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Report from Minamisanriku, Tohoku: Four years after

I traveled to Minamisanriku last week during the 4th memorial of the 3.11.11 tsunami as a representative of the non-profit group OGA for Aid.  It was my first trip to Tohoku after nearly 25 years living in Japan.  It is a remarkably beautiful place, but we faced a cold front and snow flurries that were apparently similar to the deep chill on the first night after the disaster.

I was provided a tour of the town with explanations from people who survived.  I can’t describe the emotion when looking into a person’s eyes as they stood on location and told how they stayed alive and about those that did not.

Recovery is under way based on three key components: infrastructure, community and livelihood. 

Although the government is behind schedule on building long-term housing for refugees, the evidence of progress on infrastructure is all around.    Surrounding mountains are being collapsed to supply soil to raise the flood plain by 10 meters to establish a new business, non-residential, district.  Much dirt is in motion.

Reconstructing community relationships is more difficult. Unfortunate divisions remain. Neighborhoods are split emotionally by the degrees of destruction and loss each household has suffered, and each continues to endure.  It’s not easy for many to face each other at this time. And the town of Minamisanriku itself is only 10 years old.  It is a conglomeration of hamlets with varying cultures that didn’t come together sooner due to differing priorities that remain today.  We were told stories of core projects, such as the construction of a much needed supermarket, which have been delayed due to lack of consensus among residents.

Revitalization of livelihood and jobs appears to be the greatest challenge.  Even before the tsunami Minamisanriku faced an economic decline similar to much of rural Japan.  It is hoped that the focus of resources and mind power on this region can find long term solutions that may be leveraged by broader Japan.  

OGA for Aid is providing a modest, but appreciated role in the revitalization effort.  By 3.19.11 the founders of OGA were on the ground in Minamisanriku delivering food and supplies from around Japan.  They created a supply chain focused on those people that fell into gaps between government and other agency support.  One such neighborhood, that wasn’t directly damaged, contributed all their food and supplies to the refugees before they found that they weren’t eligible for any support themselves.   The housewives who were helped then remain leaders of local recovery efforts today and are key advocates of OGA programs.

OGA has evolved into providing services such as opening a community center, sponsoring Spring and Christmas festivals, arranging scouting trips for Tokyo business and schools to visit, providing visas for international interns to live and work in the area, and launching a farming business.   My current role as an adviser is to help the OGA leadership team to better structure and manage these overlapping benefits programs, as well as to volunteer hands-on support for activities and events.

About the author: Arthur is a Partner in Ingeni Consulting. He brings fifteen years hands-on consulting experience leading programs in IMS, McKinsey & Co. and PRTM. Working closely with senior management and client teams he has improved the operations of global companies in a wide range of industries and especially life sciences. Arthur has deep familiarity with the Japanese language and business practices with over 20 years in Japan. He has a BS in Physics from Oregon State University, and a MBA from Cornell University. Arthur is APICS certified in supply chain management and is a Six Sigma black belt. Prior to consulting Arthur conducted R&D in Japan and the U.S. for Bridgestone Corporation.  Arthur trained in Japanese at Keio University and speaks conversational Mandarin.