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Every morning at 8am, from Monday to Sunday, the small business owners of the commercial district near the harbor in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, get together and discuss their options, their advances, sharing hot tea, soup and noodles before going in separate ways to tend to their respective businesses. Seven days a week they do this, like they have done for the decades. Except that their business is no longer business as usual. The tsunami caused by the Big Tohoku earthquake fiercely ravaged their stores flooding them with mood up to 8 and 12 feet tall and ruining most of their products, inventory, furniture, machinery and in many cases taking the lives of their employees, partners, colleagues and loved ones. There are no customers and no merchandise to sell. But in a brave display of "gambaru", the Japanese tenacious spirit and drive to keep going, they come wearing rubber boots and gloves and clean and clean, as if by removing the mud, they are also cleaning away their sorrows and preparing for a better tomorrow.
After losing their shops, many of which they have been running for decades, and seeing their life's work being washed away in minutes and losing loved ones and acquaintances to the flood, you would think anyone would be devastated Yet there is no room for sorrow in their busy lives, at least no open display of it.
An inspiring example among them is Dr. Nobuyuk, whose picture we include as a tribute in our head banner. He was the first one to pay attention and become interested in our Business Recovery plan. That morning on March 25th when we first approached the Shoutengai meeting but when everyone was too busy to listen, he came to us after the meeting and invited us to visit his dental clinic. His laser surgery equipment ruined by the flood, he spoke calmly about the tsunami while showing the mud mark on the wall, 6 feet high. He was not interested in re-opening. At 70 years old, with his shop and expensive oral hygiene and care equipment destroyed, he said that he had wanted to work until he had strength in his blood, but that it would not be possible anymore. He had one, simple request. He asked us if we could pass a message to Virginia and Dannison, a couple friends of him and his wife in the United States, as there was no telephone or Internet service yet. The message was one line: "From Nobuyuk: Nobuyuk alive, but sorry Ayako was lost to the Ocean". Ayako was his wife, later found drowned in her car across town. We parted with Dr. Nobuyuk in our hearts, more motivated than ever to make the plan work.
That's why when we returned to Ishinomaki four weeks later we were happy to find Dr. Nobuyuk ready to start his practice again after his brother and son (both dentists) with the help of some friend rehabilitated the first floor of his dental clinic. When we offered to take a picture for the project, he agreed, invited his brother and his son to join him in the picture and silently grabbed a portrait of his wife Ayako and smile holding her close to his chest.
Inspired by Dr. Nobuyuk we approached the Shoutengai again and laid out our plan to get the businesses and people of Japan to work with them to re-open their businesses, bring a sense of normal back into their lives and activate the local economy generating wealth and employment as opposed to waiting for charity, donations and government handouts.
The response was lukewarm at first: they had lost everything, they didn't know if the government was planning to move them and declare the coastal zone unsafe and they also added "business was not that good before the tsunami in any case". Some where reaching the age where they could retire and live on their pension. With their kids now grown up and having moved to the big cities, why would they go to the trouble of starting a business again almost from zero? The challenges mounted one on top of another. But a handful of them agreed to be interviewed as they had no other option than to restore their businesses to make a living again. That morning we quickly interviewed 12 businesses until noon. The next morning we interviewed 15 more. By the end, with 23 interviews and a better, deeper understanding of the challenges and the needs, we left Ishinomaki committed to share their videos and to find support for their businesses among the business community and the people of Japan and the world.
Below are the early details of their businesses, what they need and some of the videos (we are still editing them, more to come soon), or you can browse a quick list of businesses in the pilot.
Our mission is to empower local communities impacted by disaster to generate wealth and become self-sustainable through capacity building, entrepreneurship promotion and connecting them with a global market for their goods and services.
We seek to enable disaster survivors as entrepreneurs before they are turned into refugees by the conventional relief system. Survivors are resourceful and capable people able to fend for themselves and generate wealth if given the opportunity and proper support. The physical infrastructure may have been destroyed, but not so the social structure. The buildings might be gone, but the professionals and the skills of the people are intact, ready to be put to good use.
We aspire to substitute donations whose destiny is uncertain with purchases, charity with dignified sales, turning global donors into conscious consumers of local products and services.
Beyond connecting the businesses with Ishinomaki with other businesses and people who can support and enable them to reopen, it is imperative we work together on ensuring their survival in the 21st century, connecting them with new consumers, expanding their markets, diversifying their offer, increasing their competitiveness and attractiveness to the younger generation and other segments, among many other issues and challenges.
Our long term strategy is to "Never Help, but to Engage, Enable, Empower and Connect" through four main initiatives: