By the time Yuki Ohsaka (MS’15) appeared at the poster session of the Earth Institute’s AC4 Sustaining Peace Conference, she was a long ways away from Riku Café, whose staff members she had talked to for a project about disaster recovery. Riku Café is in Rikuzentakata, one of the hardest hit cities by the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami four years ago (March 2011).

But the people she encountered in that café are never very far from her thoughts. “What I learned from talking to those who were impacted by the tsunami is that they relish the chance to rebuild their communities, even though their lives have been forever changed by the disaster,” Yuki said.

Riku Café was constructed by a Tokyo-based architecture firm in collaboration with city-planning scholars and students from Tokyo, as well as Rikuzentakata’s local residents, to serve as a “living room” for those residents. It is the kind of space scholars have in mind when they talk about how best to rebuild communities in the wake of disaster. Designed with the specific purpose of fostering resilience, the café allows local residents to stay as long as they want and do whatever they want—which is important given that so many Rikuzentakata residents have been displaced and/or lost their livelihoods because of the disaster.

Since its opening in January of 2012, local women have shared duties in managing the space, which in addition to providing lunches and beverages, also serves as a place to receive professional health care advices, a waiting area for buses, and a venue for special events.

Last year, Yuki and her research partner, Yumiko Murai (Teachers College, EdD’15), applied for and received a team fellowship from EI’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, & Complexity (AC4), to investigate what roles the Riku Café plays to help Japanese disaster victims reconstruct their communities.

“A number of scholars have reported that positive human connections and a culture of peace help to promote community resilience,” Yumiko said. “Taking multidisciplinary approaches, Yumiko and I conducted eight semi-structured interviews with some of the shufu (housewives) in Rikuzentakata who were taking turns working in the café. We also conducted a week-long field study observing who came to the café, how they used the space, and how they interacted with one another. Every day the café attracted a variety of local people, including volunteers, students, businessmen, elderly people, and mothers with small children. This helped us understand how the cafe actually serving for the community.”

Yumiko and Yuki came away impressed by what they observed and the stories that they heard—for instance:

“After all, you know, people coincidentally run into each other here. Even if they are in Rikuzentakata,…they live in different temporary housing. People are scattered but…can meet each other here.”

“Encountering the students and the people with a variety of professions, and meeting more people from the outside, really expanded my world. I am especially grateful that I’ve had a chance to meet a lot of young people—we don’t have many young people here. In fact I do have my own kids, but there’s something special about the power of young people. They cheer us up.”

At the AC4 Sustaining Peace Conference, held on March 26th at Teacher’s College, the two students made a case for the importance of providing post-disaster communal spaces. It is a case that they continue to make, especially with the news that Nepal has been devastated by a major earthquake.

 

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