Oshika update – January 2017

It’s been six months since my last trip to Oshika and, as always, work has started on the projects I managed to secure support for while I was there.

  • The equipment for Ajishima Playground, kindly sponsored by Ohana International School, arrived in November, and the islanders spent December preparing the grounds, helped by a group of volunteers from the Tohoku University Kendo Club. The islanders were thrilled with Ohana’s donation, which allowed them to purchase a wide variety of playground equipment that has already brought out the child in everyone. I’ve always found that even just the building of new community spaces on Oshika draws attention, and provides an opportunity for locals to stop and chat, and the creation of the Ajishima Playground has been exactly the same. Local children, parents, and elders will be invited to a community event where they will all participate in painting the wooden equipment to protect it from the harsh weather conditions. I can’t wait to see the finished playground! Thank you so much to the Ohana International School community.
  • Ohana has been immensely supportive of a variety of my Oshika projects over the years, and last summer they also pledged ¥500,000 to the Koamikura community, to help stabilize the steps leading up to the village’s shrine. This money will stay within the community, as it is local people that are being hired to work on the steps. Thank you again, Ohana!
  • On the very last day of my trip, I quite unexpectedly found a sponsor (or sponsors to be more accurate) for a huge project — the Ajishima Farmers’ Market and Community Kitchen. A group of community-minded entrepreneurs, with the support of HOPE International, pledged to raise the entire ¥2 million that was required to support this very special project that will greatly contribute to rebuilding the island’s economy. During the past six months the islanders and their sponsors have been busy working on the details of the project, and work has already started on renovating an old building that will serve as a permanent structure from which the islanders can sell their produce. Spending so much time selling at farmers’ markets in the UK during the past few years, I know firsthand just what this project will mean to the entire community. I’m so excited to see the finished market! Thank you so much to my entrepreneur friend, who initiated the sponsorship of this wonderful project by simply inviting me for a coffee on my last day of that Japan trip last year.

We will soon be coming up to the six year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami, and it is often at this time of year when many people connected to Japan feel the need to do something to support the rebuilding efforts. If you are one of these people, then please take a moment to have a look at the items below, and let me know if there is anything that you would like to support. In order of donation amount from lowest (¥20,000 or £140 or $175) to highest (¥1.5 million or £10,400 or $13,000) …

  • Pink Ladies: workwear for the men and women working in the fishing industry is an ongoing need. To date we have provided 137 outfits for members of the fishing community. The outfits include hardwearing overalls and matching jackets, and can be sponsored in your name, or the name of a loved one, your company, or community group. They are hugely appreciated on Oshika, and cost ¥20,000 (that’s about £140 or $175 at today’s exchange rate). Please see here for more details.
  • Four different projects on Ajishima, each costing ¥200,000 (about £1400 or $1750 at today’s exchange rate). Ajishima is still looking for sponsors for a dog run, an outdoor performance space, an orchard, and a clean-up/recycling project. Scroll down this page to see more details about each of these.
  • School uniforms for the incoming students at Oshika Junior High School for 2017. There will be 12 new students entering the only junior high school on Oshika this year. Their uniforms (including bags, shoes, and sportswear for the entire three years of schooling) cost a total of ¥564,000. The Oxford Japanese community have already very kindly donated ¥260,000 from the event where I gave a speech last year, and I’m really hoping that somebody may feel moved to donate the remaining ¥304,000 (that’s about £2,100 or $2,650 at today’s exchange rate). The provision of these school uniforms removes a huge burden from the families on Oshika, as we have proved by providing uniforms for every student that has entered Oshika Junior High since 2013. Please see here for more information.
  • Flail-mower for Ajishima. These mowers are incredibly efficient at chopping and organizing weeds and long grasses in order to maintain public spaces, and the islanders would like one particularly for managing the area in and around the Eco-Park, yuzu orchard, and to be able to allow the island to clear other areas in order to develop future projects. They cost about ¥550,000 (about £3,800 or $4,800 at today’s exchange rate) but it would be wonderful if an actual flail-mower could be donated.
  • Wood-chipper for Ajishima. A wood chipper is an extremely useful tool on Ajishima in general, as well as for the Eco-Park. There is a never-ending supply of tree trimmings and bush-clearing scraps from the island, that can be used to create woodchips for pathways around the eco-park, a surface for the children’s playground, and natural compost, which would be given to islanders to use instead of the harmful chemicals currently imported to the island. Woodchips can also be used to create a mushroom microbusiness, and cover material for a compost toilet. They have so far rented a wood chipper, which has cost ¥100,000 for just one day’s use, and would ideally like to purchase one that they can have access to long-term in order to support existing as well as future plans for developing the island. A wood-chipper costs about ¥1.5 million (that’s about £10,400 or $13,000 at today’s exchange rate) but again, if somebody had a wood-chipper they could donate, that would be much appreciated!

If any of the above are even just a little bit interesting to you, then please do get in touch. Thank you so much for still caring!

The total we have raised together in almost six years is now almost ¥22 million. That’s more than £140,000 or over $210,000. Thank you to everybody that has played a part in helping the fishing communities of Oshika rebuild their lives.

Telling your truth

The US election interested me far more than I had expected. And it’s result has upset me more than I’d expected too. I didn’t really think that America was especially relevant to me.

