Thursday, March 7, 2013

Rebuilding a community: Iwanuma City, Japan

The team began their day wrapping gifts to give to Japanese men and women that they would interact with during their stay in Iwanuma City, a coastal town located about an hour away from Sendai City. Gifts included pens, donated goods from the Rockies (Colorado’s professional baseball team), backpacks, and lanyards.

“Gift giving in Japan is a way of remembering the visit from someone,” said instrumental teacher and chaperon Don Emmons. “The gift actually symbolizes the visit of one person to another; when the person looks at the gift, they remember the visit and they remember the person.”

Austin Sonju practices his
thank you speech with the team's
guide, Eriko.
Emmons and Principal Amy Oaks anticipated numerous encounters with locals who would share their personal experiences with the March 11 tsunami and had the students wrap the gifts in gold paper and purple ribbons to echo LHS’s school colors. D. Emmons also instructed the four Japanese students participating in the Kizuna Project to prepare thank you speeches to share at gift giving ceremonies.

“The first part of the gift giving process is to present the gift in a way that is very respectful for the person you’re meeting with,” said D. Emmons. “The second part is receiving gifts in a respectful way. What you’re really honoring is the experience you shared with the other person in this culture.”

After they wrapped their gifts, the team embarked for Iwanuma City.  There, Atsushi Aoki, a local who had been affected by the tsunami, greeted them.  Aoki joined the team as they took a brief tour of the affected area.

“We used to have a pine tree forest to prevent waves,” said Kiyoshi Sakurai, a community leader in Iwanuma City. “Those trees were washed away and actually attacked the houses during the tsunami.”

Many of the trees along the coastline were swept away with the tsunami.
Some of the trees were violently bent, as seen above.

“Rarely people visit this place,” Aoki said. “Around this place there used to be houses and rice fields; now there is nothing.”

“Only four houses and a community center remained,” said Sakurai. “At that time we felt like everything was too cleared. We never felt angry, just empty.”

Notice the foundations?

Nearly two years later, the city of Iwanuma is making noticeable progress.  The team toured a construction site where they listened to men from City Hall discuss their plans to erect a facility to be the home of people living in temporary housing units.  Planners chose the spot because it wasn’t severely damaged by the tsunami; and simulations demonstrated that with future adjustments to road heights, canals, and embankments, there was an unlikely chance that the new building would be affected by future catastrophes.

“We want to prepare ourselves for the next tsunami,” said Aoki.

A man from city hall explains through a translator the future plans of permanent residential housing.

“I’m surprised how thorough they’ve been by doing simulations for another tsunami,” said senior Gracie Petty. “I think it’s really surprising that they’re still building houses because the world seems to think that everything is done and everything is fine.”

Next, they saw a model of a tsunami shelter.  Constructors will use disaster debris – such as concrete, wood, and rubber from demolished properties – to create 15 hills 50m in height and 100m in diameter to reduce the power of the tsunami.

“I personally think it would do a good job at controlling how much water is being pushed over [into Iwanuma City] so that way not much is damaged and something like this doesn’t happen again,” said junior Leroy Lodewyk.

“[The shelters] are also a memorial,” said senior Caroline Baker.  “I think it’s good to create them for that purpose.”

The prospect of creating a memorial from debris as a reminder of the tragedy of the tsunami is gives the tsunami shelters an emotional purpose for the community.

“I think that it will be perceived pretty well from the locals here since it will be made up of pieces of debris from the tsunami,” said junior Joe Benkert. “Since it will be used as protection, it could also help out with the aspect of remembering the past and looking forward to try and fix any mistakes made.”

After the tour, Japanese students Evan Shigaya and Austin Sonju thanked Aoki for his time.

Sakurai and others showed the group a presentation in the I-Plaza community center later that afternoon.  As one of the community leaders, he was placed in a difficult position immediately after the tsunami.

“Our duty everyday was to count the dead bodies and tell their families, their relatives, their husband, their wife, what had happened to them. That work was very hard for us,” Sakurai said. “I think that there is some meaning for our lives. We need to live cheerfully and happily, and we hope.”

A cemetery looms on the horizon where houses once were.
Beyond the emotional trauma of the tsunami, LHS members were also introduced to the tsunami’s effects on the agriculture and economy. As an industrial/agricultural economy, it was devastating for Iwanuma City to have hundreds of buildings destroyed. Similarly, the copious amounts of salt integrated into the farmlands require the soil to be removed and treated with freshwater. Even after treating the soil, it will take another year or two before the it is ready for farming.

House and car insurance covers very little in respect to a tsunami. For example, any car that was damaged or had been relocated as a result of the tsunami would not be covered by Japanese insurance. This financial burden coupled with the affects on the industry and agricultural businesses put citizens of the city in a tough economic position. Additionally, once the relocation building is erected, residents will need to rent or buy the space.

Aoki is also involved in a community outreach program. His team of five visits over 160 houses at least one a week to check on the health, communication, ad well being of residents in the temporary housing units.

“All community members will move together to the permanent houses, so it’s important to maintain the community support,” he said.

Temporary housing units near the I-Plaza.


  1. It's reminded me that one Japanese architect Mr Kuma visited at DAM last year and he said "We changed the way of thinking about designing buildings from to control the nature to harmonize with nature." Evan and Austin did great job!!! よくできました。

  2. What an amazing in-depth experience you are having! There are so many aspects to this disaster that you would never even think of. Evan and Austin, you did very well!

  3. This post was a very real and emotional display of the devastation experienced by the people in Iwanuma that is not readily shown by the media. Again, superb job, Hannah. Arigato.