【Taking part in SWTJ's September mission】
「The Buddha of Water, Hills, and Fields」 is one of the first words I encountered after arriving at Kyu Tsukidate Elementary School in Yasse, Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture where SWTJ is based for its activities in Tohoku. A local farmer at the nearby 'truck market' where locals buy and sell farm produce taught me the concept. People here live in awe of nature and gratefully harvest the produce of the water, the hills, and the fields. When we arrived, the rice ears in the paddies were heavy with grains, and tiny white buckwheat flowers covered the fields.
However, a short drive from Yasse village toward the urban area and the coast of Kesennuma City reveals a different landscape. Half a year after the tsunami, salt water still stands high in areas where people used to live. Broken sewage pipes stick out of of the mud. Especially areas around Kesennuma Port are still heavily affected, and much more needs to be done to clean up so that the odor will disappear (still, people say the odor has greatly improved compared to early summer).
Many volunteers were working in the area, mostly shoveling mud. Locals explained that the ground level at the coast had sunk by 90cm-120cm as a result of the earthquake. The level of the sea and the coastal road are now about the same. Raising the road again to a level of 1.5m to 2m above the sea will take about 2 years, locals explained. Then, water and sewage pipes will have to be reconstructed. The tsunami destruction along the coast extends over several hundred kilometers. Reconstruction has hardly started. The task is enormous.
However, the coast is not the only place affected. Due to the Fukushima nuclear accident triggered by the March 11 Earthquake and Tsunami, areas that are far away from the coast and that were spared by the tsunami now suffer the effects of both the real danger and the rumors regarding radioactivity. Even here in Miyagi Prefecture, the agriculture and fishing industry is struggling to survive. I talked to a local farmer who is raising calves. He said that the auction price for local cattle is now half the price it used to be. The sale of rice straw for cattle litter is strictly controlled. Together with the coastal areas in Tohoku, the hilly areas also still suffer from the effects of the tsunami. 'Aren't you worried about radioactivity?' I asked. 'It can't be helped. What can we do?' was the usual answer of the locals. An emergency situation has become everyday life here.
SWTJ brought traditional Kyoto sweets that were donated from traditional sweet shops in Kyoto to temporary housing sites in Kesennuma, Rikuzen Takata, and Minamisanriku. In Minamisanriku, we organized an afternoon community event where people could gather and enjoy sweets and tea. The speed for setting the table of the local ladies was amazing! They have been working together since last spring under extreme conditions-- their teamwork is perfect. The locals added some delicious home-made pickled vegetables to the menu. Everybody enjoyed the event.
The locals told us it was the first time since the disaster that such a community event had been organized. The appreciated the opportunity to get together in a relaxing manner where stories could be exchanged, ideas, advice or consolation could be offered, and where new ideas regarding the reconstruction of their lifestyles and living area could be born.
For someone like me who has not experienced the disaster, it will be forever impossible to understand the scale of sorrow, grief, and anger the people affected by the disaster feel. Even though, I would like to continue to listen to the words of the disaster victims, help them make their concerns heard, and share the aftermath of the disaster with them all in some way.
I feel I have received much more than given during the three days I worked together with SWTJ in the disaster area.
Text and photos: Kanako Kai (SWTJ Kyoto Office Staff)