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Reflections on two years supporting tsunami-hit communities

Japan, March 7, 2013

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  • Randy Martin on the first visit to tsunami-stricken communities to investigate potential economic recovery strategies. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps
  • A high school gym converted into an evacuation center shortly after the tsunami. Photo: Randy Martin/Mercy Corps
  • Ms Takahashi outside her kimono shop. With the help from Mercy Corps she hired two staff to help her get her business back up and running. Photo: Randy Martin/Mercy Corps
  • A Tohoku cooperative harvesting seaweed to sell for food, thanks to help from Mercy Corps and Walmart. Photo: Randy Martin/Mercy Corps

I arrived in Japan’s disaster-stricken Tohoku region only a few days after the massive earthquake and tsunami in March of 2011. Nearly 20,000 lives had been lost, over 120,000 homes destroyed and 300,000 people left without shelter.

But odd as it may seem, my purpose representing Mercy Corps on that first helicopter trip to Tohoku was to assess what was not broken. We needed to figure out how we could use the capacities and resilience of Tohoku to respond to immediate relief needs and begin the long journey toward recovery. By taking that strategy we could help preserve jobs and restore livelihoods as quickly as possible — keeping survivors from the humiliation of having to live on handouts.

Getting back to work

Even in the midst of the rubble in those early days after the disaster, I would come across shop owners clearing out what was left of their premises, trying to salvage what they could and get back to work as soon as possible. I remember clearly a convenience store employee wearing muddy boots and a not-too-sharp uniform standing next to what was left of his store in downtown Kesennuma, holding a cardboard sign reading ‘WE ARE OPEN!’

The only thing missing for this store and so many other small businesses was their customers. Most of the local community were then living in high school gym halls in the hills above the tsunami zone, living off emergency deliveries of food, clothes and other essentials brought in from elsewhere and distributed for free.

At Mercy Corps we know that the longer this kind of aid continues, the more difficult it is for the local economy to recover. The local market loses demand. More people are laid off, more people must rely on handouts and the cycle of need continues, getting harder and harder to break.

Keeping the local economy alive

So, along with our long-time partners Peace Winds Japan, we began to tackle this by giving vouchers to local people instead of handing out goods and food. This allowed families to go to the local stores which had re-opened and buy what they really needed, rather than rely on handouts from elsewhere. It gave the families choice, kept local stores open and the economy alive.

From the voucher program, we moved on to keep keystone industries in the area going. We helped reopen the dock-side fish market in Ofunato; with help from Xylem we refitted and reopened a salmon hatchery in Minami-Sanriku; and with a million dollars from Walmart we helped a local fishing cooperative plant and cultivate the 2011 seaweed harvest within a narrow seasonal window, and then sell to national buyers. With each one of these projects we were able to inject our support just once to get things started, and then they were on their way and have continued to thrive.

Shortly after, we began work with the NGO PlaNet Finance Japan and the Kesennuma Shinkin Bank — with support from NVIDIA — to provide start-up and re-employment grants as well as interest subsidies to help small businesses rebuild. The program has reached more than 200 businesses employing nearly 1,000 people, giving them the support they need to revive their own communities. They are the antithesis of the helpless victims so often portrayed by the media and the aid community — and they are the ones best positioned to bring recovery to their communities.

Each story is one of tenacity and perseverance

Since that first helicopter ride two years ago, I have continued to return to Tohoku. During my more recent trips back, I have visited as many of these entrepreneurs as I can. Officially these are ‘monitoring trips,’ but in reality they deeply inspire me, and I eagerly undertake each one feeling lucky to go. Each and every story I hear is one of humble heroism, tenacity and perseverance.

There’s Ms Hachiko Hatakeyama, a woman who had never run a business before but with our support stepped up to run the local nursery; there’s Mr Kashiwagi, who couldn’t afford to rebuild his repair shop and so instead used a start-up grant to study and launch a new biofuel business from scratch; and Ms Takahashi, who used a re-employment grant to hire back two of her former employees to her kimono repair and dry cleaning business.

These and the 200 other local small businesses like them that we’ve reached are collectively the region’s largest employer. But they are also the very businesses that lie at the center of community life here, and are a critical part of the recovery for everyone here.

Moving forward

Looking ahead, we’re going to work with Japan Platform, Japan’s leading consortium of community and non-governmental organizations, to analyze the strengths and challenges of the response to the 2011 tsunami. From there we’ll help ensure that the lessons learned are not lost, and that in the next emergency — which will surely come — local organizations can respond even better than before.

I feel very fortunate that we have found ways to support the people of Tohoku to move forward. Though progress will take time, I am very encouraged by what I see.