A trip through the Kesen region in Iwate Prefecture, the land of LIFE311, with Mr. Mizutani of “more trees.”
Wooden temporary housing for evacuees was constructed in Sumita-City, a town that neighbors Rikuzentakata-City and Ofunato-City in Iwate Prefecture, which were hit by the massive tsunami. To provide financial support for these activities, "more trees" established and sponsored the LIFE311 project. UNITED ARROWS LTD. runs the Reduce Shopping Bag Action* and has been supporting the project. Here, we will discuss how cooperation from customers is brought to life as we are guided by Mr. Shinkichi Mizutani, the executive director of more trees.
*The Reduce Shopping Bag Action: 10 yen is donated to LIFE311 with no-use of paper bag per shopping at stores of UNITED ARROWS LTD.
To the site of the forestry industry that supports a basis of LIFE311 project!
“When I thought about the LIFE311 project to build wooden temporary housing, it was people related to the forestry industry making wood who first came to mind as the people on the front lines. Why don’t we start out today by visiting the mountain where they work?” Mr. Mizutani suggests as we head for the forestry site. As we go into the mountains, I start to hear the sound of chainsaws felling trees. After a while comes the heavy thud of a tree toppling slowly forward. Just as I am getting overwhelmed at seeing the scale of a forestry operation first-hand for the first time, a smiling man wearing work clothes appears, shouting, “Mizutani! It’s been awhile!” It is Mr. Noboru Matsuda, the Director of MATSUDA FORESTRY, which is actively engaged in forestry in Sumita- City, Iwate.
Mr. Mizutani reflects on their first meeting. “I first met Mr. Matsuda in April of 2011. As we were progressing with LIFE311, I was looking for someone who was a key person of forestry industry in Sumita-City.” The first time they met in person was in the entryway of Mr. Matsuda’s house. Mr. Matsuda recalls, “I was so surprised. He just showed up and rang my doorbell, ha ha. He said he’d found me on twitter.”
“Sorry about that, ha ha. But it turns out I was right when I thought you were the IT guy! Knowing Matsuda was really reassuring for me when I would go into the various communities, like private sawmills, builders, and government forestry offices. Sumita-City started working on wooden temporary housing immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake. Distribution channels hadn’t been restored yet, and we were short on materials. But Sumita-City has mountains, and there are local sawmills and builders. The local people kept building temporary housing on their own one after another. It was such a surprising sight to see. MATSUDA FORESTRY brought timber down from the mountains to use as lumber for the housing and cylindrical posts that get buried in the ground and form the foundation. For the foundation of each building, you need about 20 such posts, and they have to be about 2 meters in diameter making it with a tapered end,” Mr. Mizutani says.
Mr. Mizutani explains that it is important work for more trees, which is based on the concept of “connecting the city and the forest,” to get people to know about the forestry work sites. As Mr. Matsuda hears this, he chimes in, “Getting to know Mr. Mizutani has helped me network with people from Tokyo and people involved in forestry in other prefectures. It’s spurred me on. When we met, Mr. Mizutani and I had meetings day after day, talking about what the forestry industry could do, about natural energy, and more. The power was out for about 10 days after the earthquake. We had no electricity and we were running low on kerosene, and we were even almost out of fuel for our forestry equipment using to search for missing persons. In those times, trees were very useful to us – we burned firewood for warmth. I think that the future of the Japanese forestry industry lies not only in producing lumber, but playing an important role in woody biomass and energy supply.” My trip that day starts with this reunion between these two, who had hit it off so well years before.
Visited a wooden temporary housing unit, permeated by the scent of cedar.
After the mountains, we head to the wooden temporary housing. With an air of familiarity, Mr. Mizutani guides us. “For this visit, I’d like to visit the Nakagami Complex, one of three wooden temporary housing complexes in Sumita-City. The other two are Hiishi Complex and Honcho Complex. Even just looking at the exterior, you can see that they are different from the conventional long style prefabricate houses. The temporary housing in Sumita-City is distinctive for being a detached house and made of wood. Everything, from the outer walls to the interior, the bathroom walls, the floor, and the ceiling, is made of locally harvested Kesen cedar.”
As we enter, I can still smell the cedar, even though five years have passed since the house was completed. The house has two bedrooms, a living room, dining room, and kitchen, covering 29.8 square meters. Each house is equipped with a pellet stove, supplied by more trees. A crackling flame shines through the transparent glass on this stylish heating appliance that looks like a fireplace. What is a pellet stove?