I’ve never spent any time in America, and never had any desire to do so. While many countries interest me, the USA doesn’t. I’ve got American friends, and one in particular who’s more like family, but the American friends I’ve made over the years were made in Japan, where I found that most foreigners enjoyed living in a blend of different cultures based on their own heritage, that of their host country, and of the new friends they made there. I don’t define them by their nationalities, in the same way that I don’t identify as being “British.” If I had to define my cultural identity, I’m British to a certain extent but with a strong Japanese influence, and there’s a little bit of Australian, American, Canadian, Irish, Swedish, and New Zealander in there. Thanks to the friends I made in Japan. I’m not especially interested in politics or politicians, of any country, including my two “main” countries. So I was surprised to find myself unexpectedly intrigued by the US election, and the moment when I became intrigued was when women came forward with accusations of sexual harassment.

Here’s why …

It takes an incredible amount of courage for anyone (male or female) to come forward with stories of abuse. Every time they have to even think about what happened, let alone retell it, they relive the experience. An experience they may have tried to block out, or be trying their best to “get over” … and by the way, you don’t get over abuse, if you work really hard you just learn to live with it. Even if it’s no longer happening in reality. Because you are triggered, regularly, by a phrase, the TV, a movie, a name, a place, a sound. And life becomes a way of dealing with each of those daily triggers.

Perhaps one day, you decide to come forward about what happened, because keeping it secret is no longer tolerable. Not for yourself, but for others. And because people urge you to come forward for the sake of those others. And because watching someone gain more and more power as they ooze a sense of entitlement and slither their way into a position of trust, is nauseating.

I read the stories of those brave women who came forward despite the further abuse and threats they would receive on top of publicly reliving traumatic experiences that they carry with them every day. My heart went out to them. And it touched a nerve because my heart went out to other women too … women I know because they eventually shared stories of how they had been targeted, harassed, and groomed by someone I used to know … someone who, unbeknownst to me, was actually known by others to be a harasser of women. And even though this harasser privately described himself as having a 20-year history of being, as he called it, a “sexual predator,” he would never admit this publicly. His victims didn’t go to the police, and instead chose to try to block the experience out. And who can blame them? We live in a world where victims are not believed. They are called liars and THEIR morals and mental health are questioned. And the perpetrators can go on to become people that society trusts and respects.

They can even become the President of the United States of America.

And when that happened this week, I felt sick to my stomach. And very, very sad. Purely because of how those women who came forward must be feeling. Those fears that keep victims from speaking out had been justified … “Nobody will believe me,” and even worse “Nobody cares.” And it can seem so incredibly unfair to watch abusers move on with life without being accountable for their actions, all the while probably lining up more victims. Just because they can. And it really does seem that nobody cares.

But to all those men and women who now have yet another reason to keep quiet about harassment and abuse, please, please know that there ARE people who will believe you, and there ARE people who do care. You are not alone. There will have been others. And when you start speaking out, those others will come forward too. The end result may not be what you hoped for, or what the abuser deserves, but you did the right thing by coming forward.

And if you’re still worried about being believed, remember this one thing … YOU know YOUR truth, and anybody that doesn’t believe what’s in your past, does not deserve one moment of your future.

Review of this year’s Oshika trip

I’m coming toward the end of this year’s time on Oshika, and will be heading to Tokyo for a couple of days at the end of the week. This trip has resulted in the allocation, donation, or pledging of a total of ¥1,660,000 (that’s about £11,900 or $15,600) to a variety of community-led projects on Oshika, including the nearby island of Ajishima. These projects include shrine repairs, environmental and agricultural endeavours, school uniforms, work wear for the fishing industry, and children’s play areas. Thank you to everyone that is donating.

During this trip I have also received new books for the library, and run the free shop, so I would like to thank everybody that has sent items for both this year. I got to join in with the Ohara summer festival celebrations and give “tours” of the peninsula to a number of visiting friends, including the sponsor of the Ohara shrine rebuilding. Thank you to those friends who came here as tourists and in doing so put money into the local economy. I repainted the Ohara playground and fixed its fence, and still hope to find time this week to do a bit more repainting, as well as help out Mr Sasaki in building an outdoor decking. I have been keeping an eye out for a suitable project for a group that contacted me a couple of months ago, seeking a project that could benefit from a $30,000 contribution (that’s more than ¥3 million and almost £23,000). Fingers crossed they will be interested in a few options I’ve given them.

And I’ve seen a hidden away national treasure that I didn’t know was here, visited one of the sacred places in Tohoku — Kinkasan, and taken a couple of trips to Ajishima island paradise. I had a 90-minute interview entirely in Japanese with a newspaper reporter, which ended in her asking me whether I ate natto and whether I could use chopsticks. I’ve added some new naughty words to my vocabulary, had my intimate laundry studied on the washing line, been considered an expert on Brexit, fought off Fukumi-san who was obsessed with squeezing a spot on my face, slept inches away from the biggest spider I’ve ever seen, and eaten all sorts of new and fascinating things, including boiled squid mouth. Yes, you read that right.

