This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on October 27, 2014
Three and a half years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake (2011).
Many of the disaster victims are still forced to live in temporary housing.
These units were only meant to be used for up to two years. So damage to the ceilings and underfloor parts is starting to appear.
“Everyone wants to leave the temporary housing.”
(Temporary housing Resident 1)
“We’re all looking for a house to live in. If we don’t hurry, we’ll lose out!”
(Temporary housing Resident 2)
In this situation, a group has launched a new project to build houses using local timber. Backing this project is the Kamaishi Forest Owners' Cooperative.
Yukio Takahashi is the managing director of the cooperative’s 20 staff members.
“Our aim is to offer reasonably priced, high-quality housing to local people with local timber. And we believe it will contribute to reviving the region to some extent.”
(Yukio Takahashi: Managing Director, Kamaishi Forest Owners’ Cooperative)
This house was completed one year ago (2013). All of the timber used was acquired locally.
The cost was just two-thirds that of a regular house. So this initiative is seen as providing real hope for victims wanting to rebuild.
“It’s been almost a year since we moved in to this house. It’s very comfortable even during the harsh winter season.”
10 houses have been built since the start of the project and orders have been received for over 10 more.
The Kamaishi Forest Owners’ Cooperative has been involved with a series of new projects since the quake.
Immediately after the quake, sales nosedived, but they are now double the amount they were before the disaster.
In addition, the cooperative has been able to hire nine new recruits.
As a result of the disaster, the cooperative had to face many hardships. The tsunami swept away its office and some of the members perished. Their clients were also deeply affected by the quake.
With the motto “Forest-powered recovery”, Takahashi began to face up to the hardships.
Responding to his passion, various experts gathered, ranging from architects to timber processors. And together they launched the home-rebuilding project.
American journalist Morley Robertson visits Iwate to report on the recovery efforts made by the Forest Cooperative during the past three and a half years.
“The main office of the Kamaishi Forest Owners’ Cooperative once stood here, until it was swept away by the tsunami. The cooperative was a leader in the forest industry of the Tohoku region. But it was also hit hardest by the disaster. I’ll be interviewing cooperative members on how they plan to revive the city of Kamaishi through forestry.”
(Morley Robertson: Reporter)
Iwate Prefecture is the top timber producer among the six Tohoku region prefectures. Around 90% of the area of the port city of Kamaishi consists of forested mountains, so forestry is an important local industry.
Autumn is the season when forestry workers get really busy and the forests are buzzing with activity.
“Hello. Nice to meet you. I’m Morley.”
“I’m Takahashi. Welcome!”
(Yukio Takahashi: Managing Director, Kamaishi Forest Owners’ Cooperative)
Yukio Takahashi is the managing director of the Kamaishi Forest Owners’ Cooperative.
“Please cut down the one behind you.”
The loggers’ main work in this season is thinning out the cedar forests.
The cooperative manages 28,000 hectares of forests that spread over Kamaishi and its neighboring towns.
Cedar is the timber used most for house construction. However, it takes 50 years for a tree to grow large enough to be cut down an tuned into building materials.
During those years, the trees must be cared for carefully, including thinning and pruning, in order to produce high-quality timber.
“Trees are alive, so you must treat them kindly and take good care of them. It’s like having conversations with them. We bring them up and they bring us up. We’ve grown up together for 30 years. I really love and treasure the trees of Kamaishi, as if they’re my children!”
During the thinning process, they need to cut down some of the trees that are older than 50 years. They are used as construction materials.
“Wow…Thump! I felt a deep low sound! Amazing!”
This is the new main office of the Forest Cooperative, constructed since the quake.
There are currently 21 staff members.
The cooperative acts on behalf of the 1,600 forest owners. They carry out everything from tree planting to trimming, felling, and selling the timber.
The cooperative was founded in 1963 to promote full-scale tree planting in Kamaishi. An increased demand for timber was expected.
However, in the late 1960s, there was a rapid increase in the import of cheaper timber from overseas.
The timber price fell and Japan’s forestry become sluggish.
The Kamaishi Forest Owners' Cooperative turned aggressive in 2004. It increased sales considerably by introducing new machinery and promoting efficiency and productivity.
These efforts were duly recognized and it was designated as one of the nation’s most progressive forest cooperatives. Other cooperatives even invite them to provide training.
The earthquake hit just as business was getting going again and a good response was being felt.
On Match 11th, 2011, Takahashi was away on a business trip to Morioka, 100 kilometers from Kamaishi. He tried to return to Kamaishi right after the earthquake, but the town had been badly damaged and the central part was off limits.
He could not enter the city until the morning of the third day after the disaster.
He headed straight to the Forest Cooperative office, pushing his way through the rubble.
At that point, he was still having trouble contacting many of the staff members.
“From here, I had to scramble over the rubble. The road was completely covered with debris so I had to climb over it. Up to here... was the site of our main office.”
It was a two-story wooden office. It had been completely swept away.
