When I asked a survivor of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Minamisanriku, Japan in June 2011 what we could do to help, his reply was “Come here, shed a tear with us and tell our story.”
The recent earthquake in Nepal has once again shown our vulnerability to natural disasters and the devastating effects they can have on our communities and places. While the magnitude of such events require immediate and urgent localised action, they leave behind issues and challenges that are common to many places here in the UK and abroad.
In November 2013 I had the great honour of visiting Minamisanriku with an interdisciplinary group of academics and third sector partners who support communities on the ground. Hosted by the people of Minamisanriku and organised by our Japanese colleague Toru Kiyomiya from Seinan Gakuin University, this visit formed part of a project called ‘Bridging the gap between academic rigour and community relevance: lessons in American Pragmatism’ led by Professor Mihaela Kelemen from Keele University. This project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, explored the relationship between academic researchers and the communities in which they work. In particular it explored, how an interdisciplinary team of researchers and charitable support organisations could develop shared learning through storytelling and creative activities in and with communities.
While in Minamisanriku, we met with a number of local people who shared their stories of life before, during and after the tsunami. These were local people from all walks of life, of different ages and life experiences, but common to all was the desire to tell their stories and for others to learn from them. All of the stories were deeply moving, and our hosts generous with their personal experiences and reflections. For me, what was most striking was the collective narrative of a community and their sense of place.
What follows, is a series of reflections on what we can learn from just a few of the stories that were shared by the people of Minamisanriku. With enormous respect and gratitude to our hosts in Minamisannriku, and in celebration of their inspiring commitment to rebuilding their community and their places, I hope these short anecdotes will create a set of useful discussion points to explore the complex relationship between design, people and places.
Over the next two weeks we will share these reflections on our blog.
1. What does place mean to us?
2. Houses or shops?
3. The sea as a resource
4. Koala Library
5. Community gardening
6. Octopus-Kun: a place to craft
These blogs have since been compiled as a publication Lessons From Minamisanriku: Stories of Resilience and Rebuilding
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, ‘Bridging the Gap between Academic Theory and Community Relevance: Fresh Insights from American Pragmatism’ (AH/K006185/1) was a collaborative research project involving Keele University, Brunel University, the Open University, University of Edinburgh and Seinan Gakuin University (Japan), and community partners New Vic Borderlines and The Glass-House Community Led Design.