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Vol. 15 – Masato Sakamoto – Vice President, The Kesennuma Restoration Shopping Mall

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Talk for Recovery #15

Mr. Masato Sakamoto,

Vice President, The Kesennuma Restoration Shopping Mall

* We met during Komori’s regular year-end greeting trip to Sanriku at the end of December 2013.

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1. The third year of the Restoration Shopping Mall

2. The starting point was an open-air market of croquettes and underwear

3. Things that have changed in the past two years

4. The real hardships are yet to come

5. Dreaming of the revival of my town

 

1. The third year of the Restoration Shopping Mall

Komori: Good morning. Thank you very much for your time during this busy year-end period. We met each other several times in the past, but never had an opportunity to have a proper discussion. I’ve been very much looking forward to this opportunity.

Sakamoto: The pleasure is mine. Thank you for coming over.

Komori: It has been two years since the Kesennuma Restoration Shopping Mall, “Minami machi Murasaki Market”, opened at the end of 2011. I first visited this place right after the opening.

Sakamoto: Oh, I see… We opened the Mall on the 24th of December.

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Komori: It attracted lots of attention that the opening was on Christmas Eve. I was traveling alone at that time and it was a very cold day. I still remember that the warm food warmed up my heart as well. Two years have passed very quickly.

Sakamoto: That is true. At the beginning, we were not even sure if we could really kick it off. We have started to get on track thanks to the material and mental support from many people.

Komori: Lots of media covered the story of this Shopping Mall. However, the third anniversary of the disaster is approaching and I imagine that people will be losing interest towards the affected area in Tohoku as time goes by. Would you please share with us what happened right after the disaster, how the Shopping Mall started, and then what the current and future challenges are?

 

2. The starting point was an open-air market of croquettes and underwear

Komori: Shopping Mall opened two years ago, but if I am not mistaken, you had the plan itself much earlier than that, is that right?

Sakamoto: Yes. We already had the first plan in May right after the disaster. Initially we were planning the opening in September of the same year. However due to various challenges, we were not even sure if we could open it by the end of the year. We received various support from people all over Japan and the rest of the world. The builders literally worked through the nights, and we managed to open it later in the year two years ago.

Komori: People at the Restoration Shopping Mall have always been doing business in the area, right?

Sakamoto: Exactly. There were roughly 160 shops in seven shopping malls in the area before the disaster. Over 90% of them were swept up by the tsunami. We started the Mall with 51 shops, and then became 54 after three shops joined us.

Komori: What motivated you to start The Restoration Shopping Mall? You said that the first plan was ready in May. Does it mean that there was some movement even earlier than that?

Sakamoto: Yes indeed. Right after the disaster, many people from this area took shelter at the Murasaki shrine near here. This area was covered by rubble and we couldn’t even walk around. When the roads were cleared and we were able to go around, I visited the neighboring town, and found people doing business on the street.

Komori: On the street…

Sakamoto: Yes. That scenery gave me an inspiration. In other words, I renewed my determination. One month after the disaster, many of my peers were saying, “I will quit the business”, or “I’m moving out of here”. Most people thought that it was no longer possible to do business here. However, I was very much inspired by the businesses restarting on the street in the neighboring town.

Komori: So you thought that you would start yourself?

Sakamoto: Yes. My shop was swept away, but luckily I still had the croquette truck. So I went to Iwate prefecture to purchase croquettes. I also purchased underwear from Tokyo, and then started an open-air market.

Komori: Selling croquette and underwear in an open-air market. That is exactly what people need; what to eat and what to wear.

Sakamoto: The open-air market started like that with only two shops, but we gained more company right away. We started to have up to ten shops depending on the day. There were peers who were willing to start over again here, and looking for some starting point. However, since it was an open-air market, we needed to close the shops when it rained. Then we started thinking that we needed a building.

Komori: So I guess that was the beginning of the Restoration Shopping Mall’s concept.

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Sakamoto: Exactly. When we were searching for a building, we found and applied for the support scheme of Organization for Small & Medium Enterprises and Regional Innovation (SME Support, Japan) in May. It was “Impromptu Facility Improvement Project” of SME Support, Japan. Kesennuma city leased the land, and SME Support, Japan built the impromptu facility. We established an incorporated non-profit organization, named The Kesennuma Restoration Shopping Mall.

Komori: And then, the project headed towards the opening in 2011 while you co-worked with various supporters such as bureaucracy and private sector, enterprises or groups and individuals, and Japanese and non-Japanese… There were lots of media coverage at the time but many people got to this mall through word of mouth as well. Actually, I was also one of them. I was close to one of the members of a non-profit organization back then, and this person told me to drop by to this Mall. So I did.

Sakamoto: We are very thankful that many people visit us through such individual connections.

 

3. Things that have changed in the past two years.

Komori: Having experienced such start-up period, what do you feel about the development since the opening of the Mall up to now? What are your thoughts looking back the past two years in the big picture, and not the details?

Sakamoto: Well… It started off better than expected in the first year. We received continuous support from those who were involved in the Restoration Shopping Mall’s establishment or those who were around them.  Also, many people came by bus tours to visit the affected area. We made efforts to attract those people, and we received a lot of attention from the public as well.

Komori: As a matter of fact, I saw one or two buses when coming here. I often saw you controlling the traffic as well.

Sakamoto: There were needs from the local people as well. We had customers coming from the temporary housings, and we also had very loyal customers who used to come to our shops before the disaster. From the management team’s point of view of, we were just trying to move forward during the first year.

