Japan: Supporting Disaster Survivors in Temporary Housing Complexes Create Vegetable Gardens

Growing Vegetables as an Opportunity for Community Interaction

Before the disaster, many of those living in temporary housing complexes along the shoreline of Miyagi Prefecture used to grow vegetables on their farms or in their home gardens. However, their lands and gardens were washed away in the tsunami, making it difficult for them to secure land and restart their farmwork. They used to be physically active through their daily farmwork, but many of them are now suffering from lack of exercise since the disaster. With the added stress of having to cope with their prolonged lives in the temporary housing complexes, some are starting to show signs of hikikomori (social withdrawal).

In such situation, activities that involve plowing vacant plots of land and growing vegetables are becoming popular in disaster-affected areas among the survivors in the effort to regain their original lives and to solve the problem of lack of exercise. AAR Japan is currently supporting survivors by preparing pieces of land that can be used as vegetable gardens as well as providing farming tools. By working cooperatively on their new gardens, people have naturally begun to converse with each other more and show smiles.

Onagawa Town, Miyagi Prefecture: “We are Happy to be able to Eat What We Made on Our Own”

May 24th, 2012 – Around 3pm, the residents gather around a table by the garden and take a rest as “ochakko”. “Ochakko” is a tradition in the Tohoku region in which people chat and drink tea together. Following the earthquake, there has not been a place where people could casually gather and chat like so. (“Fureai Noen”, Onagawa Town, Miyagi Prefecture)

Extending even into its mountainous area, the tsunami had a catastrophic effect on Onagawa Town located on the Sanriku coast. There are still many people living in temporary housing complexes.

Mr. Yoshihiro TAKAHASHI, the chairman of Onagawa Town Shimizu District Council, spearheaded the creation of a vegetable garden using a vacant piece of land in front of the temporary housing complex. There is a river next to the land so there is plenty of water that can be used for the garden. However, this area was hit by the tsunami so rubbles and rocks had to be removed first in order to use the land as a garden. In addition, the soil was sterile and lacked the minerals needed for healthy growth of vegetables.

In response, AAR Japan provided a small farm tractor, farming tools such as sickles, hoes, and shovels, a storage room to keep all the tools, 2 tons of new soil, and organic fertilizer, among other materials. As for the removal of rubbles, students from the Tohoku Welfare University and members of the Onagawa Recovery Support Center offered their help. There were many big rocks and the clearing process was not a smooth task, but a 450 square-meter vegetable garden was successfully completed after removing the rocks little by little and placing the new soil into the prepared plot of land.
This garden was named as “Fureai Noen” by the users. As the land became settled and the vegetables began to grow, smiles on the faces of people chatting as they pulled weeds or watered the vegetables, and mothers preparing snacks for afternoon tea time, have become more noticeable.

May 18th, 2012 – “We are happy to be able to eat the vegetables that we made on our own,” say the residents of “Fureai Noen”. AAR Japan delivered tools such as hoes and shovels, and a small farm tractor. It is clear that the residents are used to everyday farmwork. (Onagawa Town, Miyagi Prefecture)

May 24th, 2012 – Staff members of AAR Japan also helped with the removal of rubbles and rocks. It was much harder than expected, as there were many large pieces of rock. Pictured in the center is Mr. Yoshihiro TAKAHASHI, the initiator of “Fureai Noen” and on the left is Shinichiro OHARA of AAR Japan Sendai office (Onagawa Town, Miyagi Prefecture)

May 24th, 2012 – In the spaces that had already been cultivated, vegetables such as green peppers, eggplants, and potatoes are starting to grow. The green against the clear blue sky gives off an uplifting feeling. (Onagawa Town, Miyagi Prefecture)

July 3rd, 2012 – Under AAR Japan’s coordination, students from Princeton University made a visit in July. They helped plant flowers with messages on them that were collected through the “Delivering Flowers and Magokoro to the Disaster-Affected Areas” campaign. (Onagawa Town, Miyagi Prefecture)

 Higashi-Matsushima City, Miyagi Prefecture: Working Together to Set Up Greenhouses

April 25th, 2012 – We delivered hoes and shovels to residents of “Hibiki Farm”. Pictured second from the left is Shuji OMATSU of AAR Japan Sendai office. (Higashi-Matsushima City, Miyagi Prefecture)

At Uchihibiki temporary housing complex, Ms. Tomiko FUKUDA, a local resident, garnered support from the community council chairperson and a local support center and initiated the creation of a vegetable garden on a piece of land located next to the complex, which was to be shared among the residents. AAR Japan decided to provide farming tools such as hoes and shovels, a storage room, and greenhouses to what they named “Hibiki Farm”. With the greenhouses, the residents can grow vegetables even when it is cold.

On May 13th, the greenhouses were set up with mainly the help from the men living in Uchihibiki temporary housing complex. Despite the ground being muddy following heavy rain, they managed to complete setting up the frames with the help of AAR Japan staff members, which took an entire day. 2 weeks later, on May 28th, volunteers from the Nishihonganji Tohoku division came to help the residents covering the frames with vinyl.
The completed greenhouses will start to be used around October. All the other pieces of land have been allocated to the residents, with roughly 25 residents starting to grow vegetables. Residents who previously rarely interacted with each other have begun to talk to one another through their activities at Hibiki Farm.

May 13th, 2012 – Temporary housing complex residents that use “Hibiki Farm” were able to build the greenhouses in 1 day by working together. (Higashi-Matsushima City, Miyagi Prefecture)

May 28th, 2012 – Pictured in front of the greenhouses are users of “Hibiki Farm” and volunteers from the Nishihonganji Tohoku division who came to help place the vinyl on the framework. On the left is Shuji OMATSU of AAR Japan Sendai office. (Higashi-Matsushima City, Miyagi Prefecture)
Regaining Their Spirit through Gardening

In addition to the above two cases, AAR Japan is providing agricultural support to disaster survivors in other areas such as “Tsuchi wo Aisuru Kai” in Higashi-Matsushima City, and “Umakko Noen” and “Mizunuki Noen” in Ishinomaki City through the provision of farming tools and planters, installation of wells, and preparation of land.
The activity of making vegetables is well received even among the elderly and men who have had the tendency of isolating themselves in their homes, as they have found it easy to participate in something where they can utilize their skills. AAR Japan will continue to support such disaster survivors so that they can engage in a healthy lifestyle, both physically and mentally.

AAR Japan Sendai office:Shinichiro OHARA
After graduating from university, worked at a private company. Following the Great East Japan Earthquake, volunteered in the disaster sites until July 2011 and joined AAR Japan Sendai office in August.