I have seen some of the Oshika residents move out of temporary housing and into their new homes, which is truly wonderful after five years, especially when they were only supposed to be in them for six months. But I have some mixed feelings about the new homes. Yes, people now have privacy, space between them and their neighbours, more than one room to live in, and places where they can now grow their own vegetables and flowers. They can move to a new stage in their healing. But I feel that these communities are in some ways even more fragmented than they were before. The new homes have been built on higher land, further away from the sea, but also further away from the homes that survived. Homes have been built, but nothing else. And when you think about it, it is those little walks to the post office, the corner shop, the grocer’s, the café, that bring about the chance encounters that lead to and often maintain friendships in all our lives. I know that much of what has made me feel at home in Cirencester (to which I moved only five years ago) has been seeing familiar faces when I walk into town, and those familiar faces leading to a smile, and then perhaps leading to stopping to chat. Communities are far more than just the buildings in which people live.

But I have also seen a new energy among the people I meet, especially community leaders. When once they seemed despondent at the lack of support from local government, they now seem more able to take matters into their own hands. Their confidence in rebuilding their lives and in being able to actually see a long-term future seems to be growing, and I am sure it is because they have seen the support they have received from people they never even knew. People just like you. You haven’t forgotten them, and in continuing to support this area you show that you understand that recovering after a disaster on this kind of scale takes decades, not just years. Thank you all so very much.

People are still contacting me and asking for ways they can help, so I am listing below the projects that I know need support, with links to more details. And there are always new projects being talked about that I may not have listed here, so just drop me a line if you’d like to be kept in the loop. There is not necessarily any rush for sponsorship for these projects, so if you feel there is something for which you’d like to set a fundraising goal, please let me know. My next trip will be soon after April 2017.

And on a personal level, I have had the most wonderful trip. Instead of rushing about like I usually do, I’ve been taking things a bit slower and putting a bit less pressure on myself. In the past, I have rarely slept well here but I am ending this trip feeling relaxed and rejuvenated. I have spent time with people who have become like family to me, and me to them. I have spent time in a place that I held on to in my mind and in my heart when going through some very difficult things during 2015. I have, when pressed, explained the details of the demise of my second marriage, which is something I was worried about explaining before coming here. And in doing so, I have been met with outrage in some (one woman even slapped a photo of my ex-husband!), and interestingly, a lack of surprise in others (people are very perceptive here). But unwaveringly, in a place where divorce is frowned upon, I have received nothing but understanding. “You can’t put up with that!” was a common phrase I heard. In reassuring my car mechanic, Osawa-san, that I was fine and that my mother had given me a lot of support, he said “You have a lot of support from me too. From all of us on Oshika.”

So thank you to Oshika for, as always, touching my heart and also keeping me in yours.

An evening with Onodera-san

I spent this evening at Onodera-san’s, in one of the few houses in Ohara that stayed standing after the tsunami in Ohara, and my nearest neighbour. I used to spend most nights at his place, drinking, laughing, and talking, but I haven’t spent so much time there on this trip. It’s partly because I need more sleep than I used to so go to bed early, and partly because I rarely drink these days. But I’m ashamed to think that it might be partly because I may have been avoiding the evenings we used to spend together — I have had some of the most intimate conversations here on Oshika with Onodera-san. We have always had a way of communicating that hasn’t necessarily needed words, and I have always felt a special connection with him. I have never really known why.

But I went over to his house tonight, and he opened the bottle of red wine he had been saving for me, because he knows I like red wine, and it wasn’t too long before he said to me, “Caroline, your heart is down.”

“What do you mean? I’m fine.”

“I can see it in your eyes. Your eyes have changed from the last time you were here.”

“No, I’m OK.”

“I don’t know what’s happened since you were last here, but something has changed. All of us in Ohara can see. Your eyes show everything. Your eyes don’t smile anymore. We love your smile. We all love you. We are so happy when you are here. Please know that we love you. I love you.”

And I was embarrassed that I couldn’t stop the tears flowing down my face because he was right. About it all. Something did happen in the time since I’ve been away, but I thought I was hiding it really well. It’s not something I ever want to think about again. I didn’t want to tell him, but I hate secrets and I knew I was keeping a big one from them. I’ve never been able to lie, and it has been said by many people for many years that my eyes show everything. I’m glad I can’t lie, but sometimes I hate it that I can’t.

And I hate that I can’t lie because sometimes it means sharing some really awful stuff with people you know love you, and in sharing that stuff you make them feel a bit of your pain. And instead of using your phone’s dictionary to look up lots of words you usually need when talking about light-hearted things to make people laugh, you use it to look up words like “bullying,” “domestic abuse,” “lawyer”, “judge,” and “injunction.” And you hold someone’s hand because they are shedding tears for you as they hear your story.

And I wish my dictionary could tell me how to express to my friends in Ohara just how often during the past year or so I held on to the thought of being right here again with them. But my dictionary can’t. And there’s really no need. Something tells me that Onodera-san knows.

Oshika Junior High School update

Yesterday I met with the new Principal at Oshika Junior High School, along with some of the teachers, to see how things are going for the students and their families, and to see what kind of support they currently need. The principal explained the current situation …

There are now just fewer than 50 students at the school, and 30% of them are still living in temporary housing. Before the earthquake the school had double the number of students, and the intake is decreasing each year. Many families have moved to Ishinomaki, but really want to return to Oshika one day. The area’s beauty and peace was the reason many lived here in the first place, but the entire peninsula has turned into a massive construction site, especially with the six-metre high sea wall the is being constructed along the entire coastline. The construction work has made Oshika a noisy, “agitated” place, and it has taken (and still is taking) so long for people to move out of their temporary housing that Ishinomaki has become the place that many have reluctantly chosen to live for the time-being. There doesn’t seem to be much of an idea when the rebuilding of Oshika will be completed, but it is clear that it will be at least another ten years. Hopefully this beautiful peninsula will once again be a peaceful place to live.

