November 12th ~ Bob Stilger’s Notes on Japan #24: Rikuzentakada

Posted by Bob Stilger on November 12, 2011

Last day of three days in Tohoku disaster area.  We woke to a beautiful morning with a bright autumn sun on a smooth ocean.  Such a different view than the one eight months ago.

Rikuzentakada was a jewel of a small community.  Population of 17,000, it had a mild climate and a great deal of natural beauty.  It’s downtown area was also built on a wide plain at sea level facing the ocean.  It has been completely destroyed.  It is just isn’t there anymore.  A few buildings are still standing — but mostly the shops and houses and businesses are simply gone.

We spend the day with two pretty ordinary guys.  Fukuda-san is a former politician in his mid-fifties.  He stopped working with government a few years ago.  Tamara-san is bit older; they’ve been friends for 35 years.  Tamara-san is the President of a large Driving Training School.  They are both filled with ideas they are putting into action.  Tamara-san has started a company called Natsukashii Mirai which means, literally, “the future you long for because you remember it from the past.”  It is a business incubator founded for a ten year period to give birth to 7-8 businesses that can make a difference in the community.  Part of the difference Tamara-san wants to make is that he want’s young people to go ahead and leave — as they will — and go to Tokyo, but to come back to good jobs in Rikuzentakada.

Fukuda-san talks about how government can’t create anything new.  People need to do that.  Govenment goes in circles, ending up in the same place.  Upward spirals are what is needed now.  We need to really unleash the creativity of people to make a new future that combines old traditions with new technologies he says.  We need to plan and build differently for a future we want, not the past.  Talk about new building styles and zero-emissions.  Crazy ideas like, perhaps the young people who can run from a tsunami should live on lower ground than old people – but in 30 or 40 years they’ve be old people so that won’t work!

They were both so alive and engaged.  They believe that what they are doing is important for the restoration of their community as well as a model for the rest of Japan.  Tamara-san, who has a big collection of smile wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, says I’m a merchant priest.  Later I say to him, I imagine you’ve been a merchant priest for a long time — 3.11 created a context in which you could step forward more and offer yourself and your ideas.  I asked, how do we help others step forward as well?  Iwai-san, an old friend and colleague, a business executive from Tokyo who has been doing extensive volunteer work in Ishinomaki, another tsunami struck community, joined us as well. His comment was powerful:  people have changed since 3.11, but the old system is still in place.  Fukuda-san and Tamara-san nod in agreement.

Their sense is that even though so much has been destroyed, we can create a wonderful new community.

When I arrived in Japan this past spring, three weeks after the triple disasters, I started to believe that the ways in which the Tohoku was re-created would have profound implications for the rest of Japan and all the world.  It seemed possible that the dynamics of collective culture, combined with overwhelming needs, might unleash a collective creativity.  That’s what is happening in Rikuzentakada!  We came here because Ooki-san, an executive with a major Tokyo public relations firm visited here twice the summer and was overwhelmed by what he saw.  He came to our of our Youth Community Leader Dialogs in August and came away thinking that dialog with youth here might be one of the keys.  The purpose of our meeting today was to test the waters.  I suspect we’ll be back both with Youth Dialog as well as Future Center work.

Part of what makes this story inspirational for me is that Fukuda-san and Tamara-san are, at many levels, just a couple of ordinary guys.  We find them in communities everywhere.  People who are called forward to offer their leadership in a time of need.  I suspect that if they lived in the US, both would be Republicans — but those labels really don’t mean very much when we start to work with each other in community.

It’s been a honor to be with them today and I look forward to my next visit.

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