Pellet stoves run on wood pellets, made of compressed sawdust, wood chips, and other waste materials that are generated when lumber is cut. They produce less CO2 than other heaters, and since their fuel is made of a by-product of domestic forestry, it can help economically energize mountainous regions. They are attracting attention for these various benefits. “The pellet stove here is a little smaller than usual,” Mr. Mizutani explains. “It’s a size made specifically for the temporary housing.” A gentle warmth spreads throughout the whole room. It warms the wooden temporary housing in Sumita-City, and the hearts of the residents as well.
That night, tasted local cuisine, asked residents about their stories, and enjoyed a lively exchange.
That night in a wooden temporary housing unit in the Nakagami Complex, Sumita-City residents and people living in the complex hold a dinner party. Mr. Mizutani is surrounded by people, including the mayor of Sumita-City, Kinichi Tada, staff from the town’s earthquake reconstruction support office, Yashichi Yanashita, the chairman of the council of Nakagami Complex temporary housing residents, Junichi Kinno, a supporter, and members of Sumita-City support organizations and Yuu-Support. Mr. Tada, the mayor kicks off the party with a call of, “Welcome to Sumita!”
The table is piled high with local foods and sweets from the Kesen region, and I am surrounded by comments like, “This is Kenchin soup my mother made,” “Have an octopus rice ball!” “Have you ever eaten seaweed shabu-shabu?” and “We brought cake, too.” As the chewy seaweed touches the hot shabu-shabu water it turns a fresh green. The crab meat is chewy and fresh, the kenchin soup deep and flavorful. I try savory chicken diaphragm steak for the first time. Each and every bite is delicious and I am grateful for it. The dishes are picked clean in no time.
They tell me about when the housing was built, saying, “when the wooden temporary housing was completed, we raised five colored flags and held a ceremony to commemorate it.” Others explain, “In the Sumita-City temporary housing, you are free to DIY in the wall or hang shelves from the ceiling. You set it up however you would be comfortable to live.” I also hear all kinds of information about these wooden temporary housing units, such as a band made up of residents in the complex that has grown popular – people talk not only about the construction, but about the community, about children born here and people who have lost their lives.
Many of the people who live in the wooden temporary housing in Sumita-City are from the neighboring town of Rikuzentakata-City, which suffered major damage in the earthquake. After five years, as some more people have rebuilt their lives and left the complex, the residents’ council chair emphasizes the importance of the feelings of those who remain, saying, “There are still some people living in the temporary housing who have still never talked about the disaster, and who can’t be asked about it.” Mr. Mizutani listens intently to the occasional plea to “not forget.” The conversation flows without interruption.
There are points in their discussion where debate seems to heat up, but they brush it off, laughing, and say, “we’re always like this.” The party draws to a close. At the end, Mr. Yanashita (left), the council chair who livens up the Nakagami Complex community, and Mr. Konno (right) the supporter put their arms on each others’ shoulders in front of the camera, saying “this is the first time we’ve posed for a picture together.”
We revisit the wooden temporary housing the following morning. The complex has been covered with snow, giving it a different atmosphere to the previous day. The women living in the temporary housing see Mr. Mizutani and calls out, “I can’t believe you came in this cold weather.” As we leave the wooden temporary housing, I receive souvenirs such as beautiful origami cranes and charms made of shells wrapped in gorgeous cloth. Today, we head for the Sumita-City town office.
Mr. Tada, the mayor, says “I do not want to break apart the bonds.”
After a 15-minute drive from the Nakagami Complex wooden temporary housing, we arrive at the Sumita-City town offices. The new town office building, a two-story wooden building completed in 2014, takes advantage of Sumita-cho’s good fortune in the forestry industry and is approximately 70% made of locally produced wood. As I enter, a spacious town hall spreads out before me, along with an exchange plaza equipped with a heater and a children’s area with wooden playground equipment. Up on the second floor is an wide opened space with no pillars.
The lattice load-bearing walls are very earthquake resistant and used here in Japan for the first time. They let in a lot of light and accent the design, creating a general warmth throughout the entire space.
A staff member from the town hall guides us to the mayor’s office toward the back of the second floor. Inside the room, the mayor welcomes us, saying “It snowed. Did you enjoy yourselves yesterday?” Mr. Mizutani has grown close with the people of Sumita-City through the LIFE311 project and views Mr. Tada, the mayor, as something of a distant father figure. He starts talking about his feelings in front of the mayor.
