First Times in Rikuzentakata – 2

Farming is just one activity that many people at Rikuzentakata are doing for the first time. Masanori Yoshida has practiced dentistry here for over 30 years but with his new dental clinic, replacing the one destroyed in the tsunami, he’s using new equipment such as Dental CT (computer tomography). With this state-of-the-art equipment, Yoshida can better see the condition of a patient’s teeth and bones. He performs surgical procedures that he could not undertake at his former clinic.

Yoshida Dental Clinic

Yoshida Dental Clinic

Because other local dentist offices were lost, Yoshida’s clinic is consistently busy. It’s now open seven days a week, with dentists coming from as far away as Tokyo to help. The scope of his practice and the number of dentists assisting him has changed since the tsunami.

Working with other local residents and outside professionals, Yoshida’s wife, Kazuko Yoshida, helped build Riku Café, “a living room for the city.” By chance she met Tokyo architect Mr. Hideki Koizumi, who noticed that after the tsunami, Rikuzentaka needed a gathering place, a “living room” where townspeople could gather to talk informally and hold events. While Koizumi worked with Tokyo University architects and corporate sponsors on the building design and construction, Yoshida created a team of Café “core members” who decided how the space would be used, who would manage it, and how much would be charged for coffee, tea, and snacks. For Yoshida, a dental hygienist, managing and planning this Café is a new experience.

Kazuko Yoshida checks the flowers at Riku Café

Kazuko Yoshida checks the flowers at Riku Café

“It’s my first time to do this sort of work,” she says. “It wasn’t so much something I decided to do but instead something that came about naturally. It evolved from people I already knew and had connections to. People come here and help without us asking, they just show up to play guitar or help in some way.” While she has no previous experience, Yoshida says, “We have a great team of workers and consultants so we feel confident when we make a decision to try something.”

Junko Okamoto’s home was destroyed by the tsunami but she now has a new profession. Okamoto formerly worked in retail but now she’s an assistant for the city’s social services. She’s enjoying the challenge of her new job and helping fellow community members but she’s found that unlike her previous work, it’s not a job that she can easily forget when her workday is over. Okamoto is one of the many residents who fled the tsunami by running away from the sea and up the hills over the plain. She remembers that day, looking down on the town as it was engulfed by the tidal wave, how the swirling buildings and vehicles “looked like clothes churning in a washing machine.”

Junko Okamoto with fellow temporary housing resident, Kazue Kinno

Junko Okamoto with fellow temporary housing resident, Kazue Kinno

It’s not just residents of the town that are engaging in new activities. Every weekend, volunteers from all over Japan’s largest island, Honshu, come to help rebuild the town, contributing not only their own time but personally bearing the costs for transportation and a place to stay.

Ayako Sato is a clinical psychologist, combining children and family counseling with art therapy. She left her teaching position in Tokyo to work for Rikuzentaka’s Board of Education, helping students, teachers, and their families who have had their lives disrupted by the tsunami. While she is engaged here in her profession of family counseling, it’s a very different experience than how she’s practiced previously. She’s used to seeing no more than five patients a day, while at Rikuzentaka, her daily workload now averages 10 since she’s the only psychologist covering 17 schools in the area.

“People here aren’t used to psychologists like me. We need to keep some professional separation from our clients but people here want to talk with me anytime, anywhere.” It’s hard for Sato to keep that professional distance while living in the same small community as her clients. But since arriving in Rikuzentakata five months ago, she made some friends and found some activities away from disaster victims.

Psychologist Oyako Sato in Temporary Housing

Psychologist Oyako Sato in Temporary Housing

It’s Sato’s first time to work in a rural area and there have been some adjustments with coworkers regarding expectations about a single professional woman. But the Board of Education appreciates her work and she is striving to help the people of Rikuzentakata.

The town still faces many challenges. Transportation is still highly limited because the railroad station and rail line have not been rebuilt. There’s a highway bus that takes passengers to Ichinoseki and the express trains that travel up and down Honshu, but those buses run only two times a day. One of the closest train stations is Kesennuma, 40 minutes away by car.

Volunteers Come by Bus on Weekends

Volunteers Come by Bus on Weekends

The biggest question before the city is where and how to rebuild. There’s some talk of rebuilding on the town’s plain, after raising its level by several meters and constructing even higher levees than the previous ones. Others suggest that that would be too expensive and impractical and that the plain should be used the same as many river flood plains in Japan, with parks, playgrounds, and fields, but not for buildings, homes, or businesses. But there’s a shortage of alternative land for rebuilding all the town’s structures that were lost.

No matter how they grapple with these issues, individuals in Rikuzentakata find themselves taking on new roles and engaging in new experiences. This town and this area of Japan have experienced an unprecedented disaster, one of the worst earthquakes ever recorded. There is much the rest of the world can learn about recovery and reconstruction as we watch this region face its challenges and rebuild.

Part 1

Published at http://rikutaka.ti-da.net/e4047879.html but not always accessible outside Japan.