Fighting To Rebuild a Town, 18 Months After the Tsunami

by Yuriko Nagano

“Yuck, the salmon is so slimy!” says seven-year-old Haruki Oyama excitedly, as he touches a freshly killed catch.

Haruki and 15 other elementary school children from the area were gathered by a river in northeastern Japan on a recent fall morning to learn the tricky business of salmon farming.

Local volunteer fishermen showed the secrets to snagging salmon, returned from the ocean to lay eggs in the river, and spotting the difference between males and females. They gave pointers on how to gather the eggs, fertilize them and set them in the riverbed.

Despite the cold and wind, the kids are thrilled by the experience.

The educational program was organized by the nonprofit run by Hiromichi Oikawa, a tall, lanky 35-year-old who runs a group striving to make the tsunami-devastated town of Minami Sanriku a more appealing place to live.

His operation – which also created a résumé bank for young professionals, runs an after-school study program, and manages and helped coordinate the formation of a new community-wide neighborhood association – is funded, in part, by NVIDIA’s Operation Kizuna.

Wiped Out
Many local residents moved away after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The entire business district was engulfed by a three-story-high tsunami, washing away most of the area’s 2,000 buildings. Some 750 people were killed in what used to be a community of 17,500, and close to half the town’s remaining residents still live in temporary housing.

But Oikawa’s commitment to his community is unwavering.

“I’m doing this because the devastation made us almost hopeless – no jobs, inadequate educational system, no hope for the future,” he said. “Someone had to do something about it. It wasn’t a place anyone wanted to live in.”

The day the disaster hit, Oikawa was several hours away, and it took him days to fully grasp the scale of the destruction. Roads were torn up, so Oikawa spent two full days — walking mostly – first being reunited with his school-age daughter and then returning home to find that his wife and two other children were safe.

Oikawa had the wit to use his social media network to alert the outside world to how badly his port town was hit, so help and supplies would come. After looking after his family, he started to devote his talents to help his town in every way possible. Oikawa hasn’t stopped working since.

The daunting task has made him feel that he’s unable to rest. He typically works into the early morning hours, catches four hours sleep and then starts all over again.

Children looking at farmed fish.
Learning about the tricky business of salmon farming.

During the week, he spends most of his time on his paid job, several hours away in Sendai City. In the evenings he focuses on the nonprofit, talking by phone with his seven full-time and five part-time project managers.

Oikawa spends weekends in Minami Sanriku, plunging himself into the nonprofit’s work. However, he rarely has time to see his family, who live on the other end of town. Yet he desperately wants to get his community back on its feet.

Oikawa’s main worries these days are a lack of funding and manpower for the many projects he wants to run to help the local economy. He hopes to turn workshops like the children’s weekend program into paid events that out-of-towners can participate in, and then use that revenue to fund other projects.

Working with his dedicated staff members excites Oikawa. They come from diverse backgrounds. A top manager is a former cook. Another is a car mechanic. A third is a live house sound engineer. Oikawa is touched by the number of townspeople he’d never previously met who want to lend a hand.

“I’m doing this for the future of not just my children, but for the future and survival of this community,” he says.