southern crop. People in Tohoku used to rely on grains like "awa" foxtail millet and "hie" Japanese barnyard millet, which they planted far more than rice because they yield a more reliable harvest. Better rice varieties were developed in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), and after some trial and error their use became more widespread. The lack of food after World War II pushed us further toward rice cultivation.
The people here came to accept rice cultivation and nuclear power plants, believing that they would "make us rich" and they were "at the cutting edge of our time." For a moment, we saw our dream of escaping our long history of subordination coming to fruition. But then there was too much rice. Th government told us it didn't want it. And then the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant exploded and spewed radiation everywhere.
Q: So, you believe that things will continue to be tough for a while longer?
A: How can we regain our strength? Can we fight back? It's difficult, but there is one thing I have faith in. It's that Tohoku is a microcosm for many of the problems happening in the world. But as long as we don't come up with ways to deal with them, then I don't think we can solve the many problems happening in society.
Q: What are these many problems?
A: Depopulation, an aging population, a declining birthrate, poverty and disparity in incomes. Of course, all of these problems existed before the earthquake, but the disaster has made the situations worse. Plus, the nuclear accident robbed many people of their land and created a flood of evacuees. These fundamental problems concerning our survival are all in this one place. That's what Tohoku is. If we can't regain our strength, then no society anywhere can, don't you think? That's what I think about.
But there is hope. There are young people who came back from Sendai or Tokyo after the quake to start businesses here. While the exodus of people from Tohoku caused a sense of crisis among these young folks, they are also bracing themselves to make a new life here.
Q: So, what will you do?
A: I want to expand our options. Some aspects of modernization are like totalitarianism, don't you think? Everyone is forced to run in the same direction and it's hard to harbor a different opinion. It's hard to say, "Hold on a second." Can't we change that? With our energy problems, too, we shouldn't just run full speed ahead and say, "We can't maintain our lifestyle if we don't restart the nuclear reactors." We could burn timber from thinnings or firewood. We could burn charcoal. There's solar power, too. If there's a river, there's hydropower. Or geothermal. I think there's an energy source that suits each place and lifestyle.
Q: But what about the many people who say there won't be enough energy and that Tohoku won't be able to rebuild itself?
A: I want to say to those people: "Come here and look for yourselves. Look at the people trying to live with energy that matches their way of life." It's a mystery to me why they can only argue in favor of nuclear power and can't imagine switching to other kinds of energy. If you look back at human history, there have been so many major turning points. We've been able to overcome dangers with new ideas. I want to tell the people in the business world to think from a different angle.
Q: So, what is Tohoku's future?
A: It is Japan's frontier. It has always been a place for experimentation, and it will continue to be so in the future. That's the fate we bear. In the aftermath of the earthquake, can you imagine how difficult it is to revive the towns and lives of people? It's like a test site. It's trying for us. I don't want to talk about my hometown in this manner. But it's a frontier. So, we can ask the central government, "Are you really satisfied with the status quo?" We can demand that they think from a different angle. That's the kind of place this is.
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Akemi Yamauchi is a specially appointed researcher at Miyagi University's Minami-Sanriku Fukko Station. She went to Keio University to study after doing temp work at the town hall. Yamauchi took up her current position while still enrolled in a doctoral program at Hitotsubashi University graduate school. She has co-authored "Tohoku Saisei" (Tohoku rebirth) and "Henkyo kara Hajimaru" (Starting from the "frontier").
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