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Vol.1 Kenji Saito

The memorable first session of the interview series, “Talk for Recovery” was with Mr. Kenji Saito, Executive Director of Saito Confectionary.

Saito Confectionary is the company famous for its Sanriku confection, “Seagull’s Egg (Kamome no Tamago).” It’s a very popular confection among my family also.

Here is the website link of the company. http://www.saitoseika.co.jp/top.php

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Interview Series, “Talk for Recovery” (Session 1)
Saito Confectionary(Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture)
Exective Director Mr.Kenji Saito
(Date: End of April, 2012)

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Komori: Hello. I’d like to thank you for taking your time for this interview. As part of the activities of Let’s Talk Foundation, we would like to interview people who are acting to restore the areas hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake and to publish the interview articles. This is the first attempt for “Talk for recovery”.

Saito: Thank you for coming all the way from Tokyo. Do you visit this area very often?

Komori: I have been visiting Rikuzentakata every month since September 2011 and each time, I have been stopping by at Kesennuma and Ofunato also. For the past 6 months, since last November, I have started a session in Rikuzentakata on how to study English. There are participants from Ofunato, too.

Saito: I see. I appreciate your interest in the quake stricken area. It is very encouraging and I would like to thank you for that. So, where shall I begin?

Komori: It would be nice if we can divide it into three parts. First I would like to hear about the events at the time of the earthquake and tsunami disaster such as what you recall about the tsunami from your experience. Second, what you feel are the challenges remaining after 13 months from the disaster. Lastly, if you can wrap it up by telling us what you feel are the necessary actions in the future, I would appreciate it very much.

■ Memories of the tsunami handed down within the family

Saito: Ok. First about the time when the earthquake and tsunami struck…

Komori: Yes. I have seen the DVD of the image you filmed from the moment when the earthquake struck to when the tsunami hit several times. It was very impressive that you were already calling out to your employees, “Tsunami is coming! Please evacuate!” while the ground was still shaking from the quake. Was that your instant judgment?

Saito: At the time, I knew “it was coming.” In fact, I kept having a dream once or twice a month that a big tsunami was coming since a few years before the actual disaster.

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Komori: Really?! A dream about the tsunami? And so often…

Saito: Yes. I have been having this frightening dream that a big shake came, followed by a massive tsunami and failing to escape. This had been going on from a few years back but I stopped having the same dream after the earthquake disaster of last year.

Komori: It’s like your dream became a reality.

Saito: There was a big earthquake a couple of days before the actual disaster and tsunami warnings had been issued at the time, too. But I didn’t have a feeling that my dream became true on that day. However, when I felt the shake on March 11, I instantly thought “this is it!” It was just like my dream. So I had no hesitation about evacuating all 27 of my employees who were in the office building at the time.

Komori: So that was how all the lives of your employees in the earthquake-hit office building were saved.

Saito: Yes. I just felt that “this was it!”

Komori: Why do you think that your senses were so sharpened?

Saito: My father had been telling me about the tsunami since when I was a child and I myself once had a horrifying experience.

Komori: Since your father’s generation…

Saito: Yes, my father experienced the massive tsunami back in 1933. He has an experience of saving his life by clinging on to a telephone pole. So I’d heard about the fearful experience a number of times during my childhood years.

Komori: I see, from several actual experiences.

Saito: There was also the tsunami disaster triggered by a major earthquake in Chile in 1960. I was already born then so I remember it very clearly. This is a quake that took place in a land far away, so there is no earthquake in Ofunato. All of a sudden, you just get the tsunami. But at the time, my father who saw the condition of the sea shouted “Something isn’t right. We must escape right away!”

Komori: He was able to make that decision just by looking at the sea without any shake?

Saito: We were somewhat doubtful and tried to take with us our motor bike and other expensive items at the time. But my father roared “Just run!” When we stepped outside, the waves were already there. Some of the houses had already been taken away just like the tsunami disaster this time. Seeing it, we ran for our lives.

Komori: It really was walking a thin line. Had your father not sensed anything when he saw the sea…

Saito: We may not have made it. A human being cannot stand straight in a tsunami even if it’s only 50 cm deep. Once you fall, you’re instantly swept away.

Komori: So it was the oral tradition from your ancestors and your actual experience that added to your senses in predicting the tsunami.

Saito: I think the same goes for all the people who live close to the ocean. A lot of people who lived close to the coast line acted fast to evacuate this time, too. From what I hear, 40 percent of the people who lost their lives in last year’s tsunami, had not taken any action to evacuate. In the coastal areas, you are constantly required to be conscious of the tsunami.