“I believe that working together on the LIFE311 project with Sumita-City, more trees has grown for sure. Since before the earthquake, we were aware to some degree of wooden architecture and pellet stoves, but we were not able to put them into immediate practice.
“However, Sumita-City had not only thought of these things, but was prepared with blueprints. I will never forget my surprise at reading in the newspaper that four days after the earthquake, the mayor has said was, ‘Let’s do it,’ to start the actual construction. I realized this was something we wanted to be involved in, so I got in contact immediately, met the mayor in person, informed him that we wanted to contribute the costs of bringing pellet stoves into the wooden temporary housing, and launched the project.
“Our goal was to raise 300 million yen – a mind-boggling sum – but at this point we have raised 215 million. Deep down, I am still a little disheartened that the total amount is still so far away. The year after the earthquake, contributions dropped off noticeably, and three years after that was even more true. It’s just continued like that.
“However, even in these circumstances, companies like UNITED ARROWS LTD. have continued to give, and I am truly grateful to the customers whose cooperation makes it possible. We are working to come up with the money little by little every year. I plan to keep bringing in donations,” he says. The mayor replies, “Mr. Mizutani, hold on a minute. There’s no need to be disheartened. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s better for it to take some time.”
“As you know, Sumita-City was so quick to start building temporary housing that there was not funding at the time. But later on there was talk of getting grant 300 million yen from the national or prefectural government. I had a hard time deciding what to do. If I had 300 million yen, I could obviously do quite a lot for this town. But the deputy mayor at that time – who seemed like Margaret Thatcher to me – was quick to tell me that was not the way to go. She reminded me that I was the one who decided that it was important to maintain connections with the private sector, rather than getting thing handed to us from the national and prefectural governments.
“It was really true that she gave me a push in the right direction. Did you know that Sumita-City’s wooden temporary housing was exhibited in Roppongi Hills and the Tokyo International Forum in Yurakucho as part of the LIFE311 project? After that, people from Sumita-City who work in Tokyo told me that even though no one had ever heard of Sumita-City before then, people were suddenly recognizing it as the place with the wooden temporary housing. They told me they were proud of their hometown. It made me so happy. This project has had an amazing effect. Rather than money, it has brought us something that can’t be measured in numbers.
“Now, about 40% of the people are living in wooden temporary housing. The numbers are going down little by little. The national government first said that the temporary housing would last two years, but that was ridiculous. I think it will still take quite a long time. In the future, I want to keep maintaining bonds with a variety of people through more trees, so that this region stays in people’s memories. It is my sincerest hope that we will not be forgotten. Even if every year the amount is not so much, I hope they will stay with us for 100 years. That is how I truly feel.”
After the interview, the two shy away when the photographer asks them to look at each other for the photo. The mayor looks good in his slim suit. “Today, I wore a suit tailored by UNITED ARROWS,” he says. “It looks great on you,” Mr. Mizutani replies. As the trip draws to a close, we head from the Sumita-City town office to the neighboring town of Rikuzentakata-City.
I hope to continue to play a role connecting the city with the forest.
We arrive at Rikuzentakata-City. “Even now,” explains Mr. Mizutani, “it is in the middle of construction. For this plan, they are taking this broad plain area that was damaged by the huge tsunami and filling it with gravel and sand from the mountains to create a hill where they will construct a new residential area. The last time I was here, there seemed to be enough conveyor belts spread all over carrying ground fill to cover up the sky.
I ask him what he thinks about this trip as it draws to a close. He replies, “I always make an appearance at the wooden temporary housing in the evening, talk to the residents, and then head home. This time I was glad I had the chance to take longer time to talk with them ever over dinner.
“We work to conserve forests, but we are not self-funding, and even though we call ourselves a bridge between the city and the forest, we are neither on the side of the city nor the forest. Our role is a horizontal connection between them. When we can bring financial support from the customers of UNITED ARROWS LTD. to Sumita-City or bring Sumita-City residents to other events, it acts like a glue to bind them together. This trip reaffirmed my desire to strengthen that bonds in the future.”
Born in Tokyo in 1978. Graduated from Keio University Faculty of Economics, then worked for the Environmental Plant Division of Kubota Corporation in 2000. Moved to a reforesting organization in Indonesia in 2003 to work to reforest the rain forest. Participated in activities related to the founding of more trees in 2007 and appointed Executive Director.