More than up to the challenge

Japan, June 9, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Tsutomu Nakai, a manager for the Chamber of Commerce in tsunami-ravaged Rikuzentakata, Japan. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    All that remains of downtown Rikuzentakata, where the Chamber of Commerce and Tsutomu's house once stood. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Tsutomu, sitting in the temporary Chamber of Commerce office, describes his experiences at the evacuation center. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Using a post-tsunami photograph of Rikuzentakata, Tsutomu points out where his house used to stand. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps

Since mere moments before Japan's tsunami hit, and after long weeks of enduring its aftermath, Tsutomu Nakai has been faced with a series of unimaginable decisions. Some saved his life, and his family's lives. Other decisions put their personal lives on hold.

And nearly all of those decisions have helped improve the lives of Japanese survivors.

Tsutomu is Office Manager for the Chamber of Commerce in the tsunami-ravaged city of Rikuzentakata — a place that lost as much as 40 percent of its population, most of its single-family housing, and 80 percent of its businesses. As one of the leaders for the Chamber of Commerce, it's part of Tsutomu's job to help the town's surviving businessmen and businesswomen reopen their stores and get the local economy going again.

Surveying the near-complete destruction of this area and standing in the Chamber's temporary office — housed in a tiny, prefabricated building — it seems like a daunting if not impossible task to rebuild this city and make it a thriving business environment again. Mercy Corps and local partner Peace Winds have pitched in by helping equip the office with laptop computers, an Internet router, chairs, a color printer and file cabinets. It's a start, and a measure of encouragement for the years of work yet to come.

And yet, as Tsutomu Nakai tells his story of the last three months, you get the sense that he might just be the man to turn all this around.

How he survived

On the day of the tsunami, Tsutomu was at work in the now-destroyed Chamber of Commerce building in downtown Rikuzentakata. He felt the monstrous earthquake and then saw the sea recede, an ominous sign of what was soon to come. Hearing the tsunami sirens, he ran to get his bicycle and pedaled home as fast as he could.

Once home — with heart racing, sirens blaring and chaos all around him — he got his wife, mother and one of the family's dogs into their car and sped off toward the local elementary school, which is on higher ground. They were almost there when they hit a traffic jam. Instinctively, Tsutomu told his wife to head up the hillside to the school, then took his mother by the hand and led her quickly up the hill through a bamboo forest. 

"Then I saw the tall yellow wave coming," he recalled. "The people right behind us didn't make it; they were swallowed up."

When the three survivors reached the elementary school, 700 people were already there. Just like Tsutomu and his family, they had nothing but the clothes they were wearing. And their homes had just been swept away.

How he helped other survivors

"We didn't have anything at all," he explained. "No food, no blankets — and it was cold."

Hundreds of people huddled in the school gymnasium in frigid winter weather, with no electricity and only one small kerosene heater. Someone had to step up and do something. Tsutomu spoke up and suggested that they use the gymnasium's curtains as blankets.

"Every three people shared one curtain for warmth. But it was still very cold," Tsutomu said. "Very cold, no food; it was terrible. There were aftershocks, but it was too cold to sleep anyway. And there was no food the entire next day as well."

But then someone suggested that they visit the houses near the school, which were mostly undamaged, and ask residents for any water, rice and other food they could spare. People were very generous. Then, all of a sudden, a delivery truck for a well-known national convenience store showed up at the school and delivered an entire load of food.

"That was the first that everyone had enough to eat in nearly three days," he said. "And then more donations started coming in from the community and across the region. Peace Winds was among the first to arrive. There started to be enough food."

However, all those shipments of food and other supplies presented a challenge of its own: coordination. Someone needed to step up and organize the effort to cook for and clean up a place that was now housing more than 1,000 people. Tsutomu rose to the task again.

“I helped divide people into teams that cooked, delivered food and cleaned dishes. Everyone was working together to get through it,” Tsutomu explained. "Most people living there at the evacuation center knew each others’ faces, at least. No one fought or made trouble. There was a feeling that we all had to cooperate, so people volunteered to do things like clean toilets. When I asked people to help cook, dozens of hands went up right away."

Over the course of two weeks at the evacuation center, he lost more than 15 pounds, but helped keep hundreds of survivors fed and the whole place clean. He also helped establish rules and workflow for a place that still houses 500 people today.

How he'll help his city recover and rebuild

Tsutomu is now staying with relatives in the area, whose house was mostly unscathed by the damage. And, of course, that makes him think of the house he lost.

"There's nothing left but the foundation, everything else was stripped away," he said, "Including things we can't replace, like photos of our children."

He wants to rebuild on the same spot, but doesn't know if that will even be possible. The earthquake and tsunami physically sunk the land at least three feet, and Japan's government is unsure if anything at all should be built in areas that suffered the worst devastation.

Tsutomu often thinks of how it would feel to have his own house again. But he's decided to shift his focus elsewhere. Even while he was still living at the evacuation center, he was already working to get Rikuzentakata's businesses back to work.

“Because people need to be able to buy their own food and supplies, and businesspeople need to be able to make a living, we need to quickly put up stores,” he explained.

Local, regional and national government has asked Tsutomu's Chamber of Commerce to help find land where temporary shops can be built. Mercy Corps and Peace Winds are helping them out by looking into the possibility of grants to shopkeepers that would help purchase fixtures, furniture, supplies and inventory once they find a place to set up.

But this is a place that must truly start over from scratch: 750 members of Rikuzentakata's Chamber of Commerce, about 80 percent of the total membership, perished in the tsunami. About 65 percent of survivors would like to start a business again. The remaining 35 percent, mostly older people, will retire and live on a combination of social security and savings.

Most of his city is gone. There's a multitude of difficulties to rebuilding the local economy. And he's still living with relatives, unsure of how his family will rebuild their lives and home.

But Tsutomu Nakai has faced, and bested, a lifetime of challenges over the last three months. If there's a man for this job, it's Tsutomu — and Mercy Corps is proud to stand alongside him.