■ The importance of consistently making your own judgment

Komori: It is a well known risk that “there will be a tsunami after a massive earthquake.” Therefore, schools in the coastal areas mention this and evacuation drills take place constantly. Given these environment, what do you think cause the difference in the way how people react at the time of the actual disaster?

Saito: It all comes down to “whether you can act based on your own judgment.”

Komori: Your own judgment.

Saito: In last year’s disaster, there were a few factors that led people to think that “it was going to be OK.” First, there were no tsunamis after the big earthquake that took place a few days prior. This was a decisive factor. It was a blessing that there were no damage by the tsunami then but it was too bad a timing that there was another earthquake on March 11. The actual tsunami hit right at the moment when most people were caught off guard.

Komori: In the DVD you filmed, I heard your surprised voice that the tsunami came over the banks. Was this an unexpected event also?

Saito: Yes. The banks were large banks built around 1965 after the tsunami disaster triggered by a major earthquake in Chile and it was constructed in such a way so that it could block waves that were quite high. It was structured to have a double blocking effect by building the first layer of banks in the bay entrance area and placing more banks in the bay but even these solid banks were useless this time.

Komori: I am sure there were a lot of people who watched in disbelief seeing the waves surpass those banks.

Saito: Also it was repeatedly announced on the radio that day that “the tsunami will be 3 meters.” I do not know how it led to that calculation but I think that added to the relief. But there probably were many people who were not able to listen to the radio so I doubt that that was the major reason of being caught off guard.

Komori: So I suppose it all comes down to whether you could make an immediate judgment that “we must head for the higher ground” amongst those several contributing factors.

Saito: Humans tend to hold a sense of danger right after a big disaster but they eventually forget about it. When the Chile earthquake tsunami disaster struck in 1960, no one came close to the coastal area for years after the disaster. However, after a decade or so passed, they went back and gradually started building regular homes.

Komori: You saw before your own eyes how the memories of the tsunami wear thin with time…

Saito: This is not about whether it is good or bad to go back to the coastal areas. There are people that do not have a lot of choice but to settle in these areas depending on their work or life related needs. What is important is that you must constantly be conscious of the risks that the area holds.

Komori: There is a stone tablet inscribed with the events of the Chile earthquake tsunami disaster on the premise of Kamo Shrine where I go to pray every month. But it is quite difficult to think of it as your own and to be prepared for the disasters on a daily basis isn’t it? Being able to “forget” is one of the abilities that humans possess and allow us to start things over.

Saito: There are actually a lot of stone tablets like those in the Tohoku coastal areas. But still, costly disasters take place every time the tsunami hits. The way to prevent those memories wear away is that each and every one of us must be able to make our own evacuation judgments without being distracted by other information. This is the only way.

■ Remaining issues in restoring the Ofunato coastal area

Komori: Every time I come to Ofunato, I stand by the torii gate at the Kamo Shrine and look in the direction of the port. When I first visited the area last September, there were still quite a lot of rubbles remaining but I can see that temporary housings are increasing in numbers each time I visit. What are your views regarding the restoration of the Ofunato quake-stricken area?

Saito: Well, there is a case like “Dai Sushi” who restored its restaurant within the rubbles about 6 months after the disaster. The government offices tried to talk the owner out of it and his relatives also opposed but the owner decided to go forward with the challenge. On the other hand, if you give it a calm consideration, I feel that we are nowhere near restoration.

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Komori: So you are saying that there is no restoration of the Ofunato quake-stricken area given the current situation?

Saito: If you think about the situation before the disaster, it is pretty obvious. Many of the stores in the towns of the coastal area had their shutters down and it was not operating as a business town since then. Even if the stores were able to get themselves back to its original state, it does not lead to the restoration of the area.

Komori: Does that mean a need for a new urban development?

Saito: For the future reconstruction effort, we need to gather stores of the owners who are willing to get their businesses back on track and build a town that will prosper. In order to accomplish this, I would like to stress the necessity of cooperation of the local government such as the City Hall and the business operators such as the Chamber of Commerce. Once practical business, rezoning of town lots, for example start, various adjustments will be required.

Komori: I see. A strong leadership on a working-level is going be required as well as the reconstruction vision.

Saito: It is a known fact that there are going to be “pros and cons” on an individual level when rebuilding things from an old to a new form. So you need a crude leadership that can facilitate the overall consensus-building among them by convincing each and every one of these aspects. Individual business operators must also share the attitude of putting its own interest aside to act for the whole.

