Women with a plan
Left, five of the six women who won the right to live as neighbors. Below, the planned layout of Nikkori’s social housing.

The restoring of a tsunami-battered community in Miyagi Prefecture has been enhanced by an approach that values listening to its citizens and involving women in all aspects of planning.

Six-and-a-quarter years after the 3/11 tsunami took the lives of 185 residents of Kitakami, six elderly women left widowed and homeless will finally move into a social housing complex specially designed to meet their shared desire to live out the rest of their days together. Although long in coming, this small step will mark an important victory for the citizens of Kitakami, a community of 3,900 inhabitants on the northern fringe of Miyagi Prefecture’s Ishinomaki City.

The tsunami that barreled up the mouth of the Kitakami River on the afternoon of March 11, 2011, defied all expectations. Since the city branch office was a designated evacuation site, 37 residents took refuge there along with 20 local officials. But after the full force of the tsunami struck the building only three survived, including Teruo Konno, a municipal official who has since played a key role in reconstruction efforts.

Meanwhile, just across Japan’s fourth-largest river, 80 pupils and teachers perished at the Okawa Elementary School after the principal opted to follow the rulebook and keep everyone assembled in the schoolyard instead of climbing a nearby slope.

Few Tohoku communities experienced greater devastation. And with most of Kitakami’s administration lost, Konno and the other surviving officials were too overwhelmed with immediate response to even begin thinking about reconstruction. That’s partly why Konno made the pivotal decision to delegate planning efforts to Kitakami’s economic development committee, a group of citizens and local business people. Repurposed as the Kitakami Town Planning Committee in February 2012, the group’s efforts are now being hailed as a model for inclusive community rebuilding.

BY NOW, FEW OBVIOUS traces of devastation remain along Tohoku’s coast, save for vast, eerily empty lots. Roads, rails and other infrastructure have been restored by massive government spending. Although 45,000 Tohoku families still live in temporary housing, new multi-story housing blocks are sprouting on the heights behind the coast.

“The best thing about reconstruction in Japan, is that we do it very quickly, which is of course essential,” says Akiko Domoto, former Chiba governor and now an activist in the multilateral process aimed at improving global Disaster Response and Reconstruction (DRR). “But Japanese officials are slowly coming to realize that the social fabric of local communities is too often sacrificed in the haste to get the job done quickly.”

Domoto, who heads the Japan Women’s Network for DRR (, an advocacy group focused on the social aspects of disaster planning and response, believes citizen involvement is the answer, before and after a calamity: “There is no substitute for intensive consultation if reconstruction plans are to meet the needs of everyone especially women, the elderly, children and the disabled. Ideally, the mechanisms for this should be prepared before disaster strikes. Organizing after the fact takes a lot of time and effort. So governments typically prefer to make one standard plan and, to avoid favoring one area over another, impose the same thing on all communities. This is why Kitakami is such a rare and important model.”

At a Tsunami Awareness Day symposium, held in Tokyo last October, government bureaucrats and construction industry people sat down together with DRR social-policy advocates to hear Kitakami’s story. “It was a wonderful moment,” Domoto says. “You could see the lights go on as they finally got the point.”

LIKE MANY TOHOKU COMMUNITIES, Kitakami has always been closely knit, a tight cluster of low-rise houses around the harbor and riverside, steeped in traditional customs and relationships that order the ways of its fishery and local festivals.

After losing so much to the tsunami, however, it was obvious to all that the village could not be rebuilt exactly as it was: the wisdom of moving to higher ground was undeniable. What was not obvious was how the plans for a new community could restore its damaged social fabric.

Most other damaged communities had little chance to even consider such questions. Traumatized, habitually obedient to authority and eager to rebuild quickly, most communities meekly accepted one-size-fits-all government plans to replicate suburban Japan, with serviced lots for those able to rebuild single-family houses and multi-story social housing blocks for others. Typically, units are distributed by drawing lots, so instead of living next to long-time friends or relatives people end up with randomly assigned neighbors.

Teruo Konno and his surviving colleagues in Kitakami’s local administration opted to take a different route in delegating responsibility to what was initially an ad hoc group of local residents and not only because their ranks were decimated and overwhelmed. Konno says they had also learned vital lessons from other disaster-stricken communities.

