For three years, I lived and worked as a reporter in Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, which suffered massive damage in the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. As I visited the disaster-afflicted areas, I learned that the spirit of cooperation was alive in the hearts of the victims.
The keys to the restoration and revitalization of the marine products industry I covered over the years are collectivization and consolidation. I created a fund to help children who have lost their parents. I want to spread the concept of a cooperative society sustained through mutual assistance.
Homes and buildings ravaged by the tsunami and gutted by fires, and the wrecks of vehicles, spread out as far as the eye could see. When I came upon this sight, I felt rage well up within me, and a howl escaped my lips.
These were the Minamihama and Kadonowaki districts of Ishinomaki, which had sustained more damage in the March 11th disaster than anywhere else. They are only a short journey from the office-cum-residence where I had been based until February, and I had passed through them and shopped there every day. I felt more angered than saddened at the drastic transformation they had undergone.
I traveled to Ishinomaki several times after the disaster; not only the city center, but also other places in my old stomping grounds, such as fishing villages on the Oshika Peninsula, neighboring Onagawa and Higashi Matsushima. Each time I visited, the debris had been progressively cleared from the roads and more shops had reopened. An increasing number of people told me that their electricity and water supply had finally been restored.
However, this did not mean that everyday life had returned to "normal." People had lost family members, their homes, shops, factories and jobs, and were therefore unable to return to those normal lives, no matter how much they wanted to.
The media's daily routine is covering dramatic stories that have news value. However, important aspects lie hidden within the undramatic lives of the disaster victims. One example is the spirit of cooperation. For the first few days until aid supplies arrived, people scoured through the sludge in search of canned goods and retort-packed food, but still shared them with others. In homes where gas had been restored and it was possible to take baths again, relatives, friends, and their relatives and friends gathered to share the hot water.
In the month following the disaster, when the money-based economy mostly ceased to function, the affected regions operated on a "cooperation-based economy." You do a good deed for someone, and that someone does you a good deed in return. This was the principle of the cooperation-based economy discovered by friends of mine who lost their stores in the center of town due to the tsunami.
I believe that this principle prevailed because a community spirit in which relatives and neighbors help each other was firmly rooted here. I wonder if such a cooperation-based economy would be viable in the event of such a disaster hitting a large city, where such roots have less traction.
From the 1980s on, a movement stressing the superiority of a market economy spread throughout the world, and while this stimulated economies in the United States and elsewhere, there were also side effects, such as a widening gap between rich and poor and the jettisoning of those who fall by the wayside in a competitive market.
However, when market economics ceased to function in provincial Japan due to the disaster, a cooperation-based economy brimmed with vitality. On the other hand, this made me realize that societies without an ingrained safety net of mutual cooperation could fall easily in similar circumstances.
That said, the myth that looting would not occur after a disaster, in accordance with the virtues of Japanese society, has lost validity somewhat after the events of March 11th. Looking at shopping areas in the affected areas, there were shops where windows had been broken and goods had been taken, and I saw ATMs that had been destroyed; not by the tsunami but by human hand. I also heard that homes had been ransacked.
This can be interpreted in several ways, such as the view that the myth of Japanese virtue had fallen apart, or that it remains in a wider sense, but I believed that in order to validate this myth, there needed to be a system that could deliver a three-item set of water, food and blankets to victims within 48 hours.
To explain, I was told that in the first two days after the disaster, victims persevered and shared what meager food they could find, but from the third day, looting began. The fact that the limit of human perseverance in provincial areas where so many people know each other's faces was 48 hours means that it must be even shorter in large cities where this is not the case. I am convinced that this 48-hour time limit should become a benchmark for improving systems to distribute aid supplies during times of crisis.
The vague limits of responsibility given to places designated as evacuation centers became another serious issue. Citizens seeking refuge at one school being used as an evacuation center were not allowed to bring their vehicles onto the grounds, causing a traffic jam that resulted in people at the end of the line being swept away by the tsunami. Although another school's buildings were located on high ground, they did not accept people seeking refuge and instead sent them to a gymnasium at a lower elevation, with many people lost their lives to the tsunami as a consequence. Another school did not allow fires within its grounds, so all that the victims of the disaster could do was shiver from the cold. Arguments broke out among people staying at evacuation centers over the distribution of food supplies.
Incidents such as these occurred because schools had only been given the authority to care for their pupils and manage their facilities, so if there had been a rule that gave authority over all affairs regarding a school to its principal in order to protect the lives of all local citizens during a disaster, I believe that a great deal of tragedies and confusion could have been averted.
When I entered the fishing town in the hinterland of the port of Ishinomaki, the ruins of seafood processing plants that had been swept away by the tsunami lay side by side, and depressions in the ground had formed all over, creating ponds of seawater. The entire area had subsided, causing parts of it to become submerged when the tide came in.
Of the fishing craft that were based at Ishinomaki port, many offshore vessels were already in the open sea immediately after the earthquake and thus managed to avoid the tsunami, but many small coastal vessels were swept away. The majority of small fishing boats with outboard motors used in the cultivation of oysters and seaweed were destroyed by the tsunami.
