One Year from 3/11

Posted by Jim Ivanoff
March 12th, 2012

Last week the BC Wood Japan Office once again organized a Canadian Pavilion on behalf of our wood products industry at the Nikkei Architectural and Construction Materials Show in Tokyo with eight member companies participating. We were very much looking forward to this show as it is one of the main venues for our promotional activities in Japan. However, it was on the final afternoon of last year’s Nikkei Show that the 9.0 magnitude earthquake wreaked havoc across northern Japan and for this reason there were many mixed emotions around the show this year.

Many of the participating BC Wood members also took part with us last year and thus experienced firsthand the violent shaking at Tokyo Big Sight and the resulting chaos in getting home. We all remember the horror we felt after reaching the relative safety of our hotel rooms and homes only to see on TV that the entire coastline north of Tokyo had been literally wiped out. Relief in the fact that Tokyo survived the earthquake and tsunami quickly turned to great fear as nuclear reactors began exploding and spewing radioactive material into the atmosphere. At the time it seemed like a never ending disaster. As we braced for aftershocks, we could only wonder what would happen next.

With TV crews from around the world flocking to Sendai, fear and despair was replaced by pride and respect as the people of Tohoku admirably worked together to survive the harsh conditions and begin the arduous process of rebuilding. There were no riots, only organized queues. People helped each other and the Japanese military moved in immediately to support them. The international community led by 35,000 American troops came rushing with shovels, heavy machinery, food, and blankets. Next, BC Wood with its members stood ready as the Japanese government turned its attention to building temporary housing for the thousands of homeless and emergency shipments of lumber and plywood began to flow.

Along with our Canada Wood partners, I made several trips to the worst hit areas. It was shocking to see the level of destruction first hand and to see the resolve of the local people in their desire to rebuild their towns. Mayors and other city officials who were lucky to survive the killer wave were working 16+ hour days to make sure that this would happen (most have not taken a single day off since last March). Despite the usual politicking in Tokyo, these towns were able to secure budgets to move their populations to higher ground and begin new communities.

This year as the country marked the sorrow of March 11th, 2011, many people wondered how these communities were fairing. The TV shows that I watched explained that the affected area has seen on average a 10% drop in population as young people left to find work in Tokyo and beyond. Many of those who have stayed so far are also looking to leave as the lack of substantial reconstruction so far has meant that there has been no revitalization of the local economies and thus very few jobs.

In fact, in the hard hit town of Minami-Sanrikucho only 10% of the neighbourhoods have been able to put together plans to move to higher ground and rebuild. However, as of this March 11th, not even one such project has been started. Hopes of moving the first groups of people into their new homes by early 2013 seem impossible. People with the financial means are deciding not to wait and are buying homes in neighbouring towns unaffected by the tsunami. The future of towns like Minami-Sanrikucho seems almost as bleak now as it did one year ago. However, the message that those towns wanted to give on this dark anniversary was that they are not giving up.

On the floor of the Nikkei Show, you could also feel the energy of a country trying to move forward. Attendance was good and people were discussing real projects along with new business opportunities. Maybe things have not moved as quickly or as smoothly as had been hoped, but progress is being made on both the reconstruction and nuclear fronts as well as the economy overall.

Let us not forget, but let us move forward.

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