Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Back to life after the great East Japan earthquake

KAMAISHI CITY, Japan (ILO News) – Ms Maekawa, who is over 60 years old, is busily cooking a dish to serve her customers in a bistro in Kamaishi City, a small coastal town in Iwate Prefecture famous for its steel production, fishing industry and eco-tourism. When not cooking she comes out to greet her customers, who have also become her friends. 

Her bistro not only offers food but serves as a place for people to talk, socialize, make friends and share experiences. It helps people get on with their lives after the tsunami that devastated Kamaishi City in March 2011 taking the lives of 886 of its residents, including Ms Maekawa’s daughter. 
They’ve just started opening up their hearts and come to terms with their grief."
“A year ago, local men would come to our bistro and eat a lunch plate without saying a word,” said Ms Maekawa. “But now, some of them talk to each other. Sometimes they ask for a take-out for their families or loved ones. They’ve just started opening up their hearts and come to terms with their grief, I guess.” 

Two years have passed since the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. More than 18,000 people lost their lives. Some 841,000 jobs were affected by the mega disaster. Since then a range of efforts to rebuild and restore employment have been undertaken by the public and private sectors. 

In August 2012 the International Labour Organization started a technical cooperation project “Dissemination of Employment and Labour Measures for Recovering from the Great East Japan Earthquake as International Public Resources”, supported by the Government of Japan. The project aims to collect and disseminate lessons learnt and good practices related to employment and labour measures, taken from the reconstruction process. These will form the basis of a report that will be presented to a conference to be held in Japan in 2014.

This was the first technical cooperation project implemented in Japan, and in March 2013, as part of a project expert group meeting, seven experts from Governments, workers’ and employers’ organizations visited Kamaishi City, to see how one of the places most severely affected by the tsunami was recovering. The experts, from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and the Philippines, met disaster survivors running small and medium size businesses.
Jobs in time of disaster not only bring income but also human dignity."
“Jobs in time of disaster not only bring income but also human dignity,” said Keiko Kamioka, Director of the ILO Office for Japan who joined the field trip. “For those who lost so much, not only their jobs, businesses, but also loved ones, jobs help them regain not only livelihood but also help them overcome grief, despair and brings hope.” 

Ms. Maekawa’s guesthouse was destroyed by the tsunami. Her husband’s livelihood, in the fishing industry, was also affected. She spent the first few months not knowing what to do. Then she took a number of short-term skills training courses offered by the government. “It was good that I had something to do at that time,” she recalls. “The government’s training courses offered me some skills that I had never had before. Moreover, going to the courses gave me something to do during the very difficult time.” 

Gradually, old friends and customers started contacting her and asking when she would reopen her guesthouse. “It was around that time that I decided to look forward, not backward. I realized I should get out of the house and do something. A job was that something”, says Ms Maekawa. Together with her old friends, she started a new bistro in a temporary market built after the disaster with the support of a local chamber of commerce. 

In a sense, Japan was lucky. There was a comprehensive social protection mechanism in place when the disaster hit. The government was able to use existing measures to extend employment and livelihood support to those affected by the disaster. Without these existing systems, the recovery efforts would have taken much longer and cost more. 

The government was also quick to design and implement nationwide disaster response measures for employment protection and creation. The five-year “Japan as One” Work Project, launched in April 2011, created 200,000 short-term jobs and 500,000 mid- to long-term jobs. The private sector was also quick to mobilize support. Some retail companies opened new branches in disaster-affected communities in order to create employment opportunities. The ILO will continue collecting lessons and good practices from the recovery process and disseminate them at a conference in Japan in 2014. 

Ms Maekawa has a clear vision for her community’s reconstruction. “Our people will come back from temporary shelters to this community in a few years. Right now, there are no lights at night in our old town, because everything was washed away. But I want to bring lights back to our community when I reopen my guesthouse there. It’s the hope and expectation of my people as well as the loss of my daughter that drive me to work.” 
By Shukuko Koyama, Chief Technical Advisor, ILO Japan Earthquake Project

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