In the meantime, the families that remain work hard. The parents have all returned to work now, and they have enough money for general living expenses. The new housing situation is complicated though … many young families still have mortgages to pay on properties they lost in the tsunami. Elderly residents now in new homes pay a small rental fee, as they didn’t feel able to take on a mortgage at their age. But the young families have taken mortgages on the new homes. They are optimistic but this leaves very little money for anything other than the essentials.

When asked what the school needs moving forwards, the Principal did not hesitate in stating that the school uniforms were, without a doubt, the best way to support the families. He stressed that the school itself was fine, but the parents were struggling, and would continue to struggle for many years. He told me that the uniforms not only helped the parents out financially, but the uniforms also support the students emotionally and psychologically. The Principal and other teachers really lit up when they started talking about what the uniforms mean to the students, and I must admit to feeling a little emotional as he explained this to me.

He said that the relevance of the school uniforms starts way before the students join junior high, as the excitement about going to “big school” starts in elementary school, and the uniforms represent so much. Not only is it the first time the students (who wear casual clothes in elementary) wear a uniform, but also that time when they first wear the uniform (in front of their younger schoolmates at a special ceremony in elementary school) is seen as an important rite of passage. They are taking their first steps into adulthood. They are growing up. Their lives are moving forward. The uniform sets the foundation for the future. I have attended these ceremonies and both students and parents are in floods of tears. It is a very emotional moment for everyone concerned when those students first walk into the room wearing their uniforms.

The Principal explained to me that the fact that these uniforms have been gifted to them adds an extra element to their school experience, which can affect the rest of their lives in a really positive way. He said that for the three years they attend school, every day they put on their uniforms they are reminded that other people care about them — and this was the point where my eyes started to sting. I had never really thought of the uniforms having that kind of impact on a daily basis. So I want to extend thanks, again, to everyone that has contributed to the school uniforms in past years: to Kspace International School for 2013, to Nick Johnston and John Whetsel for 2014, to Kspace International School again for 2015, and to Martin Urban, Mariko Yasuda, Lorna Nagamine, Sue O’Regan, and the Japanese community in Oxford for 2016. I met with the 2016 intake today and am posting a photograph of them at their entrance ceremony earlier this year, at the end of this post. Look at the students’ smiles! Thank you all so very much.

Not only do these uniforms provide practical and emotional support to parents and students, but they also inspire these youngsters to think about how we all care for each other. Already there have been stories circulating of young people who are now at university helping those in Kumamoto or in other countries struggling for a number of reasons. Young people who were specifically inspired because of the support they received after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Many of them are determined to pay it forward and to be active contributors to their own community, their own country, and to the world in general. Maybe we are starting to see the good that has come out of 2011.

The school really hopes that a kind soul will come forward to sponsor uniforms for the 2017 intake. There will be 12 students joining Oshika Junior High School. Their uniform “sets” include not only general day uniforms, but also bags, shoes, and sportswear. Each student is carefully measured and each uniform made so that it will last for the entire three years. The uniforms are all made locally, so the money stays in the local economy. And payment for the uniforms is not required until March 2017, so there is plenty of time for any interested sponsor to do any fundraising. Please let me know if you are even a little bit interested.

NOTE: since writing this blog post the Japanese community from Oxford have requested that the ¥260,000 they raised at the June event where I gave a speech, should go towards the uniforms for the 2017 intake AND the school have stated that the parents will be paying for the sportswear themselves, so the amount currently needed for uniforms in 2017 is now ¥304,000 (about £2100 or $2650).

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Ajishima Island Rebuilding Projects

I first visited the tiny island of Ajishima, just a ten-minute boat trip from Oshika, four years ago with Mr Sasaki. He has two sisters living there: one lost everything; the other has a small guest house on a hill so the building survived, but business was severely affected. Once famous for its beautiful white sandy beach, and usually full of tourists during the summer months, when I later visited Ajishima with my niece in the summer of 2014, the beach was so empty we took a dip in the clear waters wearing just our underwear, and not one person could see us.

Like many communities on Oshika, population was in gradual decline even before the tsunami. Since March 11th, 2011 Ajishima has lost a quarter of its population, and currently is home to around 300 people. Life is peaceful and relaxed and reminds its one American resident of life in Hawaii, Okinawa, or Jamaica. Despite the easygoing nature of the residents, they are hardworking and resourceful, but perhaps I should allow Rick’s own words to explain island life …

I am one of the youngest people here now, and most that remain are 70–90 years old, but that does not stop them from hanging their laundry before the sun is up and tending their gardens before I am up! Most of the old men were deep sea commercial fishermen for international companies, and are fiercely independent. The grandmas love to socialize and drink tea, and I have more interactions with them than anyone else. They make awesome food from the things they grow themselves. There are no grocery stores or convenience stores, only a couple of small shops. No pachinko or movie theater, no amusement parlors, no traffic lights, no stop signs, no regular police, and people don’t lock their doors even when they leave the island! We leave our car keys in the ignition when we leave the island. There is trust. There is community. Nature abounds, the sea is beautiful, the blue skies are vast, and the mountain forests are lush and green. This is the island paradise I was looking for!

In the months immediately after the tsunami, local islanders were hired by an outside construction company responsible for clearing the roads and docks, and removing debris. This really empowered the local people to be involved in the initial recovery progress and to feel in control of their future (the importance of which I have frequently mentioned in other blog posts). However, since then, the islanders have not been involved in any reconstruction, which is now controlled by two major companies, and they have not hired local workers. They focus on rebuilding the ports and docks — clearly necessary if tourists are to return but island life involves more than just the ports.

From Rick’s perspective, and that of other islanders, Ajishima is mainly overlooked and often forgotten by the Ishinomaki government. This actually can have a positive effect — the resourcefulness of the islanders has meant that they really want to determine their own futures, which in itself is healing from the trauma that natural disasters such as the 2011 tsunami bring. Everyday life, more than five years after the disaster, has achieved some level of normalcy, but it is the future that these hardworking people are now concerned about. And they have some wonderfully creative ideas to attract young and old people, families, and especially those with young children. They want to create jobs for people, support entrepreneurial visionaries, and create educational experiences for children and adults alike. While initially disappointing, the lack of intervention from outside government bodies, means that the islanders can be free in their dreams and plans for the future.

They have those dreams, they have the physical capabilities, and they have the motivation. All they need now, is some financial support to get any of the following projects off the ground. I have listed the projects in order of their financial requirements (starting from ¥40,000 and going up to ¥2 million). Some of the projects will be located near each other and will form “Ajishima Eco-Park,” the space for which has been donated by the Ishinomaki government, which has given the islanders permission to develop as they see fit. Many of the projects will be created using materials that will be recycled and repurposed, thus decreasing the amount of existing “waste” to be sent off to disposal sites on the mainland or elsewhere in Japan. These projects not only support tourism, community spirit, and new business opportunities, but are also considerate of environmental impact in a number of ways.

Please let me know if you are interested in supporting any of these projects:

  1. Pizza Oven (sponsorship secured!)
    Community spaces are few and far between anywhere on Oshika, and even more so on Ajishima. The islanders would like to build an oven unit, with a covered seating area. The unit would be within Ajishima Eco-Park, and will primarily for making pizza, but will also be used for cooking soup and rice. It will be built out of locally available materials such as clay, sand, and stone, and built by local carpenters using traditional methods. The oven could also be used to create microbusiness opportunities for breadmakers. This project has just today secured sponsorship, from Mariko Yasuda, who I first met when she was visiting Cirencester last year, and after talking with me about Oshika, she raised ¥150,000 to go toward school uniforms for the 2016 intake at Oshika Junior High School. She holds an annual fundraising event in Japan among her baking class students, and she has pledged to raise the money for the pizza oven in order to support other people that love cooking. Thank you Mariko!
  1. Children’s Playground (sponsorship secured!)
    This project has already secured funding from Ohana International School in Tokyo. Ohana have been a long-time supporter of Oshika, especially the Koamikura community by funding a number of projects to help restore the village’s shrine, include the erection of the stone tori, which the tsunami had left broken in pieces on the ground. I am extremely grateful to Ohana for offering to sponsor the children’s playground, which will form part of Ajishima Eco-Park. The playground will provide a safe and enjoyable place for children and families to gather. It is also hoped that the playground will make the island more attractive for families with children to come and live.
  1. Bee Hive (sponsorship secured!)
    The islanders are in the process of developing a yuzu (Japanese citrus fruit) grove as part of their larger effort to grow and produce items that can highlight Ajishima and be utilized in souvenirs and other island specialities. They already have the trees organised and will be planting them this coming autumn. As yuzu is pollinated by bees, which are in decline everywhere, they want to add a bee hive to the yuzu grove to ensure a healthy ecosystem. They are committed to not using harmful chemicals or pesticides that contribute to the bee colonies’ demise, and have already planted many herbs and flowers in the grove that are known to benefit bees. If they can establish the bee colony before we plant the yuzu trees, then we can ensure the longevity of both. I have now secured more than was needed for the initial funding of the bee hive so this means that the island can develop the project even more than they had originally planned. Thanks goes to JAMBO and Rick Weisburd (who have also already supported other projects on Oshika),  Katie Dingley, and Aya Bird for each contributing ¥40,000 to this project. Aya and her family have supported the Ayukawa Playground and the Ohara Bus Stop, and the family frequently took vacations on Oshika so the area is close to their hearts. Katie used to live and work in, and is currently doing a PhD on Japan, so it is quite an important country to her. She says, “When I recently received some money I wanted to put it to a good cause and felt that I wanted to support something in Japan, where I have experienced a lot of kindness. I chose this project in particular as I was moved by how determined the community is and innovative their ideas are, the appreciation for a healthy ecosystem including bees, and, more personally, a love of both fruit groves and yuzu!” Thank you to you all!
  1. Compost Toilet (sponsorship secured!)
    A compost toilet located within the Eco-Park would provide facilities for park guests, farmers working in nearby fields, and general passersby. By composting human waste the island is more eco-friendly and saves money by no longer needing an outhouse tank pumped and emptied by a special truck that then is taken by ferry to the mainland for disposal. Safe, hygienic compost could then be used in low-traffic areas around fruit/nut picking trees and non-edible flowers. Lorna Nagamine has come forward to sponsor this project, which I am so relieved about (no pun intended) as I thought this might be a tricky one! Lorna has already contributed almost ¥200,000 to various Oshika projects over the past five years, including Oshika Community Library, Keiko’s garden, the Disneyland trip, the Pink Ladies, and school uniforms for the 2016 intake at Oshika Junior High School. Lorna puts aside what she used to spend on Starbucks before I started coming to Oshika, so every time I come she looks out for something she’d like to sponsor. This time she’s going to spend the next year raising funds for a compost toilet to be built on Ajishima. Thanks Lorna!
  1. Ajishima Dog Run (seeking ¥200,000 sponsorship) 網地島ドッグラン(20万円支援希望)
    One dog owner on Ajishima has offered a secluded piece of their own land, away from housing and traffic, so that the islanders can create a space for the existing dogs, and to encourage people with pets to see Ajishima as a dog-friendly place to live or visit. The dog run would be enclosed by a fence and include a small seating area for the humans that love them, as well as a roof to collect rainwater for the dogs to drink, homemade compost bins for the inevitable, and even an obstacle course for the dogs and owners to have fun together. The nearest other island to Ajishima is Tashirojima, nicknamed Neko no shima (Cat Island) because of the hundreds of resident cats and shrines dedicated to them. Ajishima would like to attract tourists to a Dog Island! This project would be a wonderful endeavour to support for any dog lovers out there!

