Creating workable interventions

Jim Wescoat and Shun Kanda discuss the 3/11 MIT Japan Initiative at the MIT Bathos Theatre (Monday, 14 November, 2011)

Professors Shun Kanda and James Wescoat talked about their intervention in the tsunami hardest hit town of Minami-Sanriku in Japan. An intervention, MIT Japan 3/11, was created right after the disastrous tsunami that hit Japan in March this year. The images of the damage formed the collage of our news images for many days and many posts on Facebook read, ‘God Save Japan’. The presentation titled, Beauty of Place: An Overnight Tragedy described how overwhelming the task was. MIT collaborated with two universities in Japan, Miyagi University and Keoi University.

“The people of Minami-Sanriku are self-sufficient and stoic. They are not expressive of their emotions. The people have tremendous pride and healthy competitiveness,” Kanda said. The main economic activities in the town are lumbering, fishing and tourism. When the MIT team first went to Japan in the wake of the tsunami in May, emotions were high and various rescue operations were in motion. In June when the team visited again, a lot of tidying up was being done and many people had moved to
evacuation centers. The September visit showed no emotion from the residents. Kanda expressed that the emotional landscape was constantly changing depending on when you visited the town.

Wescoat added that on the first visit to the island with the students and professors from the three universities, no photographs were taken or speeches made. Mapping the area was done in two days. The work covered the evacuation routes and how they were used by different people. It was noted that there were fewer evacuation routes.

As part of the rebuilding process, the MIT team recommended for the construction of a community center. Kunda noted that gatherings in Japan are different from the western notion of public spaces like plazas and malls. Community gatherings are done only when there is an order for a special meeting. There are no social gatherings. Families were moved to temporary housing from the evacuation centers. The housing was given out in forms of lotteries and limited to four people to a unit. Therefore a family of five or more was most likely to be separated. There are 10,700 people in Minami-Sanriku and are divided in 58 housing sites between 10 units per site to 240 units on public property. Rebuilding the city is expected to take approximately 2-3 years.

The idea of building something more permanent by the MIT team is quite an ambitious one. The site location for the proposed community center is an issue of contention as the villages are quite far from each other. The town is divided into four districts each with 13-14 villages making the site identification for this one community center a challenge. On consultation with the locals, none of them wanted the community center because of the encumbrances envisaged. The people would have to pay for the utility bills and maintenance of the center.

During one of the visits, the MIT professors met with a group of women who had started an informal gathering in the alleys of one of the units. It was called Babadoru-5th Intersection. They asked the professors to build them a roof over their meeting place and canopy to keep off the winds as winter was approaching. A rudimentary structure was constructed, very much far from the overly envisaged modernist design the MIT professors had in mind, but this structure is the one thing that responded to the people’s need. It was a structure constructed based on a real need not a perceived assumption.

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