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Update: Two years since the tsunami

Japan, March 7, 2013

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  • Mercy Corps has helped 219 businesses get back to work in the two years since the March 11 tsunami. Photo: Mercy Corps
  • Mr. Nagashima hard at work in his new bakery, opened with the help of a Mercy Corps grant. Photo: Oh!ing Pastry Studio Ryo
  • The fresh food co-op that former fish merchant Mr Onodera opened after losing his business in the tsunami. Photo: PlaNet Finance Japan

Two years have passed since Japan’s Tohoku coast was ravaged by a massive earthquake and tsunami. Thousands of lives lost, hundreds of thousands of survivors left without shelter, and millions of dollars in monetary damage were left behind when the ocean waters retreated.

Much has changed in Japan in the past two years, yet much has painfully stayed the same in the tsunami zone. Mercy Corps assisted in the emergent aftermath of the disaster, and has continued to provide support for local small merchants, helping to revive the badly struggling local economies.

One year ago, on the eve of the one-year mark since the tsunami, I visited the devastated region. It very much looked like a war zone – struggling infrastructure, flattened dwellings and shell-shocked community. Amongst the grief and sadness, the local survivors showed determination to rebuild, step by step, their little towns.

Mercy Corps seized the opportunity to provide help in a way that would yield maximum impact. After all, it is the local merchants and service providers who are key to jumpstarting the local markets, providing jobs and restoring the once vibrant region.

Once the emergency response phase was over, people were in shelters and children back in schools, we asked ourselves, “How can we best invest these donor dollars into the community? What will yield maximum and long-term impact for these survivors?” Much like anywhere, the key to reviving this community was to jump-start its small business sector.

And so, in the past year, Mercy Corps, partnered with its generous donor NVIDIA to provide financial tools to small business owners, helping them re-open their doors, provide jobs within their community and restore badly needed flow of goods and services in this remote part of Japan. Their stories of survival and struggle are harrowing, but their spirit and dedication to resuming their lives and businesses are inspiring.

For instance, Ryota Nagashima – a bakery-owner from Minamisanriku, who lost everything in the tsunami. His passion was baking sweets, his products widely renowned in his town. While living in a temporary shelter, Mr. Nagashima spotted a bag of donated flour and immediately had an idea to make pancakes for his fellow shelter dwellers.

After working construction during the day, and voluntarily baking for his neighbors by night, Mr. Nagashima, with support from a Mercy Corps grant, reopened his bakery and hired two full-time positions. Today he is again famous for his creations, such as the candy bento box, whimsical birthday cakes and madeleines; his shop and products have drawn tourists from all over the country.

Then there is the story of Tsutomu Onodera – a former fish merchant whose business, along with the entire fishery infrastructure perished in the tsunami. Driven to help restart this vital product supply chain, Mr. Onodera started a co-op fresh food market where small vendors gather to sell their produce and fish.

With the re-employment grant from NVIDIA, Mr. Onodera was able to hire a market manager, allowing for a broader range of services and products to the community. In his colorful market, shoppers find fresh fish, produce, bento boxes, spices, sake and candy. Above being an entrepreneur, Mr. Onodera is committed to revitalizing his community.

Ryota Nagashima’s and Tsutomu Onodera’s businesses are two examples of the 219 enterprises that this Mercy Corps program has reached – 31 of them are start-ups. Through this program, we have reached over 2,600 people across the mountainous coastal region. But most importantly, 100% of the businesses that we have supported are still in business.

In the past six months, the program has expanded its reach to the south in Minami Soma, near the Daichii nuclear power plant. Given its proximity to the power plant, the region faces additional challenges to economic recovery. In some ways life is stagnant – homes have been abandoned – and in some, the daily life goes on – for instance, in an effort to make conditions safer for residents, top soil from children’s playgrounds has been scraped off. Small business owners are eager to reopen their doors, and we are helping them do just that.

And we are only halfway done. With the funds donated from NVIDIA and other generous donors, Mercy Corps, along with its local partner organization, PlaNet Finance will identify more small business candidates for support. Each month, several candidates are chosen. At this rate, we plan to keep granting through 2014.

On this somber two-year anniversary, Japan sees some silver linings. The disaster has created some fundamental cultural shifts, such as recognizing the benefits of microfinance investments, acknowledging the importance of psychosocial care and identifying ecologically sound opportunities for reconstructing the region.

Each small business owner we help has his or her own painful story of loss and suffering, and ultimately rebirth. And, each one of the enterprises Mercy Corps supports is one small part of a very large puzzle that is the recovery and revitalization of Japan’s tsunami zone.