Minami Sanriku-cho, Shizugawa
Dear Family and Friends,
A few weeks after the tsunami of last year a friend wrote to me and told me of a project he and his art students were involved in. They were painting a small shed in northern Miyagi Prefecture in a village called Shizugawa in Minami Sanriku-cho. That useful edifice had been constructed for fishermen by another set of university students. The fishermen were grateful because they had lost everything. But they wanted something bright and happy to encourage them as they struggled physically and emotionally to come to terms with what was happening at that tragic time. So they asked my friend to help them out.
Not only were the images joyous and bright, but also the small hut became a focal point for the struggling survivors. In fact, it became a sort of community center. Meetings were held there, foreign volunteers congregated there, and fishermen gathered there each day to encourage each other as they faced the daunting tasks before them.
Since that time much has changed. The fishermen were finally permitted to build a proper warehouse for their goods and many volunteers left, so the merry little hut no longer held the vital importance it once did. In fact, my friend assumed it had been dismantled. Even so, I wanted to go check out the place on the off chance the walls themselves might still be hidden away somewhere, stowed as something joyful to remember. So after more than a year of trying to find a time we both were free, my friend, his wife and I set off.
It was a lovely drive through northern Miyagi at this time of rice harvesting. There were poles of rice drying and old farmhouses with thatch or slate roofs. The farms were alive and gorgeous with their backdrop of high blue mountains contrasting the golden fields. But as soon as we got to the coast, things began to change. Suddenly devastation was everywhere.
I was astonished to see how far behind the clean up job in this area was compared to places closer to Sendai. There were still large chunks of concrete covering much of the now-open space. Frames of buildings still dotted the landscape.
Volunteers are still coming from all over the country to help out. Not as many as before, but they are still there. We even saw a tent village where they were staying.
But people had made lovely cutout messages on their property expressing thanks to those before them and hopes for the future.
Water was everywhere. The earth had sunk about a meter because of the tremendous force of the earthquake, so the water table was higher than before. Despite the mud and muck, however, backhoes were working non-stop in an effort to clear out the rubble.
Typical of other places along the coast, Shizugawa was an uneven blend of effort. Some areas were still totally unusable, while others were getting back on their feet. As we came into the coastal area, for example, sitting in the midst of mud and debris was a new temporary shopping center. It was small, but had shops of all sorts. There were restaurants, of course, and fishmongers. There was also an electrician, a chiropractic center, and a beauty parlor. The place had opened about half a year ago and gave hope to the locals that better times were soon to come.
There were other signs that things were moving forward, too. Of course, we had to give our greetings to the vociferous fishermen of the year before. When we explored the area to find them, we came upon a large office and warehouse. And there they were. Of course, they invited us in. They told us that this place had opened in the early part of the year. They said they were doing well and then proceeded to explain.
It seems before the earthquake there were two setups for fishermen. They could either work on their own or join a union. If the chose the latter, they had to give all their catch to the union and in turn they all received the same wage. Profits went to the union. So after the tsunami, twelve friends decided to forge a different route. They started their own cooperative. As with the union, they give all their catch to the group, but unlike the union, their earnings fluctuate according to what they make on the market. That is, the profits go to the fishermen, not to the union. They have found that they are making far more and are enjoying the work much more, too.
Their leader told us that the tsunami actually helped the fishing beds. Before they were filled with reeds and other plants that got in the way of growing scallops and oysters. But the raging tsunami waters cleared all that away, so now they can easily grow their shellfish and also seaweed. So it has been a real boom for them.
I asked where the seafood went from there. “To be honest, I don’t know,” he admitted. “We are fishermen. That is our job. We sell our goods to a distributor and then head back to our boats. That is our life. That is our interest. The rest if up to others to be concerned about.”
But he did know about the future plans for his town. Unlike in other areas where there is an ongoing struggle between the government and individuals over property rights, people in Shizugawa seem eager to get rid of their water-ruined land. The earth has sunk too much for building again, so better to get rid of it, even at a reduced rate. And now the government has extended time allowed in temporary houses, so there is not the rush to get out and rebuild. Even so, most active members of the community want to get out, want to have a place of their own. “If we stay too long in those government places, we will become lazy and complacent. Don’t want that. We are strong and want to stand on our own two feet, have a place of our own, have our lives fully back again. We need our own houses for that.”
The town’s government has put together a workable plan for the future. Now they, like everywhere else up and down the coast, are waiting for the federal government to come through with promised funding. When? No one knows. “But we aren’t sitting around waiting for that day,” the fishermen’s leader said. “The time is now. And we are seizing it.”
And with that he looked at his watch. “Sorry to be a bit rude,” he said apologetically. “But I have to get up at 2 a.m. tomorrow, so it is getting time for me to head home and hit the sack.” (It was 4:30 p.m.) “It’s been nice talking to you.” And then he raced out, packed up a large box of luscious scallops for us, and sent us on our way.
We then traced our way back through the rubble, past the hope-filled shopping center, and then the stunning farms. We were full of thoughts and gratitude for the enriching day we just had. And of course, we hope the best for the folks of Shizugawa and for all those up and down the coast of this physically devastated, but humanly magnificent region of Japan.