    網地島(あじしま)のある犬の飼い主が、住宅や県道より離れた土地を提供してくださり、今、島にいる犬達はもちろん、これから犬と暮らしたい方や犬と島へ遊びに来たい方も使える、ドッグフレンドリーな場所作りをしています。ドッグランは、フェンスで囲いを作り、飼い主がちょっと座れるスペースや雨水を犬が飲めるようなシステム、また犬のう○ちは、手作りコンポスト(→花壇)へ、犬と飼い主がともに楽しめる空間をつくる予定です。
     
    網地島に最も近い田代島(たしろじま)は、数百の猫が暮らしていて猫の島や猫島とも呼ばれており、猫神社まであります。その田代島は、犬の連れ込み禁止ですが、網地島は犬も猫もいます。網地島に犬神社はありませんが、網地島が犬の島として人を惹きつけられるようになれたら素敵です!犬好きさんにとって、素晴らしいプロジェクトです。ご支援どうぞよろしくお願い致します。
  1. Outdoor Stage (seeking ¥200,000 sponsorship)
    Everyone knows the healing power of music! The islanders would like to build a place for live music within the Eco-Park, which could also be used as a free market at other times, providing a gathering place for artists, farmers, fishermen, etc. to barter or sell items between themselves or sell to visiting guests. This would provide a great place for islanders and visitors to come together, and also a location at which to hold events that could encourage tourists to visit. Some young musicians have recently moved to the island, and this would be a great place for them to perform, and to encourage other young people to move there. This would be a wonderful project for any entertainers to support.
  1. Ajishima Orchard (seeking ¥200,000 sponsorship)
    Within the Eco-Park, the islanders would like to create their own orchard full of fruit and nut trees and assorted flowers, in order to provide free fruit and nuts to islanders and visitors, to create a relaxing forest-like atmosphere with shade from a canopy of trees, bee forage to help pollinate local fields, and a microbusiness opportunities for jam- and pickle-makers.
  1. Ajishima Clean Up Project (seeking ¥200,000 sponsorship)
    The islanders would like to embark upon an eco-friendly recycling and waste disposal project that would include developing proper disposal methods and educational programs, to restore the island to its natural beauty. And keep it that way. Funding would be used to remove waste products and provide simple supplies as well as proper garbage and recycling bins in public spaces.
  1. Flail mower (seeking ¥550,000 sponsorship)
    These mowers are incredibly efficient at chopping and organizing weeds and long grasses in order to maintain public spaces, and the islanders would like one particularly for managing the area in and around the Eco-Park, yuzu orchard, and to be able to allow the island to clear other areas in order to develop future projects.
  1. Wood Chipper (seeking ¥1.5 million sponsorship)
    A wood chipper is an extremely useful tool on Ajishima in general, as well as for the Eco-Park. There is a never-ending supply of tree trimmings and bush-clearing scraps from the island, that can be used to create woodchips for pathways around the eco-park, a surface for the children’s playground, and natural compost, which would be given to islanders to use instead of the harmful chemicals currently imported to the island. Woodchips can also be used to create a mushroom microbusiness, and cover material for a compost toilet. They have so far rented a wood chipper, which has cost ¥100,000 for just one day’s use, and would ideally like to purchase one that they can have access to long-term in order to support existing as well as future plans for developing the island.
  1. Ajishima Farmers’ Market & Kitchen (sponsorship secured!)
    The purpose of this project is to provide a centrally-located community-supplied and volunteer-run market space to allow sales opportunities for islanders who grow more than they need, and purchasing opportunities at reasonable prices for those who cannot grown their own food due to age or disability. Part of the market will include a community kitchen where excess island produce can be made into other products for sale on or off the island, or online. A volunteer delivery service would be easy to setup and run from this central location. This contributes to an island economy, where instead of relying on boats from the mainland to deliver groceries, goods are produced locally and the money used in the sale of these goods flows through and around the same community. There are currently two possible ways of actually constructing the market — one includes the reform of two shipping containers that are no longer in use, the other includes creating the buildings from scratch. Both methods cost the same amount of money. This is a great opportunity for any sponsor interested in supporting a food-based endeavour that contributes to the island economy.