Fishermen, who could only look on stunned in the aftermath of the disaster, used the remaining vessels to begin clearing the debris that had been swept into the sea, and workers from the seafood processing plants began sea disposal of marine products that had begun to deteriorate in storerooms that were no longer refrigerated due to the lack of electricity.
Nevertheless, with regard to the question of how to rebuild the region's marine products industry, the people involved continue to face an uncertain future, as they cannot achieve this on their own. When speaking to fishery and seafood processing plant operators, they mostly sigh as they ask "What on earth can we do?" adding "We want the government to help us." They are seeking the swift consideration of support measures at the Reconstruction Design Council in Response to the Great East Japan Earthquake in which I myself am a participant.
Fisheries could use remaining vessels on a share basis, and new vessels could also be used cooperatively. There should be a designation of fishing ports that can be restored, and roads should be improved so that local fishermen can commute to them by car. Aquaculture farmers could collectivize to benefit from economies of scale. Seafood processing plant operators could also construct cooperative refrigeration facilities, and collectivize production and sales. At the foundation of this collectivization and consolidation would be the spirit of cooperation. That being said, the proportion of those in the industry who will attempt to rebuild their livelihoods and those who will leave them behind will most likely be determined by the extent of government aid.
"We want public funds to be used for the removal of debris and regrading of sunken areas. If the national and prefectural governments can take care of things until there is clear land on which factories can be constructed right away, we will rebuild here, but if that's not the case, we'll move to a different location."
This is the stance of a family-owned seafood processing firm with a successor to carry it into the future, and financial clout. Another company that has neither of these says, "We'd like the national or prefectural government to purchase our site, and when it's ready, we'd like a public body to build a plant there and lease it to us. We don't have the ability to take on a sizable new debt."
When hearing of the realities facing these businesses, they seem like fair demands, but the more that this crosses over into the realm of financial benefits for private companies, the provision of public funds becomes more difficult. Collectivization could possibly make it easier to receive public funding, but to what extent is it achievable? Additionally, should it be only processing companies that collectivize, or should fisheries also be involved to create an organization incorporating the entire chain of production? There are many possibilities to investigate.
After the government's third supplementary budget was approved, the sunken area of the seafood processing factories in Ishinomaki were already degrading. Most owners of these factories decided to restart the factories. But, the government decision was extended — too late — so some owners abandoned the recovery, and many employees moved to other industries.
There are also structural problems that have long posed problems for the entire marine products industry. In the fisheries sector, there are catches for which there are a surfeit of fishing vessels and borderline overfishing, and in the processing sector, mechanization is falling behind that in other countries. Therefore, I believe that plans for disaster recovery must include measures that will lead to reform of these structural issues. I have been seeking the opinions of those involved regarding what specific proposals are needed, with a different outlook to the one I had during my days as a reporter.
I've also become more conscious of the need for direct participation in civic action. Immediately after the disaster, I visited evacuation centers and homes in villages at the heart of the Oshika Peninsula. I assisted a nonprofit organization (NPO) in Ishinomaki distributing aid supplies by asking businesses to supply generators for delivery to evacuation centers, and introducing people who wanted to help the victims.
Now that NPO is confronting the reality that such volunteer activities cannot be sustained indefinitely. Meanwhile, in the disaster-hit regions, there is a need to find care for the elderly and jobs for able-bodied people; not only in the the evacuation centers, but those living in temporary housing and their own homes. If the Ishinomaki NPO and others do not create a system of "regional care managers" and "regional helpers" to continue such activities on a nonprofit but commercial basis, I believe that regional restoration and rebuilding efforts will be difficult to accomplish. I have also proposed such a system at the Reconstruction Design Council.
One of the initiatives I am assisting in is Fair Trade Tohoku, which was contracted to the local government of Ishinomaki City in July last year for a fee of 60 Million yen (about $700,000), and now 40 staff of the organisation are visiting around 1,000 houses in the disaster area to care for older victims.
A considerable number of children of school age have lost their parents in this disaster. In order to provide aid to them, I decided to establish the Higashi Nihon Daishinsai Kodomo Mirai Kikin (The Fund for the Future of Children affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake). I'm aware that this was an ambitious thing to do, but when considering the grim situation that these children are in, I knew that I had to do something.
The fund has now gathered around 100 million yen ($1.2 million). The fund is now giving scholarships worth 30,000 yen (about $350) every month to 129 students (from elementary to high school) in all the disaster areas. In total we have counted around 1,500 orphans from this disaster.
Various organizations are starting to engage in similar activities. If numerous individuals can expand the sphere of aid through utilizing their own networks, just like grass taking root, the overall amount of financial support provided to the children should increase.
The Great Hanshin Earthquake was a catalyst for the consolidation of volunteer initiatives in Japan. I hope that the Great East Japan Earthquake will act as an opportunity for the spirit of cooperation to spread strongly and deeply throughout Japan. I hope that Japan will become a society where the desire of many Japanese to help others will reach disaster victims directly through various community activities. I'm not against tax increases to aid reconstruction efforts, but I hope that this will be a chance to show that government is not the only group that responds to the will of the people.
• This article is an updated and adapted version based on the original published by Asahi Shimbun Globe.