The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami devastated Ishinomaki City in Miyagi Prefecture. More than 3,500 people are dead or missing in the city of 160,000. Rias No Mori (The Forest of Rias), a nonprofit founded in 2011 that has worked to help Ishinomaki’s people and economy recover, visited San Francisco for this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival.
Rias formally established in 2012, first started as administrators of permanent housing constructed in the city shortly after the disaster. The organization has since worked to enrich the lives of children and bolster the local economy through traditional culture.
According to Hideyuki Takano, a founding board member of the organization, it helped build and manage 11 permanent homes less than a year after the disaster with help from Kougakuin University of Tokyo and a $250,000 donation from the Asian Real Estate Association of America (AREAA).
Allen Okamoto, founding chair and director emeritus of AREAA, said his organization donated to Rias after learning about them through JEN, a Japanese nonprofit that organizes disaster relief.
“The major reason that we picked this project is that there was not a lot of permanent housing being built,” Okamoto wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly.
Rias no Mori performed at the annual festival to raise awareness of their work and to thank Okamoto, who is also a co-chair of the festival. Takano, Deputy Executive Director Sakae Shishikura, calligrapher Hiroki Takeshima and Tomoya Kinoshita attended the festival.
Shishikura and Takano said reconstruction efforts are slow, with 13,000 people still living in temporary housing. “It will still take much time, it will take at least another 10 years,” Takano said. He said fewer volunteers are coming to the region to help, but there is still much to be done. “We need a plan for the next 20 to 30 years.”
Shishikura said the biggest issue was the mental health of children in the region. While Ishinomaki’s students may be physically healthy, they are enduring considerable mental stress. Shishikura said Ishinomaki has the highest rate of truancy among middle school students in Japan. With the consolidation of several schools, children attend classes in temporary classrooms built on the grounds of other schools. Moreover, Shishikura said many of the city’s parks and recreation spaces have yet to be rebuilt, leaving children to spend more time indoors.
Kumagai, owner of Kumagai Master Thatchers, worked with locals to revitalize their community and give children an opportunity to relieve stress through traditional crafts and nature. Shishikura said Rias no Mori has bought horses for animal therapy and rents a small farm in the mountains where children can experience traditional farm work. “The children enjoy the experience, but I think parents are far more relieved their children have an opportunity to get out once in a while,” Shishikura said.
According to Takano, Kumagai also wished to revive his community and business by rehabilitating the reed beds of the Kitakami River, which was buried in sludge after the tsunami. The reeds harvested from the river serve as building materials for traditional thatched roofs, such as those at the Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture.
Calligraphy at the Cherry Blossom Festival
Takeshima painted four works of calligraphy in San Francisco. One piece was presented at the April 17 Friendship Reception, and three more at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California April 18. Takeshima first drew the Japanese words “furusato” (homeland) for the Friendship Reception. At the cultural center, he drew “OVER,” in reference to the tragedy Ishinomaki is trying to leave behind, a series of shapes and emotions signifying the diversity of people and experiences in life and a large work depicting a blooming cherry blossom tree with a poem by Buddhist poet Shinran.