“Citizen consultation is clearly important,” Konno says, “but we realized that when you put municipal officials in front of a group of people traumatized by the loss of homes, families and livelihoods, too often the result is endless complaints and arguments. Nothing gets done.

“We learned a lot from the experience of Yamakoshi in Niigata” [which had to rebuild after the 2004 Chuetsu quake]. “Their consultation process took three years, but in the first two years only men were involved . . . and all they did was argue. Then they brought local women into the process and everything was resolved quickly.”

DELEGATING RESPONSIBILITY TO A citizen-led group not only created a buffer between bureaucrats and citizens, it harnessed the strength of Kitakami’s tradition of neighborhood consultation a channel where women have always had a voice. At the Tsunami Awareness symposium, one local man was quoted as saying: “This town has been made by women! We really didn’t expect they could do so much.”

“Women are just more practical and adaptable,” counters Naomi Sato, a mother of three school-aged children, widowed by the tsunami, who stepped up to organize the consultation process. “When men lose everything they often become paralyzed, but we women just think, ‘What are we going to make for dinner tonight?’”

Sato also says local women were better able to shoulder the burden: “This is volunteer work that most men didn’t have time for because they were off working to pay the bills. I had never been involved in anything like this before, but I thought the best way to honor my husband’s memory was to build a better community.”

Encouraged by Konno and his colleagues, Kitakami’s women began to hold a series of meetings focused on specific issues or neighborhood needs. Starting informally in 2012, the Town Planning Committee later took on official power delegated by Ishinomaki City. But as that change made it less open to ordinary citizens, subcommittees were formed, giving residents of each neighborhood a conduit to provide detailed input.

For critical meetings to decide on relocating residential areas to higher ground, female university students from outside the community were brought in to moderate. “This created a much better atmosphere than if we had tried to do it ourselves,” Konno says.

Through these consultations, Kitakami residents achieved a strong consensus on the shape they wanted their new community to take. But in order to focus that into a detailed alternative to the standard government plans, sympathetic professional expertise was required.

Fortunately, Sendai-based architect Hiroyuki Teshima stepped forward soon after the disaster. Having been interested in the community’s traditions before 3/11, his local knowledge quickly earned the locals’ trust.

TESHIMA WAS PUT IN charge of designing the Nikkori housing complex, now nearing completion, which creates a new upland residential neighborhood and elementary school grouped around an existing junior high school.

Based on local consensus, Nikkori provides 25 serviced lots to those rebuilding single-family dwellings on higher ground, plus a 60-unit social housing complex mainly for seniors. Under standard plans, the houses would have all faced in the same direction and the social units might have been a multistory concrete block an alien structural form for small-town seniors. And both types of housing would have been allocated by lottery, randomly scattering people across the area.

Instead, Teshima designed the social housing as barrier free single-story units grouped around shared gardens and common spaces to replicate the fabric of the old community. The single-family houses were oriented to optimize ocean views. And who gets to live where was decided by consensus after extensive discussion.

Where contractors initially recommended bulldozing the entire area into a flat plateau, Teshima integrated the new dwellings into the existing topography and preserved the surrounding forest to serve as a natural windbreak. Not only is the result more visually appealing, it slashed the cost of earth-moving.

Public input also determined the compact layout of the neighborhood center, with elementary school, baseball diamond and festival space all grouped together, and surrounded by housing. “The ultimate aim,” Teshima says, “is to feel the area’s energy wherever you stand.”

Still, when the new development is completed in June, nothing will give Konno, Sato and Teshima more satisfaction than watching six elderly widows settle into their new nest. During the consultations, they shyly approached the committee with a photo of themselves holding hands. “Can you please give this to the mayor?” they asked. “Tell him we have come to depend on each other in temporary housing. Now all we want is a place where we can look after each other until the end.”

“Kitakami’s experience teaches a lesson of global importance,” says Domoto, who led successful efforts to have gender issues recognized as fundamental to disaster best practices in the Sendai Framework adopted by the Third UN World Conference on DRR in March 2015. “Beyond being particularly vulnerable in disasters, women have inherent strengths that are a vital source of resilience. Kitakami shows how we can harness women’s natural power.”

John R. Harris is a freelance writer and journalist who lives in Onjuku, Chiba. Yasufumi Horie assisted with this story.