Komori: Was there any change after the first anniversary?

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Sakamoto: Indeed, there were changes… To begin with, there are less and less tour buses to visit the affected area. We still receive some, but the number has been decreasing.

Komori: I guess people’s memory fade away as time goes by, and also maybe it is related with the fact that the so-called monuments of the disaster have been removed all over in the area.

Sakamoto: On the other hand, some things have increased. From the second year, there have been more school trip buses of mid and high school students. There are visits from Hokkaido, Tohoku region and all over Japan.

Komori: School trips, I see. How do they choose this place as their destination?

Sakamoto: In many cases, the teachers who visited us during the first year propose the idea, wishing to have the students feel what they felt themselves. Also, there is a hill just behind this Mall, and people can escape easily in case of a tsunami. It seems that this safety aspect is one of the large positive factors for the teachers and parents.

Komori: Indeed, it wouldn’t take more than several minutes for all the customers to go up the hill on the backside.  I think this is very reassuring.

Sakamoto: There are also increasing number of study tours of mid and high school students from our prefecture. They were hesitating during the first year, but given that such a learning opportunity exists nearby, I think more and more schools are wishing their students to feel and learn something from the Mall.

Komori: Indeed, the fact that people in the same prefecture were affected by such a large disaster and they are fighting against it… it is like an open-air classroom of real life.

Sakamoto: There are also quite a few tours of university students. People who visited us once come back many times bringing their friends. People in this generation have the potential to bring up some new movements in the coming years and actually some movements have already occurred. There were some opportunities for local high school students and university students from Tokyo to work together and discuss new ideas for business or urban development.

Komori: That kind of movement gives hope not only to the Kesennuma Restoration Shopping Mall but also to Kesennnuma City as a whole.

Sakamoto: Indeed. In addition to that, there are volunteer staffs that expand the network, decorate the Shopping Mall, and organize events in order for these movements to keep happening. We really appreciate it.

 

4. The real hardships are yet to come

Komori: It is the third year for the Restoration Shopping Mall. What do you think are the current and future challenges?

Sakamoto: Well, we have experienced various issues in the past two years, but what I can say is that the real hardships are yet to come.

Komori: The hardships are yet to come…

Sakamoto: This is merely a temporary shopping mall, which means that this needs to disappear one day. For the moment, we have decided to extend the period of the current set-up, but it is a matter of time before we have to move out. The biggest challenge is whether or not we can survive the move and become a permanent shopping mall.

Komori: Is there any concrete movement?

Sakamoto: In the first place, we have to find where to go. Soon, some construction work to raise the land will start in this area. We will have to move to another temporary site before looking for a permanent one.

Komori: Oh, that is tough…

Sakamoto: In addition, it seems that not all the buildings will go through the construction at the same time. If shops in some buildings that will go through the work move to a temporary site, we will lose the collectivity that we have now. However, there is no site where we can all move together temporarily.

Komori: How is the financial aspect of things?

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Sakamoto: Of course we have financial challenges. However, we have applied for a group subsidy for the move from here to the permanent site. We would be subsidized to move all together. The city has agreed to it and we are currently waiting for the approval from the prefecture. If it is approved around September or December 2014, we would be able to move and restart the business in one or two years after that. We would still be able to keep hope.

Komori: Assuming that the application gets approved and you find the permanent site, next challenge will be the business itself.

Sakamoto: Exactly. We will need to make considerable amount of efforts to be able to move to the permanent site and to make the business successful on our own. As a matter of fact, not all 54 shops have the willingness to move to the permanent site and continue their businesses. It requires lots of courage and time to borrow money again, be in debt, and do business.

Komori: So it is highly improbable that all 54 shops will be moving together. However you will have to move forward, right?

Sakamoto: Yes. If we are to do it, we will have to ensure the collectivity as a shopping mall. In addition to the existing 54 shops, we are currently recruiting new shops that would join our Shopping Mall after moving to the permanent site. Considering various factors, I guess we will be kicking off a new start in roughly two years, so we have already started to prepare for it.

Komori: I understood very well that there are still lots of challenges and the real stage is still to come. What I felt by listening to your story is that it might be more difficult to rebuild and restore what already existed than to just start something new from scratch… I imagine you are going through a very tough time.

 

5. Dreaming of the revival of my town

Komori: I have one last question. It is a personal one, though… Why do you work on such a difficult task, going through lots of difficulties without any compensation?

Sakamoto: Well, I have been living here since I was a small child… I am just wishing that somehow this town would come to life again.

Komori: You think so even after being swept up by the tsunami…

Sakamoto: After the disaster, the affected area was in total dark at night. There was a very clear difference between the affected area and the non-affected one. Luckily my home was at the border of the two, and we were not affected. However, for some time after the disaster, I couldn’t help but to think, “Maybe it would have been better if my place were swept away like the others’”. I spent countless painful days hearing many of my affected friends say, “It is over”, or “Let’s move out of here”.

Komori: Oh, I see.

Sakamoto: This is why I want to somehow recover the solidarity of the local area again. I have been and will be moving forward to achieve it regardless of the difficulties. Some shops that are not in our Shopping Mall have come back to the area after this Mall had started. I believe that something will change as long as we keep on moving forward.

Komori: I hope that your wish will come true through the move to the permanent site even though there are some pressing challenges such as the temporary move, etc… I wish the local community would revive in a positive way in the end.

It’s about time. Mr. Sakamoto, thank you very much for sharing your precious story today in spite of your busy schedule.

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(Translation supported by Ami Nagata)

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