Komori: I see. This is an issue that arises when discussing the reconstruction of the local economies whether it be in the quake-stricken area or not. I suppose this has become acutely vivid here since the tsunami disaster.

Saito: In situations like this, there is a need for a “great fool” who can talk about the future dreams even if it means suppressing his/her interests.

Komori: Do you have a blueprint of the reconstruction or should I say the dream?

Saito: There are talks about the zoning such as the residential area and festive area within the reconstruction plan. However, it still remains blank as to how to construct those areas to become “alive.”

Komori: If it was you, what kind of a picture would you draw up?

Saito: I personally feel and have been mentioning that we should make the most of the characteristic of Ofunato when planning it. Since there is a fine port here where a luxury liner can dock, “port” should be one of the themes.

Komori: Just as I had guessed. I remember seeing the docking of “Nipponmaru” in the news the other day.

Saito: For example, we can create streets with names stemming from luxury liners such as “Nipponmaru-dori” or “Asuka-dori” that would interest people coming into the port.

Komori: So these are the things that government offices, Chamber of Commerce, and business operators should immediately start discussing straightforwardly putting aside their differences. What are your views with respect to the speed of carrying out the reconstruction plan?

Saito: The City Hall seems to think that it will take 7 to 8 years to raise the ground as one of their land readjustment process. This is far too long. From the perspective of business operators, it will be 2 years at the most. I am sure there are many businesses that will not be able to wait that long. Even 2 months is a life-or-death matter for independently-operated businesses.

Komori: Yes, I can see that 7 to 8 years is an immeasurable time for businesses. But then again I suppose there is an aspect where the government has no choice when taking into consideration the time needed for the expected procedures and convincing the involved parties. Just like you mentioned, reconstruction of the coastal area is going to be a difficult task unless both sides can cooperate with each other.

Saito: I have heard of a case of a dry-cleaner that spent JPY10,000,000 in facility replacement investment a short while before the disaster. Then the tsunami washed everything away and all that remains with the owner is nothing but debt. He has no energy left to give it another try. There are many business operators like this and it is going to create an irreparably-harmful situation if a long period of time passes.

■ Seeing crisis as a chance

Komori: Someone somewhere must take action to get the reconstruction plan going…

Saito: I have been stressing that it should be the business operators who should start showing the grand design. The government office and the Chamber of Commerce are both at a state where they are asking “where to begin” so the people who are actually going to be involved in the business should form a team to start making proposals. But in reality, there are not many people who agree with me to make this happen.

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Komori: I can see that you are at a crucial stage… Do you have any ideas as Saito Confectionary to break away from this deadlocked situation?

Saito: I have a plan of building a “Tsunami Museum.”

Komori: A Tsunami Museum?

Saito: Yes. Our office building was hit and damaged by the tsunami but it is still standing near the Ofunato Station. So I was thinking of repairing it to build a museum where people can view the films of the tsunami and pass down what actually happened to the future generations.

Komori: Is that the office building that was used as a delivery center where you filmed the DVD? I have walked passed it a couple of times. The building seems to have been damaged quite a bit but the sign showing the company name is still there, isn’t it?

Saito: Yes, that’s the one.

Komori: I see. So you are planning on preserving the “actual” building as a tool to hand down the tsunami incident instead of a stone monument. I am sure the future generations will be able to get a firsthand knowledge of the tsunami horror if they are able to see such a monument. Visitors from abroad might also stop by. It would be nice if this can trigger the discussion of the overall plan of the city’s reconstruction wouldn’t it?

Saito: I think so, too. I really did not want the tsunami to hit and for this disaster to happen. But since it has already happened, this is where we have to start. If you look at this another way, you can see the moment of crisis as a chance. I am hoping to do whatever we can as Saito Seika by seeing this as a chance to start over.

Komori: Do you see the Tsunami Museum plan coming true in the near future?

Saito: It is hard to say. In order to make this happen, we need to raise a quite a bit of funds and also must consider the details of how to make this museum a really meaningful one. Luckily, there are already offers from banks and accounting firms so I would like to continue developing the idea positively.

Komori: I hope that your action will be able to play an important part in the city’s reconstruction. Thank you so much for your time today and please let me know if I could be of any help. I would like to translate this interview into English and deliver the message to billions of people around the world as well as the 100 million people in Japan.

Saito: Thank you.

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Thank you, Mr.Saito!

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English interpretation from the original Japanese version blogs are supported

by Aki Kawahara (Tokyo, Japan) and Yumi Shimono (Jakarta, Indonesia).
Thank you, Aki-san and Yumi-san, for your kind volunteer works!
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