Local Initiatives2020 Venue
Newspapers strive to keep disaster-affected residents in Yuriage informedNatori City district on road to recovery despite coronavirus, Olympics postponement
An alternative newspaper hit the news stands of Natori City, Miyagi Prefecture on July 1, 2020, its front page emblazoned with an elevated view of coastal Yuriage district, one of the worst-hit communities during the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan in March 2011.
In this half-page color photo, however, there are no crumbling buildings, displaced fishing boats, or overturned vehicles floating forlornly in lake-like rice paddies.
Gone, too, is the deserted wasteland Yuriage became in the months following the disasters, as developers began the painstaking process of clearing away mountainous rubble in preparation for a new dawn for the community.
Rather, the picture depicts that new horizon, taken from the sixth floor of a new apartment building and looking down on new houses and a rust-red path that winds its way invitingly into the distance.
“Around 90 percent of buildings in the district were destroyed by the tsunami, so this shows how much things have moved on,” says Naomitsu Kakui, managing editor of “Yuriage Dayori” (“Yuriage News”). “There is still a way to go, but (the paper) marks a fresh start toward true recovery.”
Indeed, according to a Natori City official, some 2,750 of around 3,000 homes in Yuriage district were destroyed or severely damaged by the tsunami, while some 753 residents – more than 10 percent of the population – lost their lives, including Kakui’s parents.
Today, however, the district—which has been raised 5 meters to mitigate against future tsunami—is home to some 1,600 residents, a new marina, port, fish market and the chic commercial center, Kawa Machi Terrace Yuriage.
Almost a decade on and reconstruction efforts have progressed to a stage that warranted a new local paper to herald Yuriage’s revival, Kakui says.
“We want people to rediscover Yuriage, that’s our objective.”
The paper takes on the baton from its predecessor, “Yuriage Fukko Dayori” (“Yuriage Reconstruction News”), which followed the trials and tribulations of the Yuriage community as it struggled to recover and rebuild in the aftermath of the quake.
After kicking off in the autumn of 2011, its sixtieth and final edition went to print in March 2020.
Kakui also acted as managing editor of that publication, whose inception he says was influenced by a similar newsletter he had come across during a fact-finding mission to Genkai-jima Island, a tiny island about 20 km from Fukuoka City which was heavily impacted by a quake in 2005.
“In the aftermath of (the 2011) disasters discussions took place regarding ways in which the community should rebuild,” he says. “Genkai-jima seemed to provide a good model from which we could learn.”
Some evacuees from the island started up a newsletter to keep fellow residents informed of developments and on his return to Natori, Kakui decided to start up a similar paper. It covered a wide range of issues, from the hotly debated issue of where and how the new Yuriage community should be rebuilt, to the valiant efforts of a group of elementary school students to restart their baseball team.
Kakui says that among the most memorable articles that he and his team of writers covered were the stories of bravery and determination gathered from the tsunami survivors they interviewed.
The paper found a wide and loyal audience – both within Yuriage and outside Miyagi Prefecture, so much so that by the third edition Kakui and his team had upped the print run from 1,500 copies to 10,000.
It’s popularity likely was a result of a desperate need for information following the disasters, according to Tomoaki Sato, CEO of Marushige LLC, which operates the Gyotei Hamaya restaurant chain, whose outlets include those at Kawa Machi Terrace Yuriage and another inside the Canadian government-funded Maple Building at the Yuriage Port Morning Market.
“As a close-knit community, before March 2011 information exchange was a matter of course, but in the aftermath of the disasters, residents became scattered all over the place, making it difficult to find out anything that was going on,” says Sato, whose home and offices were among the thousands of buildings that fell victim to the tsunami.
Sato and his wife and three children were forced to move several times from temporary housing to temporary housing, making it all the more difficult to keep track of developments, he adds.
“Then the paper appeared, and it provided unembellished information, which we were extremely grateful for,” he says.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic and postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, when 10 soccer games were scheduled to take place at Miyagi Stadium about 25 km north of Yuriage, have had a huge impact on the community, Sato says.
“Through the reconstruction we had finally developed a new Yuriage, and then we were hit by a new kind of disaster,” Sato says. With people voluntarily restraining from traveling, potential customer numbers have been vastly reduced, though the recent easing of restrictions will hopefully make a difference, he adds.
“Many people from overseas will come to Japan for the Olympics so in that sense it would be a huge loss (if the Games were to be cancelled). So I hope the event will go ahead as planned next year.”
In March 2020, Natori City made an announcement declaring that its recovery goals had been achieved. While Kakui felt the declaration was premature, he also saw it as a sign that the paper had reached its natural conclusion, especially in light of its stated goals to cover news relating to the reconstruction efforts.
Under the auspices of his non-profit organization, FRAM Natori, he started to plan for a new publication that would concentrate on the challenges for the new Yuriage going forward.
The word fukko (reconstruction) was therefore dropped from the name, though he admits that this crucial, and still much debated, topic will continue to fill some column space.
Indeed, there is still a small proportion of residents who not only voice dissatisfaction with the reconstruction that has been achieved so far, but also seem unable to contribute to the rebuilding of the community themselves, largely because, as disaster victims, they have become too reliant on others to do that for them, says Kakui.
“Things are not perfect, but we want to show how things are returning to a state of normality, and that amid that normality there are people who are working hard to rebuild the Yuriage community.”