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Time for Reconstruction

Recently, there have been a number of articles in Japan and about Japan around the world that are starting to examine the shift in work priorities from relief to reconstruction in the aftermath of the triple disaster that started with the March 11 earthquake.  Some have pointed to the expectation that the number of volunteers was expected to decline after Golden Week in early May. Some indicated that the volunteers did indeed decline, while others said that the numbers are actually slightly higher than before GW. Others pointed towards the issues surrounding greater globalization of Japan.  Still others point to the difficult to fathom needs that still remain and how to build momentum to keep moving forward.  Finally, there is growing evidence that mental health issues are starting to emerge.

There are still many needs that are unmet and relief work is necessary.

That being said, I believe that is most timely to think now about the reconstruction. The total effort required is very difficult to fathom.  This is both in terms of the human power necessary and the financial cost of reconstruction.

However, even before 3/11, the entire east Japan region outside of Kanto was plagued with an aging population and an economy based on the “export” of goods to other places in Japan and around the world.  The communities in Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi, and Aomori relied on fishing, farming, subcontracted manufacturing, tourism, and crafts for the vast majority of their income and livelihood.  This region was among the most elderly, on average, of any place on the planet.

But in the aftermath of the disaster, the recovery will require a tremendous influx of human and financial capital – including a whole lot of young people.  Most of the work required now is hard work.  There is physical labor, certainly in the cleanup and rebuilding.  There will be a huge need for skilled and skill-building tradesmen.  Care for health and well-being, including medical and food services, but also including physical therapy, nutrition, sports and fitness coaching, training, and mental care will be critical.  Caring for the elderly and young children who have been displaced is, of course, the priority, but care for the care givers, volunteers and professionals alike, will become big needs as the number of people who work in the recovery effort continues to grow.

I think that many of the needs fit into three relatively distinct areas.  The first is Administrative.  It includes the training and management of volunteers and supplies.  But it also includes the logistics, data entry, fundraising, media management, publicity, ICT/technology, and leadership.  The second area could be called Welfare.  This includes much of the support in the evacuation centers.  But it also includes the support work in volunteer centers, in the communities themselves, in schools, and work camps.  Providing meals, counseling services, legal services, sports, arts and crafts, massage, barbers and hair stylists, nail care, and many more services that provide for the well being of people in the recover process will help to create well-being.  The final area is, of course, Manual Labor-Intensive Work.  This is the relief work most frequently referred to in the volunteer activities.  But in addition to the clean-up and construction will be the need for skilled trades and people who will build skills to become tradesmen.  This could be thought of as apprenticeship, but is really simply part of the learn-by-doing process.  Plumbing, sewage, electrical, painting, farming, fishing, automobile maintenance, equipment maintenance, glass work, furniture craftsmen, and many other trades will need people.

At first, much of the work will require volunteers.  The financial burden of hiring professionals to come and fix it is an impossible hurdle.  But even the volunteers, I think, can’t be “hired guns”.  For one, without repeat volunteers, the huge number of people required is not likely to be met.  But more importantly, the long term needs of the communities of east Japan – and all of Japan outside of Greater Tokyo, Osaka, and a few huge metropolises – is for young people to love the communities and stay for the long haul.

It is particularly important to think about how to enable a more healthy local and community-based economy, because when the feared Great Kanto Earthquake hits in Shizuoka, Kanagawa, or off the coast of Chiba or Ibaraki, greater Tokyo will be devastated and debilitated.  Ultimately – and quite possibly very soon – the entire region and the whole of Japan, will not be able to rely on Tokyo, the central government, or the majority of major corporations for primary support.

What sounds like a huge conundrum may, in fact, be hiding a blessing. A lot of what should be a large part of community life already exists in much of Japan.  There is also a strong sense that these communities should be connected with each other and with the wider global community.  On the other hand, the economic and social fabric of community life should be self-reliant and independent.

There is much work to be done – now.  So let’s get crackin’!


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