Following 3/11 – The Great East Japan Earthquake: a volunteer’s Disaster Reconstruction Report [No.6]

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Beyond the facade, the 2nd floor is an intact centennial photo studio.

Eight months have past since the March 11 giant Tsunami disaster. Volunteer work, even though getting sadly rather rare on the field, still continues relentlessly with determination. Around the Minato area in Ishinomaki, open- lands are multiplying. Grass has started to grow as if there has never been any home, never had any children growing up on this very field. A tourist would come for the first time and think that this landscape is rather lovely, with its few dwellings, surrounded by green grass and facing the sea. His eyes would wipe around the panorama and would discover here and there houses that seem to be holding strong, but when he would get closer, he would realize that the facade on the sea-front side has been completely torn apart and left as is. He would also discover what seems to be the left-overs of ancient properties that have been mashed around and he would wonder why they don’t just roll the bulldozer and finish the job to complete the beautiful green scenery.

This is exactly what my volunteer group was thinking when we saw the Asano’s house last weekend. The couple, retired for many years, is very aware that they will not be able to live in their property before quite a few years, if they ever can. It is with a knot on the heart that they ask us to help clean up and retrieve what can be retrieved among the ruins of the first floor of their house.

Volunteers get to work. Ancient vases, pictures, sometimes of unknown people, an old BMW motorbike, lots of very very old kimonos, already worn out by time way before the disaster. It is with the recovery of quite a few cameras dating back to the early days of the last century, that I learn that the Asano’s grand-father and father were photographers.

We dig out a poster of nude women happily skipping-hopping on the beach, marked with a first prize mention of a Fujifilm contest back in 1956. Ms Asano invites me to go upstairs on the second floor. My heartbeat stops. Now I understand. This centennial house had a life, such a rich history, so heartwarming. The main room was one of those old photo studios with high arched ceilings mounted with long blurred white windows to let a beautiful natural light diffuse into the house. The pillars, the flooring, everything was made of the original wood, tastefully refurbished by Mr. Asanao. We both stand if front of a large open window, in our bulky muddy boots, and Ms Asano whispers to me with a stiff smile that in the bottom of her heart, she would give anything to come and live here again. The ocean view that we are facing is magnificent. Before the Tsunami, it was blocked by a high apartment building.

According to a City survey, more than 40% of the people want to go back to live in their house, 20% in the neighborhood where they grew up, and among the remaining who wish to be relocated inland, the majority has lost everything, house and family members.

Citizens are participating in opinion-exchange meetings in order to put into place a new reconstruction plan. The City has given itself two years, so until March 2013, to fix this plan on paper. The priority: an efficient emergency plan, large evacuation roads, generators and enough supplies in all shelters.

This new structure will take quite many years to be implemented. When will Ishinomaki residents be able to go back to their home and live peacefully?


Christine Lavoie-Gagnon
Originally from Quebec, Canada, she has lived in Japan for over 17 years and manages a communications firm in Tokyo. However, she is most likely to be found in Ishinomaki with NADIA, an organization she founded to aid the victims of the disaster.

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