ABOVE: Ruins of Onagawa last year following the massive earthquake and tsunami. BELOW: Wendy Lacroix holds a recent letter from Onagawa mayor Yoshiaka Suda.

Nelson friendship centre proposed for Onagawa

A year after a tsunami devasted Onagawa, Japan, it’s still uncertain what will become of $40,000 in relief funds raised in Nelson.

A year after a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated a Japanese town with close ties to Nelson, it’s still uncertain what will become of $40,000 raised locally in relief funds.

But at a meeting Monday, it was suggested at least some of the money be used to create a permanent Nelson presence in Onagawa in the form of a friendship centre — a sort of multi-purpose coffee shop, staffed by residents of both cities.

John Craig, who visited the town last year following the disaster, suggested it would serve several purposes.

“The problem of loneliness is enormous,” he says. “People are really stretched out and need something different and new. We represent different and new. At least a breath of fresh air, because all they hear is bad news.

“Nelson represents a kind of pioneer spirit. If we had a presence there — a little coffee shop, somebody from Nelson, and hire a local person — it would be like a little consulate where they could keep a connection with people here.”

Onagawa mayor Yoshiaki Suda recently sent a letter thanking Nelson for its offer of assistance, but didn’t say how the money should be spent.

“We want it to be put to good use in accordance with Nelson’s wishes so we will be making some suggestions to you about that as we watch the recovery process,” he wrote.

(The letter’s full text is below.)

Craig says “this waiting game could go on a long time,” and Nelson should show initiative. Furthermore, town officials have demurred every time he has made a suggestion.

“If we have people actually embedded there on an ongoing basis, with three or six-month turnovers, they could do something in the community. Not just in the coffee shop, but volunteer work.”

Craig suggested sending a delegation of local residents to Onagawa this summer to examine local needs and explore the feasibility of establishing such a centre.

He has created a documentary on his travels to the region last year, which may be screened locally to generate interest. He will return to Japan in April.

The idea of putting the $40,000 toward scholarships for Onagawa students has not been ruled out either, although there are mixed feelings about whether the money should benefit young or old. Craig says not many young people are left in Onagawa.

He also reported some sobering statistics after a phone conversation Monday with Mr. Doi, the Onagawa town official appointed as a go-between with Nelson: 827 people are missing or confirmed dead and the population has dropped from 10,000 to 8,000. Seventy per cent of the town’s buildings were destroyed, and 20 to 30 per cent of house foundations have since been levelled.

“The evacuation centre has closed and there are prefabricated homes in 30 different locations,” Craig reported. “The wreckage is still there but has been heaped into mountainous piles. Negotiations are underway with the Metro Tokyo government to dispose of it.”

Although there are plans to rebuild the town, Craig says it will be extremely expensive and take years to complete — if the money is approved.

At last report, only half the amount the town is asking the government for looked likely, and Miyagi prefecture’s governor is said to be furious.

While the reconstruction plan originally called for consolidation of the 15 fishing villages that made up Onagawa, a New York Times story last month said elders fought back, and now all the villages will be rebuilt.

Nelson and Onagawa aren’t officially sister cities, but are forever linked through Lt. Robert Hampton Gray, who died at the latter place in the waning days of World War II.

The relationship has been reinforced in recent years by visits to Nelson by Onagawa junior high students.

A monument at Onagawa in Gray’s honour toppled in the disaster but has since been moved to a new location. The Canadian Navy is expected to provide a plaque this month to replace one that went missing.

Full text of letter from Onagawa mayor Yoshiaki Suda to Nelson mayor John Dooley:

Feb. 15, 2012

Dear Mayor Dooley,

Thank you very much for your heartwarming letter.

When the great East Japan earthquake occurred on March 11, 2011 the entire town of Onagawa suffered devastating damage. In a moment, the magnitude 9.0 level quake and ensuing tsunami brought about the loss of many precious lives and much property.

However, we are slowly but steadily bringing Onagawa back to life. Our people are united in their efforts to make Onagawa into “a vibrant town blessed with the sea greenery, abundant nature and people” as soon as they can. Among other things, we are exchanging views about recovery plans, rebuilding our fishing port, and restarting businesses out of temporary storefronts.

I am aware that Onagawa and Nelson are bound by a strong friendship thanks to such things as the Lt. R.H. Gray memorial and the Onagawa international youth exchange program.

The Lt. R.H. Gray memorial which formerly stood in Sakayama park is a very important symbol of Japan-Canada friendship and of our desire for peace. The monument was knocked over by the earthquake and one of its bronze plates was stolen but the damage has been repaired and the monument moved to a bluff overlooking Onagawa Bay on the grounds of our regional medical centre (formerly called Onagawa public hospital). We’re currently working with the Embassy of Canada to replace the missing plate.

I’m sorry to say that because of difficulties related to the disaster, we have had to suspend our annual visits of junior high school students to Nelson, but we’ve been encouraged by the letters received from host families and other gestures of kindness.

We are grateful for the support offered by the citizens of Nelson which was mentioned in your letter. We want it to be put to good use in accordance with Nelson’s wishes so we will be making some suggestions to you about that as we watch the recovery process.

The various actions by the citizens of Nelson have been a great source of support to us as we cope with the disaster. They encourage us to rebuild our town. But we have a long, hard road ahead of us, so we ask for your continuing assistance.

In closing, I thank you once again for your support and wish you the best of all good things to you and the people of Nelson.

Sincerely, Yoshiaki Suda, Mayor of Onagawa

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