Piecing hope back together.

June 19, 2011.  The lobby of Hotel Kanyo in Minami Sanriku-cho, Miyagi Prefecture was filled with fourteen small, shiny, utopias of hope.

Children's "favorite places" in the lobby of Hotel Kanyo (Photo by Stephen Fan)

Minami Sanriku-cho is one of the small towns that were devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami on March 11th.  For the past two weekends, we have been working in this town with partners from Miyagi University to see how we, as architects, designers, and planners, can help the community rebuild their physical and social environments.  After visiting schools, evacuation facilities, temporary housings, and various tsunami-hit coastlines, our days have been filled so far with talking to community leaders and developing ideas of what we might be able to do – often feeling a little uneasy about our position as outsiders, as students, and with very limited time and resources.

This weekend, we had the opportunity to work with children staying at Hotel Kanyo in Minami Sanriku-cho on an hour-long crafts workshop to build their “favorite place.”  Hotel Kanyo is a large luxury hotel located in Minami Sanriku-cho that is now used as a temporary evacuation site, housing about 400 families that have lost their houses due to the tsunami.  After visiting Hotel Kanyo last weekend for the first time and seeing so many children running around in the lobby area, we thought this would be a great place to run a “Build Your Dream City” type of event that’s used in the United States by urban planners such as James Rojas, as a way to engage children and those that are traditionally left out from the planning process to use colorful toys to explore and express their visions for a better urban environment.

After many group discussions, and several trips to the 100 yen store in Sendai City, we packed up our car with 30cm x 30cm cork boards, blocks of clay, and buckets full of shiny toys, objects and figurines to do our first community engagement workshop in Minami Sanriku-cho.  However, not being able to advertise the event in advance, we had no idea how we were going to get the children to participate.  In addition, although we had done our homework on reading up on participatory design processes and Reggio-Emilian education methods, this was the first time for all of us to doing this type of community engagement activity with children; we had no clue how this was going to turn out.

“Do you want to come play with us with toys and clay?”  Soon after arriving at the hotel, we decided to blow up balloons and go talk to the children directly.  Luckily, many were playing in the lobby area like any other day.  “YES!”  The excited voices of the children melted away my initial worries of not having enough people to participate.  By 4pm, we were able to recruit fourteen children ranging from age four to twelve.  We began by asking about their favorite places.  Based on the suggestions from James, we followed this by questions like, “what do you like to do?” “what’s your favorite cartoon character/food/animal?”

The small worlds that the children built in the half hour were all very thoughtful, creative, and compelling.  Ryuji made a world under the sea.  “His dad’s a fisherman, but he hates to go fishing on the boat.”  His mother told us while Ryuji was focusing on getting the crab legs right.  “But he really loves learning about fish and marine life, and he knows so much about them.  We had a lot of things washed away with the tsunami.  But the one thing we really want the sea to give us back is his encyclopedia of marine ecology.”

Ryuji, Chiho, and Saho are making their "favorite places"

Chiho, a twelve-year-old girl filled her board with colorful rocks and shiny glitter to make a beautiful field filled with flowers and butterflies.  “Where is this?  And why is this your favorite place?”  I asked all the children at the end of the workshop.  “This is Utatsu (district within Minami Sanriku-cho).  The tsunami washed it away, but I want my town to be back to a pretty place like this really soon.”  I knew this was coming, but I’d somehow assumed that it wouldn’t be from a twelve-year-old girl. All I could say was, “Yes.  It’s really beautiful.”

At the end of the workshop, we displayed the pieces that the children made on the stage of the dining hall room.  As we were setting up, so many people, old and young, stopped by to look really closely at the beautiful places that the children just made.

Children look at their art pieces displayed in the dining hall (Photo: Miho Mazereeuw)

For us, this activity turned out to be a great way to better understand and connect with the children, their families, and the community.  I think our question now is, how do we capture the stories, hopes and aspirations that we heard from these interactions to enable the communities themselves to make a difference?  Most communities that we’ve met in Minami Sanriku-cho are extremely resilient with strong leadership, will, and capacity to build back a better place.  But, perhaps this weekend’s experience may tell us that there may be things that we can do to help the communities’ piece their hopes back together.

By Shoko Takemoto