Kesennuma, Changing Japan from Kid to Kid and Beyond (a visit on March 13, 2013)
Kesennuma, located in the northeast of Miyagi Precture, Japan, was deeply affected in Japan’s quake disaster. This leading fishing town in Japan is of great beauty and its people of great strength. Having said that, the strong need help and two years after the disaster there is still much that can be done.
Kesennuma Hit Hard by Tsunami
When faced with national crisis many of us feel useless. Our first response is what can I do? And yet, it is often the smallest acts, many of which seemingly go unnoticed, which make a fundamental difference.
For instance, Emi Satomi and a group of nursery teachers from Kesenumma whose jobs were eliminated by the catastrophe, weren’t sure what to do. They made a makeshift day care center in a warehouse up on a hill. Despite Emi’s fear to take on something she felt was beyond her, she forged ahead and named the new nursery Ohisama, meaning “sun” (more on her by Japan Times). And sun it brought.
Today, the Japanese have done a great job in cleaning up Kesennuma. And yet, it is not clean streets alone that are sufficient in raising the human spirit. It is people like Emi Satomi and small acts which change lives. Acts that tell people we are with them.
TIS (Tokyo International School) Kids, Parents and Michael Anop’s Play Ground of Hope
On March 13 2013, a group from TIS (Tokyo International School) of dedicated and inspiring parents — including Bita Alu and Tracey Odea — as well as the head of the school, Des Hurst, and the entrepreneur Michael Anop (founder of the Play Ground of Hope) went up to Kessennuma together with a mission. The purpose of the visit: to send a message from the kids of TIS (Tokyo International school) to the kids of Ohisama that they are not forgotten.
In kids talk, this means it is time to play and to smile. The kids at TIS saved their money and through their own fundraising as well as of their parents offered a playground of hope to a nursery school in Kesennuma. The idea was to provide a smile to kids up north and some relief to the brave nursery teachers who through their giving and effort helped many families in difficulty.
These kids from TIS (Tokyo International School) are wiser than most of us. They know that is only when smiles return that real reconstruction begins. Let me share with you a few of those pictures as the moment was a happy one!
The boy with the red cap kept hugging us.
I speak about the wisdom of children, but I also speak with some noted exceptions of great adults. Michael Anop, who is himself a parent and knows well the benefit of outdoor play for kids has started a great project of hope for kids (and their parents) in Tohoku. As the housing situation is difficult in the north with temporary housing now constructed, but with no room for kids to play — a solution had to be found.
Given that local authorities remain busy with the basics of housing and employment, it is private initiatives like the Playground of Hope that make the difference. Michael, determined to help children and their parents in Tohoku, found a way to make playgrounds affordable. He did something that even the local Japanese constructors thought impossible: build a sturdy affordable playground designed to last.
As he has worked on project after project in Tohoku, he has merited the confidence and trust of local authorities and even the makers of playgrounds are now approaching him with some admiration. It is my hope that new playgrounds can be created for children who have no place to play. For this to continue efforts in financing Playground of Hope are helpful by schools and individuals.
We also need the media in the north to make the project of hope visible so that new communities in need of playgrounds will initiate requests to Michael.
They are waving to their new friends at TIS. Bita Alu lugged up a large suitcase of presents for each one of them, to be given after the snack…
Financing Socially Aware Projects in Tohoku Creates Smiles
People such as Ronald Choi, a Korean investment banker for JP Morgan in Tokyo and also a parent at TIS, is now working to help finance the Playground of Hope and other projects. He and others are aware that the real work in re-construction starts now. That is : it is only after people have struggled to physically survive, that comes the more difficult task of re-building one’s life and creating daily meaning in difficult circumstances.
Ron Choi is raising additional money for the Playground of Hope and other projects up north with the organization NADIA.
I first met Mr. Choi on a bus on the way to Ishinomaki when TIS donated a large playground and many excited children and parents rode up together with Lorraine Izzard (the new head of TIS as of July 2013). On the bus, I was struck by Mr. Choi’s great spirit, modesty and generosity. Here was an investment banker who took his own vacation time (vacation is rare in investment banking) to physically do hard labor to help re-build homes up north. I only met him for a few moments, but was moved by him and his giving family as well as the way he spoke to his own children and to others.
Helping Communities Now and Japanese Architects
Projects such as Michael’s are important as they underline the necessity of people up north to re-create links and find a place to see old friends and build relationships. This naturally happens around children. Socially aware projects like Michael’s enable communities to unite and re-build from within.
As most housing units up north have been randomly assigned to people in temporary housing, people often do not know each other. Until (and even after) permanent housing and new relationships are created, playgrounds and places where adults can come together are needed.
Another such notable project that merits attention due to its social awareness is by the reknown architect Toyo Ito. He has designed a “house for all,” as shown in Keiko Courdy’s web documentary Yonaoshi. Her stunning documentary talks about a New Japan emerging from the disaster, a Japan better than before. Perhaps, when we look at this house, we begin to understand the spirit of this new Japan.
In the video interview of Toyo Ito, Keiko Courdy shows a prototype of a house by Ito that builds on a new spirit of community. The wooden house has a place to sit outside where people can naturally greet passing neighbors and a place to gather to cook together a simple meal inside or to have tea together.
Other Japanese architects too, like Shigeru Ban, have created new structures for people up north often without help from local governments nor outside funding nor support. These architects remind us of our responsibility in crisis to think about the people within the houses, about their hearts, minds and desire to be together with loved ones.
The experience of these Japanese architects remind us of the courage necessary to break away from bureaucracy and let a new Japan emerge. Some Japanese bureaucrats have been courageous to do so and have allowed talented Japanese architects to realize new structures. However, more needs to be done to help Japanese architects build and innovate according to needs of people who have lost their homes and often all hope.
It could be our role to link Japanese architects, courageous mayors and bureaucrats who are willing to take a chance, bankers like Ronald Choi and daring social entrepreneurs like Michael Anop to help make the daily life of our citizens livable.
Building a New Japan : A Role for Artists
The well known ship that was left stranded shows a stark contrast to the one in the earlier picture of this blog. And yet, there was also a feeling of great sadness. A feeling of isolation that is hard to describe as there was an emptiness about the streets.
With unemployment in the Tohoku area important, houses with a new community spirit and playgrounds brought by the private sector can do much to help reduce stress and growing domestic violence, drinking and suicide in Tohoku.
Playgrounds and community houses may seem like little acts of creation, but in the day to day life of stressed out parents who can easily tire, they bring back a moment of peace or even a smile. That smile was best communicated to us by the children we met at Kesennuma. When we first met them, they were all hard at work happily building something in the sand around the playground.
When I asked them what they were building, I had expected a “castle,” or something of the sort, but instead heard “I am building a store, a house, a road and shops.” And so they were. I leave you, Japanese architects, bureaucrats and financial investors with their hopes and with the beautiful sunset I saw on the way back passing Fukushima. I am sure you will not disappoint them.