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Mon 21 May 2012

Event report: Giving back to Japan 2 – Community Leaders Report

Event report: Giving back to Japan 2 – Community Leaders Report

At the second Giving Back to Japan event on May 16, five mayors of towns and cities in areas of Tohoku devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, were invited to report on progress in their efforts to rebuild.

The event was organized by the Netherlands Chamber of Commerce in Japan and Tohoku Planning Forum (TPF), in cooperation with 17 foreign chambers of commerce, and sponsored by nine companies. 

 The mayors were Hidetoshi Watanabe of Aizu Misato-Machi, Fukushima Prefecture; Kimiaki Toda of Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture; Kiichi Numazaki of Yamada-Machi, Iwate Prefecture; Tsuneaki Iguchi of Iwanuma, Miyagi Prefecture; and Yoshiaki Suda of Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture. In a discussion moderated by radio personality Peter Barakan, the five mayors each gave a short rundown describing the destruction the tsunami wreaked on their towns on that terrible day, and their efforts so far to rebuild, as well as their plans and visions for the future.

They described both the destruction, loss of thousands of their fellow citizens, and decimation of their residential areas and industrial facilities. But they also reported on the progress of their rebuilding efforts and solicited feedback on current efforts and future plans for reconstruction of their areas. Some of the mayors mentioned the potential benefits of the response to the disaster, and the opportunities for regions away from the major cities as governments and companies move to decentralize their operations, and develop offices and data centers for cloud computing, and others, for example.

Aizu Mayor Watanabe noted that his town had taken in a large number of refugees after the disaster, and that hundreds are still living in temporary housing. And due to its industrial base being decimated, a huge amount of investment will be needed to bring Aizu back.

And yet, the mayors’ message was primarily one of hope and optimism as their reconstruction plans gather steam. A huge amount of work remains to be done. Several of the mayors described plans to relocate residential areas to upland regions away from the danger of future tsunami, and hundreds of projects already approved and under way. In addition to these enormous undertakings, efforts to rebuild industrial bases devastated in the disaster, present numerous opportunities to start anew with new infrastructure.

A recurring theme was the need for support in their efforts to maintain local control of the rebuilding process. This, they agreed, is the best way to ensure that the reconstruction meets the needs of local residents and their communities.

 One audience member asked if the mayors planned to rebuild their towns like they used to be, or would there be differences? Before the disaster, many communities in the area were already only barely sustainable, with a majority of the residents well over retirement age and little to offer young people entering the work force. “Young people tend to leave the area and head for Tokyo,” Ofunato Mayor Toda said. “We need to create some incentive for them to stay.” He noted that some initiatives, such as a proposed “mega-solar” power plant, a smart grid, hybrid energy systems and biomass energy projects, as well as sustainable wood housing, could help alleviate this chronic drain of talented people and lead to a more prosperous future.

 Yamada-machi Mayor Numazaki described his town’s plans to move its residential area to higher ground and build a higher seawall, both of which will require huge amounts of funding. He also said they were planning to rebuild infrastructure for primary industries such as fishing, as well as create facilities to attract new industries such as tourism.
The mayors also cited lessons learned from the disaster, and their intention to incorporate these lessons into their plans for a sustainable future. For example, Iwanuma Mayor Iguchi noted that on the Sendai Plain, one of the characteristics is the type of trees that tend to be planted around the houses and towns, which helped to dissipate the energy of the tsunami. “We intend to plant more such trees and use them as a natural barrier to protect our homes,” he said.

 Subsidence of the land due to the effects of the tsunami will continue to be a problem for the areas struck by the disaster. “We have to start by elevating the ground, a process that will require a lot of both time and money,” Mayor Iguchi said, noting that his town had suffered subsidence of almost a full meter in many places.

Another common theme was jobs for local residents and “creative reconstruction,” including the creation of smart cities boasting new industries and attractive lifestyles, while preserving the Tohoku region’s traditions and history, as well as the key existing industries.
One audience member asked what the foreign community could provide. What do the affected communities need? “Everything,” one mayor replied, to general laughter. But the participants agreed that what they wanted most was long-term, friendly relations with communities overseas, sustainable investment in their communities. A boost in tourism and the number of visitor coming to enjoy the natural beauty and culture of the region also couldn’t hurt.

The mayors, asked how they would encourage investment in their areas, mentioned various incentives, including tax breaks, land grants, subsidies and many other initiatives.

Onagawa Mayor Suda expressed how gratified he was by the response of the foreign community, and the interest and concern for his community shown by so many people around the world. During the presentations, a Twitter feed was projected on a screen on the stage. It showed that Twitter was trending in Japan, indicating the intense interest that the Giving Back to Japan event, and the issue of rebuilding Tohoku, was generating worldwide.

The event was also webcast live and the videos posted later at and in English at

For more information about the Tohoku Planning Forum, please see

The press coverage:
GIVING BACK TO JAPAN2 in Asian Scientist
United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR)

EURObiZ Japan

Text: Robert Cameron