Towns and Residents Re-building Together
Otsuchi Town in Iwate Prefecture was badly damaged by the tsunami on March 11 last year and lost many people, among them the town mayor. Recovery was deemed slow but the new mayor in office since last August is helping the town move forward promptly with its plans. While working on agreements with residents about re-building their homes, the town is moving on a project to create a park built on top of debris and wreckage from the tsunami, which will protect the town from future tidal damage. Otsuchi Town Mayor, Yutaka Ikarigawa, and President of Oraga Otsuchi Yume Hiroba, Keiichi Abe, spoke about the current situation and their vision for the future.
Creating a new town with an accessible administration
Interview with Mayor Ikarigawa
—Nearly a year has passed since you became mayor.
This town lost a lot of its public servants in the tsunami and six months later was lagging behind other towns in terms of recovery. The disaster was of a scale said to occur just once in a thousand years, and in order to begin moving quickly we set about establishing a new system.
Town administrative functions were re-organized so that decisions could be made faster and were broadly organized into three areas of promoting industry, consultation and recovery. Ten zones within the town were drawn up with councils established for each, and agreements were made with them before the end of the year. This year we have held seminars concerning the town’s plans and agreements with residents, and applied for federal reconstruction grants.
—What policies will be important from here on?
What is built on the land that has been readied is of importance. I want to make good use of this space and make progress on what the landscape will look like, the location of public facilities and the building of industry.
The population of Otsuchi Town has been declining in recent years and this was observed by the national government in June of 2010. The disaster in March last year furthered the decline and people are still leaving today. We need to build a new town.
One project we are planning is a memorial park which will be built on a base of wreckage and debris left by the tsunami. The town will collect donations from the public nationwide as it can’t wait for grants from the national government. The park will act as a memorial and a reminder of those lost in the tsunami, while acting to prevent similar damage and serving as a beautiful landscape.
—How do you encourage residents to take part in this re-building?
Some residents voice their concerns toward the government while others say they don’t understand the plans or the system. We have to promote more information sharing, make clear the plans for the future and have the public understand the current situation.
To do this the town office needs to have a presence out in the public in addition to its seminars and so forth. We opened an information plaza in the center of town in late June which has information panels, plastic models and footage, and there are always staff on hand to field questions and chat with residents.
We also need to provide opportunities for people to participate. 15 years ago the Emperor and Empress and some 20,000 people visited the town for an event. Preparations lasted over a year and the people of the town came together, creating something intangible that remains until this day.
—What policies do you have for revitalizing industry?
Attracting large corporations is important but we need to start local businesses. A company will commence operations this autumn which will serve as a platform for creating new projects and starting new businesses. I want to see town woods used to build new homes and tourism projects which increase the number of visitors. A department within the town office will also be set up to boost co-operation with the private sector.
It is not just the government that energizes industry and builds new towns. In carrying out an “accessible administration” and collating the efforts of not just residents but people from companies, universities and volunteer organizations from outside the town, various things will happen.
Making towns, making people.
Interview with Keiichi Abe, President of Oraga Otsuchi Yume Hiroba
—How do you look back on activities to date?
Our organization was formed in November last year and since then has been involved in various projects aimed at rejuvenating business and lifestyles. One example that stands out it is the Oraga Otsuchi Recovery Food Hall – a large tent shelter which most importantly serves as a place for residents and visitors to come together. In the day it is a cafeteria, sometimes used as a meeting place for town staff, and at night younger residents come together to have a drink. It’s a place where people from inside and outside the town and inside and outside the government can come together.
I hope that I can hand over the reins of the hall before the end of this year and that the people involved can use the experience to venture out on their own. I also hope that the hall continues to serve as an opportunity and a hub for those creating new businesses.
—What are your plans from here?
First I want to work on tourism, and business training which includes elements of leadership and team-building, with the hope of holding large-scale events and international conferences in the future. I think tourism will be an important pillar of re-building and increasing the amount of exchange, which is something the Mayor is aiming for.
I also want to focus on efforts which involve the younger generation, who will carry Otsuchi into the future. An example of this was the “children’s congress” held in July in which some 20 elementary and junior high school students from the town were selected to take part in town council meetings and hold mock meetings of their own. Through activities such as this I want them to learn how the town functions, to be proud of their town and to be aware that they shoulder the town’s future.
Children are treasured assets of the land. A meeting was held at a school after the disaster and all of the children said that they wanted to do something for Otsuchi. I wouldn’t mind seeing a junior high or high school student starting a business themselves, or a student studying IT become involved in public relations for the town. I want to foster children who find various possibilities and can create work themselves.
—What do you think of residents’ involvement in town building?
A lot of younger people, in particular high school students, attended a symposium in June and listened to the Mayor’s presentation. Until now residents and government have tended to sit on opposite sides of the fence but I sensed a change in mood while the Mayor was up on stage. A lot of questions and opinions were exchanged afterwards. Some of them were critical but there were also warm messages of support for the Mayor and I felt that he has become an ally of the public.
While continuing this kind of exchange I believe that individual projects involving both residents and the local government should be promoted and trust built. Some residents have voiced their opinions and said that they were interested in trying this or that, and there is hope in those proposals.
People use words like town-building and recovery often. I believe that people build towns and that the exchange between these people and their subsequent growth is a wonderful thing. The disaster has brought people’s basic nature to the fore. Building towns is building people. I hope to contribute to the town with this in mind.