Canada Rebuilds Lives in Japan’s Tohoku Region
On the same day, British Columbia’s Minister of Forests, Steve Thomson, signed a plaque in Tokyo to honour the Jericho Support Centre – currently under construction in the Japanese city of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture.
The centre is the fourth facility built under the Canada-Tohoku Reconstruction Project, spearheaded by the Canada Wood Group in an effort to help Japanese communities recover from the 2011 tsunami. The project is a joint initiative funded by the federal government of Canada, the provincial governments of BC and Alberta and the Canadian forestry industry.
Shawn Lawlor, Canada Wood Group’s Director of Operations in Japan, has overseen the project from the very beginning. In the following diary, he looks back on the past three years and explains how the project has become a symbol of lasting friendship between two countries.
On the Road Through Tohoku (Spring 2011)
We called it “Operation Maple Cookies.” Three Canadians set out for Japan’s Tohoku region in an SUV packed with 20 boxes of maple cookies. Our destination was the epicenter of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that sent waves as high as 38 meters up to 10 kilometres inland, destroying everything in its path. One month had passed and the roads were now clear. We wanted to see what Canada could do to help. Our plan was to deliver cookies to cheer up workers building temporary housing in the region and to talk to people in the affected communities.
Myself, Jim Ivanoff of BC Wood and Kevin Bews, who is part of our Japan team, drove along the 500-kilometre stretch of Tohoku’s devastated coastline. Our hearts sank as we entered the region. We were unprepared for the devastation and suffering. We saw fishing boats lodged atop five-storey buildings. We passed rail cars tossed about like toys and houses ripped from their foundations and reduced to piles of rubble. I remember seeing a little girl’s pink bicycle in an area completely wiped out by the tsunami. It was the only thing left standing, training wheels still intact.
I was in Tokyo when the earthquake struck. I watched the coverage of the tsunami on television. But traveling through Tohoku’s villages, and meeting the people, really brought home the scale of the devastation. Everyone was in a state of shock, struggling to cope with the loss of loved ones, their homes and, in some cases, entire villages. I remember thinking that it would take years to repair the damage. Japan is a wealthy country, but the scope of devastation was so extensive that these communities clearly needed help.
‘Why Don’t We Build Something?’ (Autumn 2011)
International aid agencies, like the Red Cross, were already distributing water, food and other immediate relief supplies to communities by the time we took our trip to Tohoku. The Japanese government was also providing immediate assistance by building around 60,000 temporary housing units. So we decided to do something long-term to help rebuild the region. We thought, “With all our contacts in the Canadian forest products industry and our in-house expertise, why don’t we build something?”
But first we had to secure funding. Fortunately, the Canadian forest industry was very supportive of this initiative, donating $500,000 in seed money to get the project started. Then, by fall 2011, both the BC and federal governments contributed $2 million and the Canada-Tohoku Reconstruction Project was born. It was really exciting because Joe Oliver, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources at the time, and BC’s Minister of Forests, Steve Thomson, visited Japan to announce the formation of the $4.5 million fund.
We then had to decide what public facilities to build and where to build them. Our head office in Vancouver established a project evaluation and administrative committee and then put out a call for submissions. During this first round, we received around 18 proposals from different communities in the Tohoku region. From these, the committee selected two initial projects in Miyagi Prefecture: a library and a public market.
‘You are the First People to Believe in Us’ (Spring 2013)
The Donguri Ann Public Library and Yuriage Public Market projects were constructed in Natori City near the Sendai Airport – where the initial television footage of the tsunami was shot and broadcasted to the world. These projects were chosen in part because we actually had access to the land on which to build them. We received numerous worthy project ideas, but land was difficult to access in most cases. Before allowing reconstruction on large swaths of coastal land, the government placed a moratorium on building in order to first raise ground levels and install sea walls to protect the area from future tsunamis. We ran into a number of obstacles along the way from permitting issues to labour shortages. But despite these challenges, we were happy to finally finish both the market and the library projects by spring 2013.
It was the Yuriagi Public Market project that showed me how much our work was helping people. Before the tsunami, this fish market was a vital commercial hub in the region. After March 11, 2011, it was completely swept away. I met Sakurai San, the leader of the Yuriage Public Market Cooperative, during the re-construction process. I spoke with him many times and was touched by his personal story. He told me that he lost a number of friends and merchant colleagues, his livelihood, his home and personal possessions in the tsunami. He even survived the first 48 hours on just a single slice of bread.
Mr. Sakurai initially lost hope and thought he would have to give up on rebuilding the cooperative. At the time, the Japanese government focused its attention on constructing seawalls and temporary housing. We were the first people to show up and say, “Hi, we’re from Canada and we want to help you rebuild.” The market was important for the local economy because fishermen and women and other merchants needed a place to sell their goods. It was also a major tourist attraction. At the market’s opening ceremony, Mr. Sakurai told me that Canadians had brought his community a gift from God. “You are the first people to believe in us and this market is going to take us forward,” he said. I will never forget this. The Canada-Tohoku Friendship Pavilion stands in the centre of the Yuriage Public Market and has become affectionately known by locals as Maple Hall. It was the first building to be reconstructed in this tsunami affected area and has quickly become a symbol of hope.
‘I’ll Put in a Good Word for You’ (Spring 2013)
In January 2013 we sent out a second request for proposals after the first two projects were completed. There was one day during the second round that really sticks out in my mind. It was Friday March 29th – right before the submission deadline – and a group of 12 people showed up in Canada Wood Group’s Tokyo office to hand-deliver their proposal to me. They traveled more than two hours from Iwaki City in Fukushima prefecture to urge me to build a support centre for people living with disabilities in the region. The group’s chairperson bowed deeply and, speaking with a crackle in his voice, handed me their application documents. I thought to myself, “Oh my goodness, there’s so much pressure to accept this.” But it wasn’t my call to make the decision, so I said, “Well, I’ll put in a good word for you, but I can’t guarantee anything.” It was hard not to accept the proposal on the spot.
As it happened, our Canada Wood committee in Vancouver ended up selecting two different projects: Oranda Jima House, an after school children’s club and community centre in the town of Yamada-machi and a school in another city. So we had to break the bad news to the group from Iwaki. But, in the end, luck was on their side. Several months later, the school project fell through because their land was needed for emergency road construction. The disability centre was the runner-up. So we got to call them back and say, “By the way, you got it!” They were so delighted.
The Oranda Jima House opened in July of this year. Many people in the town of Yamada-machi, 300 kilometres northeast of Fukushima, still live in temporary housing. So the new facility serves as a vibrant gathering place for people and includes playrooms, a music room, counselling rooms, a playground and a kitchen.
We expect the Jericho Support Centre to be complete by January 2015. Local officials from the social welfare corporation, who will run the facility, tell us that they are extremely happy. An influx of people from coastal communities – especially near the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant – has really stressed Iwaki’s healthcare system. The tsunami and nuclear disaster caused a lot of trauma and still haunt people more than three years later.
Forty Years of Friendship (Autumn 2014)
For me, the Canada-Tohoku Reconstruction Project represents an enduring legacy of friendship between Canada and Japan. It speaks volumes about the partnership that we’ve developed over the years.
It might have started as a three-person, maple cookie mission to a disaster-struck area of Japan, but the project has grown into a multi-million dollar effort with real results. It has helped people rebuild their lives – and I feel privileged to be part of something so special.