Rebuilding Community

By Corinne Morier

Three women at a table

“Living a life of evacuation means that everyone helps everyone.”

To Takahashi Kenkichi, this is the new meaning of his life in the Onodai temporary housing district, a complex of shoebox-shaped apartment buildings lined up in rows on an asphalt-paved lot.

Before the tsunami, he ran a sports store by the ocean, spending his free time fishing and playing golf. His beloved fishing pole was lost in the tsunami. Now, he has moved up into the mountains, which he hopes will be safer, and is focused on his job as the director of the Onodai facility, where many evacuees, including the families of fishermen, live.

With a sports store only five kilometers (about 3 miles) away from the sea, he enjoyed walking along the beach and watching the water.

When the earthquake hit on March 11, 2011, he was at home watching TV; it fell over due to the shaking, and he picked it up and replaced it in time to hear the warning about a tsunami coming in an hour. Just two days before, there was a small earthquake and a warning of a probable tsunami of 50 centimeters (about 20 inches) or so ‒ but it never came. Therefore, everyone listened with disbelief and skepticism when another warning came on March 11.

But the sea told the truth: the tsunami was coming. The neighborhood residents all helped each other to prepare. Most were worried about the danger to homes and cars; he recalls covering his house with a tarp and being helped by his son, thinking that a large rainstorm was approaching. “But my house was swept away, so no worries,” he said with an ironic sort of smile.

When the wave came, it was a race between the cars and the water.

“Maybe there is risk living by the water,” he remarks, shrugging. “But everyone was evacuated, and everyone connected.”

Before this, he says, he was living a life without much meaning at all. Now his life has meaning – he is the head of the district, most of them fishermen who tried to ride the wave on their boats and survived. The fishing community has stayed alive, and together, the past three years. Everyone helps everyone else, and if that wasn’t available, it would be much worse. More than anything else in his life, he learned the importance of cooperation, and remarks that it was a good learning experience.

At the time of the earthquake, there was talk that it was an earthquake that only occurs once every 400 years. Why did he have to win this lottery? he asks himself.

As the head of the district, he wants to ensure that there are no one dies in solitude. Many of the evacuees are elderly people. They don’t venture out very often because their daily routines have been disrupted and there aren’t many things for them to do in the complex. Every day, community volunteer go around the temporary residences to check on everyone’s health and well-being. They live in the same neighborhood, so perhaps it is a blessing in disguise. The sense of community is very strong here.

In the very community gathering room where we sat for our interview, a concert is held once a year by the mixed-gender band MCS. They hold a live show, and the proceeds from that show are used for donations for the people who live there. At other times, residents use the room to hold meetings, try their hand at crafts and share snacks.

Takahashi worries that people are afraid to visit the area because they hear stories about the radioactive contamination caused by the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. They don’t realize that many evacuees still don’t have permanent homes and must live in temporary housing complexes like Onodai.

Takahashi ‘s wish is that is that you come see for yourself; Fukushima prefecture is full of evacuated people who can’t go home. There is talk of rebuilding their homes and returning, but at the moment, it is impossible. There aren’t materials or architects willing to undertake such a project.

So for now, he remains the head of Onodai temporary housing district, an unwavering smile on his face.