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Growing New Life in Ishinomaki with Peace Boat

At work in one of Peace Boat’s gardens.
Photo courtesy of Ikumi Sasaki.

A garden, as every gardener knows, is more than just plants and dirt. A person might first turn the soil out of a desire to save a few pennies or to taste a rare variety of tomato or pepper. The garden often moves beyond plants and harvest to become a beloved space, one where the cares of the day get worked into the soil and tossed in the compost bin. Later, they emerge as surplus fruit shared with neighbors or a bright bouquet picked for a friend. Sore muscles and a slight sunburn garnish a family meal grown from seed and recently harvested. However, some residents of Ishinomaki, one of the cities hardest hit by the March 11th earthquake and tsunami, will also attest that a garden can change lives.

A city situated on Japan’s jagged eastern coastline, Ishinomaki’s more than 160,000 residents prospered by the sea. Fishing, fish processing, wakame (an edible seaweed) growing and harvesting all provided jobs and supported other parts of the economy up and down the coast. Earthquakes and tsunamis were not unheard of, but nothing prepared these communities for the events of March 11th. That day a 9.0 magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami of epic proportions that traveled more than 5 kilometers inland killing 3,277 and leaving 29,000 people homeless.

Among the 300 organizations that arrived in Ishinomaki within days of the quake ready to help was Peace Boat. Founded in 1983 by a small group of Japanese university students determined to discover the truth about Japan’s murky military history in the region, they charted a boat to visit neighboring countries and start talking. Thirty years and nearly 80 voyages later, Peace Boat continues bringing people together to sow the seeds of peace in work, play, and learning.

It was the 1995 Kobe earthquake when Peace Boat stepped into disaster relief. Uniquely positioned as a self-sustaining floating volunteer center, the organization sent hundreds of volunteers ashore to help the city recover and rebuild. From this first experience, the organization learned enough to help with other disasters including Kashmir in 2005 and most recently to the United States to help with Hurricane Sandy clean-up and Guatemala’s November, 2012 earthquake.

A Peace Boat garden near Aikawa, Miyagi Prefecture.
Photo courtesy of Ikumi Sasaki.

Peace Boat’s work in Ishinomaki centers on the community itself. “Whatever they need, we do,” said Maho Takahashi, Program Officer for Peace Boat’s Disaster Relief Department. Two years later they continue to work year-round from a regional center in Ishinomaki. Volunteers remove sludge, untangle fishing nets, help replant wakame, and organize community events. They also compile a weekly newsletter for survivors, many of whom are older and living alone for the first time.

“We deliver the newsletter to roughly 3,000 households. It’s a tool to check in with residents now that they’re in temporary housing,” said Maho. “It gives them a conversation partner, and it was in these meetings that it just kind of came out.”

A Peace Boat garden looking luscious in autumn, 2012.
Photo courtesy of Yasuhiro Ueshima.

“It” was that locals wanted something to do, and they wanted a chance to be outside. “Many of these people come from outlying areas (of Ishinomaki) where being outdoors on a fishing boat or in a garden or on a farm was part of their daily lives,” she explained.

So, in the fall of 2011, volunteer leaders worked with 130 landowners to plan gardens at their former homes. Peace Boat organized tools, materials, and volunteer teams to clear away debris and replace contaminated soil the tsunami left behind. But there was one important difference in this project.

“The landowner worked with the volunteers, hauling and digging, directing, and taking a break. It was a chance for the volunteers and the landowner to meet and connect,” said Maho. “It helped residents know they are not forgotten. They feel a responsibility to the volunteers who helped them create it; a fact that pulls them up and out when the rest of the day seems pointless, the weather too hot or too cold. It brings them out of themselves to life again.”

Togarashi (Japanese hot peppers) ready for harvest!
Photo courtesy of Azusa Maeda.

Finished in about a day, the garden was then turned over to the landowner. As Peace Boat checked in with the gardeners throughout the next growing season, they soon realized that survivors were finding more than just a chance to get outside.

“We’d given people an excuse to return to their homes,” said Maho. Most of the garden spaces are in small fishing villages outside of the larger city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture. The majority of residents are still waiting to hear whether they’ll ever be able to return to their homes again. In their new gardens, residents were able to reconnect with their community and friends in a familiar way on familiar ground, something that hadn’t been possible since that cold March afternoon two years ago.

“Their sense of community is strong in Tohoku, and now they’ve been thrown into a different community, often in a different area,” said Maho. “This means they don’t talk to each other much, because they don’t know each other. Because they were back in their home place, their neighborhood and village, they met once again their old friends and neighbors.”

As spring turned to summer to fall, these gardeners harvested a new sense of normalcy and more than a little hope along with baskets of daikon, cabbage, kaboucha (squash), togarashi (hot peppers), cosmos, marigolds, and potatoes.

Potatoes and daikon ready for eating.
Photo courtesy of Ikumi Sasaki.

“Although they lost so much life in the disaster, some residents said that having a garden, being able to grow vegetables and flowers was a chance for them to be able to grow a new life,” said Maho. “And they are able to share that new life with their old friends and their new friends, the volunteers. They say they have received a lot from volunteers over the last one and half years. Now, with this new life they are growing in their gardens they are able to give back to the volunteers. It feels really nice for them that they are in a position where they can give something tangible to the volunteers.”

Peace Boat now considers gardens a valuable tool for the future.

“I think this can actually be a new form of disaster relief activities. It could also provide relief not only for disaster zones, but for conflict areas as well. The gardens are not just about having a place for survivors to work, but they are also part of a process of establishing community. That sort of human connection is always important. It becomes an encouraging factor for them to continue their lives,” said Maho.

And the residents? Snow still covers the ground in Tohoku, and so these days people busy themselves with other creative projects, community events, and catching up with old friends. Spring is coming, though, and Peace Boat will be ready when they are.



You can support Tohoku by purchasing products from there!

Ami-Kumi Basketry: http://ecotwaza.sakura.ne.jp/blog/ami-kumi-basket/

Joboji lacquerware: http://ecotwaza.sakura.ne.jp/blog/lacquerware/


Joan Bailey
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Joan Lambert Bailey lives, eats, writes, and farms in Tokyo. Follow her random adventures getting dirty, eating good food, and visiting farmers markets at Japan Farmers Markets.
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