“I heard that six of our staff members had been inside the office on that day. So I was very worried what had happened to them. The evening of that day…around 5 p.m., we heard some bodies had been found.”
After several hours of searching, the first body found was that of Tetsuo Sone, the president of the cooperative.
Sone had chosen Takahashi to be the managing director of the cooperative when he was 41. His favorite phrase was ‘Do whatever you like!’
In all, the cooperative lost five members, including the president who had been leading the new business, directors, and accountants.
And since the office had been destroyed, all kinds of data had also been lost. A very severe blow was the loss of the forest data that they had accumulated for over four decades. The registry of all the forest owners and the forestry records were indispensable for conducting the vital process of thinning.
Moreover, the timber processing plant, which was the cooperative’s major customer, had also been hit and stopped operating. That caused the cooperative to lose more than half of its regular sales.
All they had left at that time were the 6000 logs that had been cut before the disaster.
The warehouse at the lumberyard where the logs were stored was intact, so they decided to use it as a temporary office.
“We decided to use this as the main office because it was the only facility that survived the disaster.”
The grapples that are essential for forestry work had also survived.
‘Can’t we do something using the grapples?’
Takahashi came up with the idea of supporting the search efforts and the removing of debris. He and the remaining members of the team went to the city office to say they were willing to do volunteer work.
On the tenth day after they started removing debris,
Takahashi requested a day off and held a meeting with the 12 members. Most of them were pessimistic about the future, but this is what he said to them…
“You can decide whether or not to stay here with us. Even if you decide to leave, that’s OK. I will accept that. I’ll have nothing to say against it. Or, if you want to go into the construction industry, please feel free to say so. I'll hook you up with the presidents I know and make sure that you can get a job. Anyway, please discuss this with your family members.
Those were the things I told the staff members that day.”
He also said, “If any of you decided you want to stay, please come back here in two days.”
Takahashi was feeling very anxious: if no one came back, it was the end of the cooperative.
However, every one of the 12 members returned two days later, and they all reported that they were willing to continue working there.
“My house was swept away by the tsunami, but the forests were still there, far from the sea. So I was sure the forestry work could continue.”
(Kamaishi Forest Owners’ Cooperative staff)
“Up in the hills, you didn’t see any debris. So you could get back to your old self working in the forest.”
(Kamaishi Forest Owners’ Cooperative staff)
As the president and directors had passed away, Takahashi had become the sole leader. He was faced with a heavy responsibility.
“I was lost because I didn’t how I could support the lives of those 12 members. But I strongly felt that I had to make it happen because they had chosen to stay. I was totally lacking a plan and had no confidence at all, but I told them I’d do my best to return the cooperative to the same state it had been in before the disaster, and try to restore our business activities within six months.”
Committed to recovery, Takahashi first had to secure the means to pay the salaries of the staff.
The cooperative’s bank passbooks had also been swept away, so he visited all the banks they dealt with to find out the balance they had. However, the local branches had all been damaged, so he had to travel to branches in the next town.
No income had come in since the disaster, but Takahashi managed to pay everyone’s March salary on April 4th. However, in the tough financial situation, he was unable to start up any new business.
He turned to Miyoko Sasaki for help. She had been retired for six years, but he asked her to come back as their accountant.
“Many of the field workers had gone to clear rubble. And many clerical workers had no idea what they should do. So Mr. Takahashi had to take care of almost everything. Seeing him like that, I felt I should try and help him.”
(Miyoko Sasaki: Kamaishi Forest Owners’ Cooperative staff)
A new enterprise the cooperative had started before the disaster began to produce some cash income. It was biomass power generation, launched in cooperation with the local steelworks.
It is a business to generate power by mixing coal and wood materials that used to be discarded.
It was intended as a project for the future, but it turned out to be a valuable provider of cash income.
Debris removal also provided unexpected income.
It started as volunteer work, but then the city office started paying them to do it officially. Thanks to these activities, Takahashi could pay the salaries for some time.
Next, the team began to recover the lost data.
They split up to visit all the forest owners. The total number of owners is 1,600. The cooperative requires their permission to carry out forestry work.
They had to spend a lot of time asking the owners questions about the area of their land, the number of trees of certain ages, and so on.
“Now are you all set? Don't push yourself too hard!”
(A forest owner)
Thanks to these efforts, they restarted forestry work three months after the quake. Now they began to see some hope of their main business getting going again.
The next challenge was to sell the logs that they had cut down.
The wood processing plant which bought many logs before the quake still had not resumed operations.
Unless they could find new customers or new ways to use the timber, they could not expect to receive any income.
At that time, many evacuees were still living in shelters. Some words from a staff member who was commuting from a shelter gave them a hint for a new business.
“When we were chatting, one of the staff members said, ‘I'd love to have a house again, even a very humble one.’ I realized there was a demand from people who wanted to have their own house again, but had almost lost hope.”
Takahashi immediately jotted down various ideas in his notebook.
He came up with the idea of building new homes for the victims using local Kamaishi timber.
At that time, the average cost of building a house with a floor space of about 100 square meters in Kamaishi was over 15,000,000 yen.