It has been quite inspiring for me to come across this little community of people, even more isolated and even more forgotten than the other areas on Oshika that I have worked with, because of their determination to rebuild their island on their own and the amazing ideas they have come up with. They just need a bit of help and encouragement to get them underway. There is no urgent timeline, so if you have seen something you would like to support, you can set a fundraising timeline that suits you. And the islanders would welcome visitors to see the projects for themselves, and even lend a hand if you’d like to! If you are interested in supporting any of the above projects, please let me know.

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Ohara ¥3 million shrine renovation — completed!

My trip has this time been planned to coincide with the biggest event of the year for Oharahama, the village where I stay. On the weekend of 16th July they will be holding their summer festival. And this year the festival also marks the completion of the renovation of their shrine, a project that the head of the village and I first discussed in early 2015.

This village used to be the summer home of Date Masamune, the founder of Sendai, and the shrine is more than 400 years old. Some of the residents here descend from samurai who were defeated by Date, but were permitted to live in this village and watch over his land. High on a hill, the shrine survived the tsunami, and provided a sanctuary for those able to climb the steep steps to safety. But the structures that form the shrine were very badly damaged during the earthquake. The steps leading up to the shrine were repaired in the weeks immediately following the earthquake — so important was it to the people here to be able to reach the spiritual heart of their community. The kanetsukido (bell tower) lay in pieces on the ground at the top of the steps when I first walked up them in May 2011, but thanks to the kindness of a New Zealander (William Hill) and his friends and family living in Tokyo, a brand new kanetsukido was built in summer 2014. It is, quite simply, a work of art.

But the main part of the shrine, and especially the back part of the shrine (shinden) that houses the place where you pray, has been slowly deteriorating. The shinden had to be covered in tarpaulin in an attempt to stop the rain pouring in and damaging the 400-year-old relics and pieces of art. It was becoming dangerous to cross the little “bridge” linking the front and the back of the shrine, and the people of Oharahama were very worried about losing this important part of their history, location of key rituals, and centre of their community because of the expense that repairing it would incur. During one of my usual “What does your community need?” conversations with Kucho-san on my last visit, he told me about the rapidly deteriorating shrine, which he estimated would cost about ¥3 million to repair. This was a lot of money and while I’ve managed to raise almost ¥4 million for the school uniforms, this was over a four-year period and contributions came from a number of sources. I wasn’t too confident about finding ¥3 million for a shrine but shared it with my Tohoku supporters network, nonetheless.

To my surprise, in stepped Robin Maynard. Robin is a British man I have known for many years, from the days when I was active in the British business community in Tokyo. We didn’t know each other very well until recently, but had mutual friends, and he had sponsored outfits for the Pink Ladies and maintained a keen interest in my Tohoku activities. He decided that he wanted to provide the entire \3 million to preserve the shrine. I was completely overwhelmed and thrilled to be able to share this news with Kucho-san. I don’t think he could believe it either.

I am always intrigued about what motivates people to commit to charitable projects, especially in respect of Oshika, and so when Robin visited me in Cirencester last summer to discuss the shrine refurbishment I grabbed the opportunity to find out more. With Robin’s permission, I want to share his fascinating story and attitude toward philanthropy with you. Robin has a history of being a quiet contributor to a variety of charitable endeavours, and those that embrace history, religion, and the spiritual are close to his heart.

Robin worked in Tokyo from the seventies until retirement just before the 2011 tsunami, and was an active member of the British business community. For 25 years he attended the annual Christmas Cracker fundraiser held at the British Embassy. He became a key sponsor during the last few years of the event, and this gave him a taste of the personal satisfaction that can come from supporting charitable endeavours. Upon retirement, he found himself with spare time, and two adult children in the UK who were financially independent. The savings he had put aside for them during all those years of hard work in Tokyo were not needed. And with a reluctance to allow his earnings to later “disappear into some government black hole” in the form of inheritance tax, he decided to seek out projects in his family members’ names; projects that were appealing to him personally and could be completed during his lifetime. He devised a long-term plan — a plan that would also allow him to give back to a country that had treated him well and provided 32 years of rewarding employment. Each project he would ultimately support had to include historical, religious, and spiritual elements.

The first project was in honour of his parents. Inside St. Mary’s Church in Fryerning village in the Essex countryside there is a plaque in memory of Robin’s parents. This church has a very special meaning to Robin — the cemetery is packed with his ancestors, including his parents who were married at the church. Robin was baptized there, and he sponsored the restoration of the base of the church tower and the war memorial.

In honour of his immediate and extended family members, Robin provided funds for the refurbishment of and improvements to Kids Earth Home Tohoku, Watari-gun, Miyagi-ken. This area was seriously affected by the 2011 disaster.

In honour of Robin’s son and immediate family, he became involved with “Japan400” — the 400th anniversary of Japan-UK official relationships. In 1613 King James I gifted a unique telescope to the very first shogun. Over time this telescope was lost and, as part of the Japan400 celebrations, Robin sponsored a large replacement telescope made out of brass by a Welsh craftsman. It was presented to Shizuoka City in the presence of a direct descendant of the shogun, and is now on permanent display at Sunpu Castle Museum.

One other project is on going, and is being dedicated to Robin’s daughter and immediate family. William Adams was the first English person to arrive in Japan, more than 400 years ago. In preparation for the 400th anniversary of Adams’ death, Robin is sponsoring the complete refurbishment of the William Adams memorial at Hirado, Nakasaki, and this project is due for completion in 2020.

