Table Speech

“Rotary Foundation Month” Meeting
Shinchimachi Community: The Record of Extraordinary “Strength” and “Flexibility” in Daily Life

November 7, 2012

Ms. Allison Kwesell
2011-13 Rotary Peace Fellow
International Christian University

 Shinchimachi is located just north of Soma City, Fukushima Prefecture. It is about 50 kilometers from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plants, yet thanks to the wind direction, radiation is relatively lower than other areas of Fukushima. The community, however, suffered from devastating losses by the tsunami. Shinchimachi had 8,093 population, of which 109 lost their lives in the tsunami. Today there are eight different temporary housing communities, where Shinchimachi residents who lost their homes as well as radiation refugees from Soma, Minami Soma, Okuma, Futaba, Namie, Odaka and Haramachiku inhabit.

 I have been working in many villages and cities in Tohoku, both volunteering and documenting. I have felt the strong spirit of Tohoku people, passed down for generations. But when I visited Shinchimachi for the first time last October, I felt something different. Shinchimachi is in the mountains. It is known for lush greenery and the blue sea and sky. I felt an immediate attachment and love. I met a mother, Mrs. Oosuka, who told me “this village is known as Wasurerareta Machi (forgotten village).” Her words made me feel intuitively that my mission was to bring attention to this village as a photographer. I promised myself to do something for these people, with my skill, my heart, my education and my strong network as a Rotary World Peace Fellow. Over the last year, my idea on how to report on Shinchimachi has kindled and developed. At the start, I wanted to document this community with many unknowns. I assumed people lived in fear, evoked by many uncertainties regarding their future. Before long, however, my idea and focus changed. Shinchimachi people are brave, strong, honest and hospitable. Their idea about community and home place, from leaders to every individual, is not naïve. They well-understand their situation and the anxiety that can entail by opting to stay in the community. In such circumstances, they are positive in every way, determined to build a new and better community for the growing generations.

 I had a photo exhibition this May, in conjunction with the Hirosaki Apple RC charter night in Aomori. I entitled my speech “Changing Perspective,” as I believe people around the world and the Japanese alike need to change perspectives about Shinchimachi and Fukushima. I don’t want Fukushima to be remembered simply as disaster-stricken areas. There is so much more to Fukushima, much “beauty,” “strength” and “flexibility.” This is why I am determined to illustrate the families living daily lives in these areas. The community ties and strength that I observed in Shinchimachi after the disaster was the most beautiful sense of human nature I have ever witnessed. I have witnessed wars and natural disasters. I have witnessed death. But I have also witnessed aid.

 I have suffered from a psychological disorder called PTSD after reporting in violent areas with much death. I have been seeing a therapist so that I can sleep at night. In Shinchimachi, I witnessed for the first time in my life such a beautiful promise to help one another within the community to heal from emotional scars.

 People of Shinchimachi lost their houses and almost everything. But they are courageous. They wake up every day to keep on cleaning the ocean floor, picking up rubble in their rice fields, accepting those who come from outside and organizing festivals and regular meetings, so that the community continues to be supportive of one another. What I found in Shinchimachi is grace, courage, honesty, sharing and caring. I am determined to continue documenting this community for the rest of my life. As a researcher, I want to better understand the essence of these bonds that is healing and strengthening this community. I will conduct surveys and take pictures. I am learning from Fukushima, a place so many see as a scary disaster area, about the greatness and beauty of life.

 I have found something special in Shinchimachi, and I want the rest of the world to know about this something. I believe the world can learn about respect for life and about peace through the “struggles,” “undying strength” and “flexibility” exemplified in this community.

 Thanks to your support, I can tell the story of this small “forgotten village” to the rest of the world. This village is actually filled with hope and thus it should not remain forgotten. Let me close my speech by expressing my sincere gratitude for your generous support rendered to the Rotary scholars.