Friendship Centre Linked to BC Town Proposed for Town in Japan

March 22, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
The ruins of Onagawa as seen last April wrought by the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan the previous month. (Courtesy of John Craig)

The town of Nelson in British Columbia has ties to Onagawa on the east coast of Japan that go back to the Second World War.

So after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan last March, it was only natural that Nelson residents would undertake fundraising to assist the relief efforts.

A total of $40,000 was raised, but the big conundrum now is what exactly to spend it on.

Onagawa, a coastal town in Miyagi Prefecture where tsunami waters reached a height of 18 metres, was almost completely destroyed in the disaster, and no reconstruction has begun to date.

Onagawa Mayor Yoshiaki Suda recently sent a letter to Nelson Mayor John Dooley thanking the town for its support, but with no mention of how the money, which remains in Nelson, will be spent.

“We want it to be put to good use in accordance with Nelson’s wishes, so we will be making some suggestions to you about that as we watch the recovery process,” wrote Mayor Suda, adding that “we have a long hard road ahead of us, so we ask for your continuing assistance.”

Nelson resident John Craig, a writer, lecturer, and filmmaker who lived and worked in Japan for 25 years, says Mayor Suda, “being Japanese,” is waiting to be told specifically how the money should be spent.

“I know Japan well, and I know that they’re going to wait a long time before the Mayor of Onagawa says, ‘We want you to put the money here,’ and be specific,” he says.

Another suggestion being considered is using the money to set up a scholarship fund for Onagawa students.

John Craig
Japan expert John Craig in the four-ton truck he drove from Tokyo to Onagawa carrying relief supplies following the earthquake and tsunami last March. (Courtesy of John Craig)

But Craig, who visited Japan directly after the earthquake and again in the summer of 2011, believes something more tangible is needed, such as a gathering place with a connection to Nelson that would serve to strengthen the community.

“We’ve got a very unique blend of coffee here called Oso Negro with a wonderful coffee shop that is a real community centre in Nelson. If we were to create something like that with the money in Onagawa, have somebody from Nelson and a local to staff it—so that we would create at least one job in Onagawa—what you would end up with is a place where people can come and relax and drink a really good cup of coffee,” he says.

“The idea would be to create a kind of a coffee shop/consulate for small-town Nelson and small-town Onagawa. Some would call it a friendship centre.”

The centre could also include film nights and music nights, he says. “You could have all kinds of get-togethers. Cheer them up, for God’s sake. Cheer them up.”

WWII Connection

The relationship between Nelson and Onagawa began during the Second World War. Lt. Hampton Gray, a fighter pilot from Nelson, was killed in the final days of the war while leading an attack on Japanese naval ships in Onagawa Bay.

Even though Gray, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for the attack, would have been considered the enemy, the Japanese were impressed with his act of valour and in 1989 a memorial was erected in Onagawa in his honour.

This connection led to groups of students from Onagawa coming annually to Nelson in recent years. Two Onagawa officials have visited the town, and a Nelson flag hangs in Onagawa Town Hall.

The memorial, however, was damaged in the earthquake and the bluff on which it sat is reportedly crumbling into the bay. It has since been repaired and moved to a new location, and a missing plaque is in the process of being replaced.

Craig learned in a phone conversation with an Onagawa town official last week that around 850 residents are dead or missing, and the population has shrunk from 10,000 to 8,000.

“The town has lost 20 percent of its population and 70 percent of its buildings. … The young people are leaving in droves,” he says, adding that the area “is still a twisted mess of garbage.”

Although plans are in the works to rebuild Onagawa, which consisted of 15 remote fishing villages before the quake, it will take years to complete and only half the amount of money the town is seeking from the government is likely to be approved, according to the Nelson Star.

Meanwhile, there are concerns for the mental well-being of the remaining villagers, many of them elderly, who are housed in prefabs in 30 locations miles away from their beloved coast.

“They’re just sitting in there watching TV, that’s what they’re doing,” says Craig, adding that “loneliness has become a rampant problem.”

“You’re going to start seeing suicides rapidly increase, guaranteed, because they’re at the edge of their rope already.”

He believes a gathering place in Onagawa where people can feel the connection to Nelson and its “pioneering spirit” would give the community a much-needed boost.

“What they need is outsiders who are sympathetic and who do indeed have unusual and new ideas that they will never come up with on their own,” he says.

Craig, who is fairly well known in Japan having been somewhat of a media celebrity there, plans to visit Onagawa again in May to gauge what kind of support there is among locals for his idea.