When Robin came to hear of the Ohara shrine that was badly in need of repair, he felt that this was the perfect project to support, in honour of his Japanese wife and stepson.

The money was sent directly to the Oharahama shrine “council” early this year so the town could start planning the restoration, and three local carpenters began work last month. All materials have been sourced locally; so all money has stayed within the local economy. This week I visited the shrine with Kucho-san, to see what progress has been made. I was amazed to see that an entirely new shinden and “bridge” from the main room of the shrine to the shinden has been built, incorporating elements of the original shrine where possible. The 400-year-old relics are now protected in a brand new building, strong enough to withstand the harsh weather conditions, and to allow people to now safely enter the shinden in order to pray. The outside is modern but the inside is traditional, and the timing of the construction was carefully planned so that it would be completed in time for the matsuri on the weekend of 16th July. They finished yesterday, one week early.

I love Robin’s story. I love how he has combined his love for his family, a strong sense of community, a respect for spiritual beliefs, the importance of history, and a responsibility to “do good” when you find yourself in a position of being able to. I love how he has made philanthropy part of the larger canvas of his life.

And I love that next weekend, I will have the honour of escorting Robin and his wife around Oshika, as they join me in the village of Oharahama to celebrate the annual summer festival, and to celebrate the new shrine.

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First impressions on Oshika progress

Today was my first full day on Oshika. It is so wonderful to be here again — I have been away from Japan for 15 months, which is the longest time I have been away in the past twenty years since I first came to this country. It has been really hard being away from what I consider to be my spiritual home for so long, but for a number of reasons it was unavoidable. I’m just glad to be here at last.

And in the past 24 hours I have already seen lots to report back on. I’ll be writing in more detail about each of these things later, but as a quick summary …

Lots of people have recently moved out of temporary housing and into new homes, including everyone at Oharahama, where I stay. This is the best news I could have received upon arrival! The temporary housing was only supposed to be for six months and people here ended up living in them for almost five years. I remember the elderly residents becoming dismayed at the time it was taking to get new homes, and hearing one of them say that she couldn’t believe she was going to end her days in one of the tiny temporary units they were living in. Sadly, one of the elderly residents of Oharahama passed away just last week, just when she was supposed to move into her new home. Her husband passed away a couple of years ago and they were such a sweet couple, that I like to think of them now happy and at peace together — maybe a new home without him wouldn’t have been right. I haven’t had a chance to catch up with people in their new homes, but I’m sure they will appreciate support as they create their new homes.

The sea wall that was started 16 months ago is still under construction. It goes along the entire coastline of Oshika, and the Ohara section is currently about two metres high, with another three metres to go. It’s due for completion by the end of 2017. The local people weren’t consulted about its construction and it’s going to vastly change the view from the village, which doesn’t bother the locals for aesthetic reasons although that doesn’t help — they are more concerned about not being able to see the sea and know what it is doing. These are people who have lived here for their entire lives, and they are at one with the sea, which is why so many of them actually survived the tsunami — they knew exactly what to do in the moments after the earthquake and when they saw the sea receding. If you can’t see the sea here, it creates more fear than if the wall wasn’t there.

The combini is now open until 10:30pm rather than 7pm, which is actually quite a big deal! It’s been taken over by FamilyMart but is still run by the very genki 84-year-old Endo-san, who works every day. The container next to the combini, where I run the free shop when I’m here, is currently full of all sorts of bits and pieces that I need to organize for Endo-san before I can clear the space to make the shop. I hope to get this done tomorrow, but boxes of donated items have already started arriving, so thank you to everyone that has started sending things! I’ll regularly post updates on Facebook.

I have a box of outfits for the Pink Ladies to distribute around the peninsula. Today I delivered one outfit to 70-year-old Yasuko-san, who works three different jobs depending on the season, and was thrilled to receive some new workwear. The outfits I source are made in Hokkaido and have a reputation on Oshika for being hardwearing — lasting much longer than the cheaper outfits they used to buy themselves before the tsunami. These outfits are an ongoing need — please contact me if you’d like to sponsor one.

I visited the Ohara shrine with Kucho-san, to see how the restoration is going. I secured ¥3 million of sponsorship for this last year, and the work will be completed in just a couple of weeks now, in time for the annual summer matsuri. More details about this special project in another blog post. Suffice to say, seeing this project near completion was a little overwhelming. It was such a big project, and required such a lot of money, that I really wasn’t confident in the beginning of being able to secure the funding. Sometimes when you see something come together the way that this has, and you know how much it means to an entire community of people, well … it’s quite emotional.

I’ll be visiting Ajishima island on Sunday, and getting more details about a variety of projects that this tiny island community want to embark upon in order to rebuild their economy and long-term future. I had briefly mentioned some of their ideas in a previous blog post, and to my surprise received interest for two of them immediately — both the bee hive and the playground now have sponsors, and while we’re still working out the details, it is very encouraging to have been able to secure support even before my getting here. More details to come.

In general, I sense a lot more hope here than I have during previous visits. It has been a long time coming, but now that people are in proper homes, and know that there are people out there, just like you reading this, that are committed to supporting the area long-term either financially, practically, or emotionally, I think this is giving them the confidence to take bigger steps in rebuilding their communities. Thank you.

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