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A small and opportune oasis

Japan, June 9, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Temporary housing for tsunami-displaced families in the devastated city of Rikuzentakata. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Takanori Nakano. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Nakano's wife sells food from the mobile grocery store. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Customers are "very happy to see fruit and vegetables...it's amazing to them," Nakano told us. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps

Right now, the city of Rikuzentakata, Japan is a food desert — a place where it's nearly impossible to find and buy fresh, nutritious food. Grocery stores and other shops were washed away by the tsunami. The closest markets are at least a half-hour away by car.

But most of the cars in Rikuzentakata were destroyed in the disaster. And most of the public transit — local trains and buses —remains at a standstill, stranding those who depended on that means of transport. In this place, hundreds of families are living in schools and other public buildings, as well as prefabricated temporary housing. They're mostly dependent on the food that comes in as donations from charities or kind individuals: supplies like instant noodles, canned goods and bottled water.

Three months after the tsunami, what survivors really want to do is purchase and prepare their own food. Mercy Corps and partner Peace Winds are helping survivors do just that — many for the first time since the disaster — through a mobile grocery store run by a 40-year-old local businessman named Takanori Nakano.

Nakano lost his store to the tsunami, but was lucky enough to keep his house. He's currently sheltering 10 friends and family members who weren't as fortunate. You can see the mixture of stress and determination in Nakano's expression as he speaks.

His shop was a glass-engraving business that specialized in pieces for special occasions like weddings and graduations. He had only started it last June, and had just won a big contract with a local school district, when everything he'd built was taken by the waves.

But — even in the immediate aftermath of the disaster — Nakano had an idea about how he could not only support his family, but also help families around his devastated hometown. So he went to the Rikuzentakata Chamber of Commerce with two pieces of business: seeing what they could do about restoring his ruined business and asking if they'd be interested in helping him start a kind of mobile supermarket.

Turns out that great minds really do think alike: Peace Winds and Mercy Corps had already approached the Chamber of Commerce with a similar idea. Just like that, Nakano had a new job — although it wasn't that easy to get things started in the midst of a disaster zone.

Mercy Corps helped find and purchase a refrigerated truck, which we then donated to the Chamber of Commerce. Nakano got to work figuring out food suppliers and a daily work schedule that would fit his family's needs as well as offer flexibility and good service for customers. He opened for business on May 16.

The day we visited him, he was doing a brisk business selling to families in the evacuation center and temporary housing at one of Rikuzentakata's school. Customers formed a long, excited line to see what he had to offer. Everyone seemed to walk away happy.

It was his third day of sales. I asked him what he had been hearing from his customers.

"People are really enjoying being able to shop instead of receiving things," he said. "And I'm asking them what they'd like to see more or less of. They're saying they want more fresh fish and meat.

"They're very happy to see fruit and vegetables, though," he continued. "Someone said it was like the first time they saw water finally coming out of a pipe again — it's amazing to them."

But, according to Nakano, there are challenges in keeping such a business going.

"Right now, I'm getting my inventory from just one place, a regular store in Ofunato. I don't have the storage space or refrigeration to buy wholesale right now, because it's just not available around here," he explained. "So I have to buy things every morning and hopefully sell them that day. I'm only charging a 10 percent markup to customers, which is enough to cover my costs and make a little money to help my family."

He paused before offering his next thought.

"My purpose right now isn't necessarily about being successful, it's about helping people."

And with that, he's off to help more eager customers. It might not be what he wants to do for the rest of his life — but, for now, Takanori Nakano's mobile grocery store is a little oasis in the midst of a food desert.