But Takahashi discovered from his research that for most local people 10 million yen was about the limit.
“I thought it would be nice if the local timber could be made useful for building houses. And being able to rebuild their own houses would help the local people to achieve self-reliance.”
Takahashi was determined to build houses with a floor space of 100 square meters for a price of 10 million yen. To achieve that, they needed to cut costs drastically.
These are ‘A-grade’ materials. They are thick and nicely shaped, and have few knots.
Takahashi decided to focus on these ‘B-grade’ materials, which are lower in quality.
The B-grade timber is 20% cheaper than the A-grade, but it is not normally used for house construction because it is thinner and the color is not so nice. But Takahashi wanted to use it to build houses.
“There’s no problem in terms of strength, but the surface...”
“...is not so pretty.”
“So in terms of safety and function, it has no issues?”
“None at all.”
“So there’s a kind of customary bias against ‘B-grade’ timber?”
“Such a waste!”
For the new project to utilize B-grade materials, a reliable supporter came along: Tokyo architect Akio Fujiwara.
After the quake, Fujiwara designed temporary wooden houses in Rikuzentakata and Yamada-machi.
They were mostly constructed of wood. And they were unusual in making use of thin timber.
Here is the construction method developed by Fujiwara.
First, eight thin lengths of timber are connected with bolts to create a sturdy panel.
These panels are then inserted between columns to create a structure.
Fujiwara and Takahashi held an all-night discussion on how to construct houses using this method and only B-grade materials.
“Talking about the basic structure in various ways, we were trying to find a way to make this reality. If we used bolts to make panels without using adhesives, we thought we could greatly cut costs.”
(Akio Fujiwara: Architect)
Takahashi had moved one step closer to building houses with only B-grade materials.
Next, Takahashi asked Akio Ueda, a lumber mill owner, for cooperation.
At his mill, logs purchased from the cooperative are sawn into long lengths of timber.
These are then sold as construction materials.
Previously, he had never sawn B-grade logs. However, he said he was willing to cooperate with Takahashi's new business.
“I thought it was a nice idea because materials not commonly used before could now become profitable.”
(Akio Ueda: Lumber mill owner)
The tsunami had destroyed all the machinery at Ueda's lumber mill. Repairs and replacements had cost 20 million yen, so he was also in dire need of work.
But Takahashi now had to face a big issue: he could not find a processing factory that could assemble rectangular lengths of timber into panels. No one was willing to accept the job because the budget was low and it is not a regular construction method.
But at last a processing factory in the neighboring city of Tono agreed to do it.
It was Ryoji Satou, division director, who accepted Takahashi’s order.
He had been a carpenter building houses since graduating from high school, but his confidence was shattered when the tsunami hit in 2011.
“The projects I’d been involved in all had good results. I always believed my customers felt that way. But the earthquake shattered my confidence. I said to myself, ‘What have I been doing for the past three decades?’ It was a real shock. I failed to save anything... Even people’s live... I couldn’t save lives, properties, memories…nothing. So I felt I had a responsibility, a duty, to provide support wherever I could.”
(Ryoji Satou: Timber processor / Carpenter)
However, it became clear that the cost would exceed 10 million yen if they followed the design.
Satou suggested they reduced the number of panel variations to cut costs. Fujiwara simplified the design and halved the number of panel types from 12 to six.
To cut costs further, they strove to be creative with the panel assembly work.
It takes 400 rectangular lengths of timber to construct one house. In order to make a total of 1,200 holes, they created a machine with three drills.
Thanks to those efforts, the processes which formerly took six weeks could now be done in three weeks.
Fifteen months after the quake, the very first house was completed—the Forest Cooperative’s new office.
They decided to show it to potential customers so that they would feel comfortable.
“Wow, it’s cool!”
The second floor is a mockup where visitors are welcome to take a look.
“Are we in Scandinavia?”
“Well, that was our image. It’s a vertical log house.”
The walls with the exposed wooden panels are very well received by the visitors.
“Another thing I want to mention is that this house is portable.”
“Oh, how’s it done?”
“It can be disassembled because the panels are simply connected with pins.”
“Just like assembled furniture! Amazing!”
The house can easily be taken apart and reassembled elsewhere. It was designed this way to allow disaster victims whose futures are not clear to move freely.
Forest-powered recovery… Thanks to men with different backgrounds but a common aspiration, the design for the new wooden housing was completed.
However, one crucial element remained unsolved: who would build the houses?
“Rural companies tend to be reluctant to take on unusual projects.”
“We had the timber, a lumber mill, and a precut factory. But we hadn’t found any builders!”
Eventually they found three builders willing to use the new panel-construction method. But with three builders, they could only construct six houses per year. Their aim of supporting the recovery process appeared impossible to achieve.
Dark clouds began to gather over the project.
“Will Mr. Takahashi achieve his dream of building inexpensive housing using local timber? In the sequel to this program we will follow the struggles of Mr. Takahashi and the local people in the face of opposition.”