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Japanese Workers’ Co-operative Union & Recovery Challenges of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake

Nagato Yuzo (President JWCU), Takako Tsuchiya (translator), Wade, Toru Fujita (vice-preisdent), and Ken Yamazki (Japan Labor Institute)

Sendai   Sendai is the largest city in eastern Japan about 2-hours by Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo central station.  A lot of the recovery efforts from the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, as it is called here, and the tsunami are centered here along with the recovery office of the Japanese Workers’ Co-operative Union (JWCU).  Sendai seems in good shape.  Tomorrow we see some of the areas hard hit on March 11, 2011 when a Richter scale 9, worst earthquake ever, hit Japan.   As a reminder, the earthquake was so powerful it literally moved Japan more than 8 feet closer to the United States and changed the Earth’s mass enough to shorten the day by a bit of a second.  The tsunami was over 130 feet high at some points and move inland as much as 6-miles in places wrecking huge devastation, killing more than 15,000 with more than 20,000 still missing 18 months later and presumed dead.  This was a tragedy of literally world shaking, historic proportions!

Because of Hurricane Katrina and then the “Organizers’ Short Guide to the Lessons of Disaster” that I included as an appendix to my book, The Battle for the Ninth Ward:  ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster, I was curious whether there were things that Japan had learned that the rest of us needed to know, and what the role of community-based organizations, like JWCU, and popular engagement might have been in the recovery efforts.  I jumped at the chance to string together some seminars and cadge a tour of the area and get a better feeling for all of this.

The JWCU is quite an operation (see long article in coming Social Policy) with a combined turnover of $338,000,000 if all of its member cooperatives are added together.  I met with their President, Vice-President, and members of their international bureau for several hours in Tokyo today to get a better grip on it.  Toru Fujital, the President, addressed the differences between the Kobe earthquake and fire recovery (which we visited in 2006) and the current crisis in a telling way:

  • This one is slower; since the Government ran the operation directly in Kobe and has slowed down to allow more citizens’ input this time.
  • The nuclear crisis in the area has created more uncertainty than Kobe about the future of the area and let to more disagreements nationally about the country’s direction.
  • The current financial crisis in Japan has meant less money and a weaker conviction about the future given depopulation and aging population in the areas as well.
  • The disaster is spread over a larger area and imperils entire industries (fishing, forestry, agriculture).
  • Coordination involves lots of municipalities and prefectures (states or provinces) rather than one city like Kobe.

Some things were common though.  Jobs and housing led the list as they did in New Orleans.  Housing seemed totally unsettled still because contamination will likely prevent any return ever for some, though nothing has been stated categorically, the truth seems perfectly clear.

JWCU had little base in this part of the country before the disaster, and it seemed was brought in largely by municipalities to help in training and operation of some services on a cooperative basis in the recovery.  The scale of their operations in the East has jumped to about $15 million USD.  They are searching for the right plan as well with 10 pilot projects this year and 20 pilots in different areas next year.  Their involvement is good medicine though and augurs well for the future.

Volunteers have been huge here as well.  The recovery director in Sendai told us a story about one guy who had 6000 folks help him in planting.  Most of the NGO’s in the area are based in Sendai and plan to stay for another 2 years to help.

The planning process seems to have hardly begun, but at least there is a strong commitment to community and in the frequent refrain of the JWCU to “building a new and different society in Japan” through the recovery work in this area.

recovery office in Sendai

Yoko, manager of recovery for JWCU from Sendai

Manager at a nearby cafe that is part of JWCU