The Oshika Community Library

As most of the people on Oshika live in temporary housing, communal spaces can be key to people’s mental health. The temporary houses are small and the walls are thin — it’s difficult to relax in them and they are a constant reminder of the homes that people lost. When I came across a couple of men drinking canned coffee and chatting in the luxury bus stop rather than waiting for a bus, I realised just how much people here benefit from having a cosy, welcoming place in which to spend time with their friends.

The library is just that.

I hired the same carpenter who made the bus stop — his work is beautiful, he doesn’t mind roughing it with me, the local people like him and his team, and he and I have a special connection. He gets life here, and he gets that I want to create very special spaces — not your ordinary library and certainly not your ordinary bus stop. Tsukasa-san and I emailed design plans back and forth in the months leading up to my last visit, in the summer of 2014, and met in Tokyo to finalise the details before I headed up.

Once on Oshika, Kucho-san and I tried to find a suitable location on which to build the library. He decided upon a perfect location, on raised land, and with a stunning view out to sea. The land actually belonged to the local government, and before the tsunami, it was the location of the police box. The police haven’t returned, and there were no plans to do anything with that piece of land, so Kucho-san, with an attitude I have seen become increasingly bold and decisive over the past four years, decided that was where the library would be built.

Construction rules here mean that anything over 10 metres squared requires planning permission, so in order to avoid months and months of meetings and sucking of teeth, we decided to make the library itself 10 meters squared, and create an outdoor terrace of the same size, thus in effect doubling the communal space we were creating. On top of that, I had noticed a space next to the library, that was a little lower down, and full of small bits of debris and dried mud that the tsunami had left behind. This used to be the garage where the police car was parked. There was also some bamboo that someone had left there — it had originally been brought to make candleholders for the first year anniversary but the surplus bamboo had not been taken away afterwards. I decided to clear this space and create a fence with the bamboo — this could be an extra communal space alongside the library.

Local people, as well as some of the people who had raised money for the library, and my niece who was on her first trip to Japan, together prepared the ground and cleared the space for the building to begin. It was a great collaboration and fun to work together — one day Kucho-san drove past in his suit on the way to a meeting on the mainland, then turned his car around, donned his casual clothes, and set to work clearing the land with us, because he said it was a much more enjoyable thing to do.

On the day the construction started, I was actually at the other end of the peninsula, building a playground. The playground sponsor was joining me to build it, and the timing meant that I had the two projects going on simultaneously. But I trusted Tsukasa-san and knew that I could leave him to it. He later told me that I had missed a very entertaining interaction between Kucho-san and some local government officials. The officials in suits had turned up on the day the construction began, to try to put a stop to it. They spent some time asking questions and objecting to the library being built when Kucho-san simply asked them what they were planning to do with the land, to which they replied, “nothing.” So Kucho-san said, “Well we’re going to build a library on it,” so the suits left. Good on you, Kucho-san!

So the construction continued!

As Tsukasa-san and his team did the actual construction, Mr Sasaki, from the neighbouring village of Kobuchi, helped me with constructing the framework for the bamboo fencing. I wanted to turn this space into an outdoor seating area, and had earlier met with IKEA (who donated sofas to the bus stop) to talk about furniture that the library needed, including outdoor furniture. IKEA were fantastic — they totally supported the library and had given me a very generous budget to spend on furnishings to make the space a very special one.

In the weeks before the construction started, I had spent time with as many people on Oshika as possible, asking them what books they would like to have in the library. As with everything I try to do here, I wanted to keep the focus on what the people here need and want, rather than on what non-locals think they need or want. It would have been easy to put a call out for second-hand books (and a lot of people asked if they could send them to me) and it wasn’t the fact that second-hand books weren’t wanted (they were, and continue to be), but the important thing to bear in mind was that those books were on subjects that people here actually wanted to read. This was to be no ordinary library, but instead to be very specific to Oshika. So I set up a wish list on Amazon, and carted my computer around asking people to look through Amazon with me, and add books to the wish list. I asked them to think about the books that were special to them when they were children, and books they had lost in the tsunami. I think of my own book collection and how they reflect my whole life. Books can be comforting, they can be decorative, and in my opinion, they make a “home.” I wanted the library to make people feel at home.

People from all over the world bought (and continue to buy) books from the wish list. Every day a new batch of books would arrive at the centre where I stay, and every day I would take a photograph of the books and post a thank you on Facebook. The pile of books got bigger and bigger, and when the library was completed, they were all carried over and organised into categories. I had made bilingual “hearts” with information about each of the sponsors to decorate the walls, bought wooden toys and games for both children and adults alike to be put inside the IKEA stools, and had a special stamp made to go inside all the books.

The finished library is beautiful. Everything I had hoped. It’s warm and welcoming, with comfy cushions for both inside and outside. It has a wide range of books suiting everyone’s interests. And the three spaces — the indoor library, the outdoor terrace, and the lower “beer garden” (they have christened it that) — all provide much-needed spaces away from the temporary housing. And I can see on this trip, just how well used the library is! Yuki-chan had made a library “rule” book, in which people write their names and the title/s of the book/s they are taking home with them for a maximum of one week. Flicking through the rule book, I can see that books have been taken from the library almost every day since it opened in July last year. And I’ve also been told that the teenagers here are using it a lot just to hang out with their friends. This has been a wonderful space to create — thank you so much to everyone that contributed to its cost of ¥2,254,067 (that’s about £13,300 or $22,100):

  • Farmors School, Fairford, Gloucestershire
  • Azabu Music Together
  • The Oxford Japan community
  • Amity Yokohama
  • Tokyo International Kindercare
  • Ruthie Iida
  • Lucie Kapner
  • Sun & Moon Yoga
  • Meikei High School
  • William Hill & Kellie Fitzmaurice
  • Rotary Plympton
  • India International School
  • Joy to the World
  • Peter Bacon
  • Julian Lusardi

And a big thank you goes to IKEA, as well as Tsukasa-san and his team, who I know gave me a very generous discount on the construction. Thank you!

If you’d like to donate books to the Oshika Community Library please see the wish list at http://www.amazon.co.jp/registry/wishlist/L87WZ3HS6X4V.

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