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Young Tsunami Survivors Turn Reporters

Mar. 14, 2016

Young reporters at a newspaper in the tsunami-hit community of Ishinomaki have been covering stories of the 2011 disaster and the reconstruction efforts that have followed.

It's published with the support of another local newspaper called the Ishinomaki Hibi Shimbun, which put out handwritten newspapers that its staff posted on walls after its printing press was damaged in the tsunami. The staff's professionalism was widely reported by foreign media.

Reporters with the Ishinomaki Children's Newspaper listen to accounts by tsunami survivors. The paper covers stories of the tsunami and rebuilding efforts from the viewpoint of children. Eighty-five student reporters from several schools have been working for the paper for the past 4 years.

It's published every 3 months and is delivered with the Ishinomaki Hibi Shimbun. The first issue came out in 2012 and its circulation is about 30,000.

The reporters recently took a train to a neighboring town called Onagawa.

Hinako Kimura has been involved with the paper since the first issue. She was an elementary school student at that time. Now she is a 15-year-old high school student.

Hinako has visited Onagawa several times to cover stories. Her own experience of the disaster provides the background for reporting on the people and the town.

The tsunami dealt Onagawa a devastating blow. About 70 percent of the houses were destroyed, and many lives were lost.

Hinako's grandparents were among them.

"I really loved them. Even now, I can't believe they died. I feel as if my grandparents are still living in Onagawa just as they were," Hinako says.

Onagawa town has totally changed in the 5 years since the disaster. Massive reconstruction work is underway there. Workers are raising the ground level using soil from mountains to create a tsunami-resistant community. They plan to raise the ground level by up to 17 meters.

A new commercial facility opened last December on the elevated land. The mall has 27 shops and has become a symbol of reconstruction.

Many tourists and shoppers from nearby towns visit there on weekends.

Hinako reported about a store in the shopping district that had been opened by a cardboard-processing company. She asked why the firm had decided to set up shop in Onagawa after the quake.

"I remember thinking we had to do something, somehow, instead of just feeling a sense of total despair," said Hideki Konno, CEO of Konno Konpou. "This feeling welled up strongly. I wanted local young people to realize that many companies in the town use interesting technology."

When Hinako talked to local people, she got a sense of their high hopes for the town's revival.

When she's in Onagawa, Hinako often visits the site where her grandparents' house once stood. The ground level in the area is being raised, and what was their plot of land is now underneath a new road.

"This area is where they used to live... I'm afraid I can't locate where their land is exactly. That's a little shocking. It was a great place. I just loved it. It was like heaven," Hinako says. "But now..."

She has mixed feelings about the rapid change in the landscape of Onagawa, which is full of happy memories of the time she spent with her grandparents.

"Things have changed. The ocean is now far in the distance. Before the quake, the water was right in front of us. We used to like seeing the ocean so close. Today, we can't go near the water. I'm afraid I may forget what the town used to look like," she says.

Hinako interviewed town Mayor Yoshiaki Suda. He has been serving in the post since November 2011, and leads the reconstruction project.

"Do you see changes in the people of Onagawa as the town rebuilds itself after the disaster?" Kimura asked him.

"Some people are still struggling to recover from the tragedy. They feel as if time has stopped," Suda replies. "But we can't stop progress to wait for them. Those of us who can be active in rebuilding efforts should work to create a future that gives hope to those who are depressed. That's how I feel about the rebuilding efforts."

Hinako says she has conflicted feelings while covering Onagawa's revival for the newspaper.

"The mood is totally different than that before the earthquake," her story reads. "After the disaster, Onagawa's image was that there was nothing there. But now it has become the kind of town everyone -- young and old --can enjoy. Time flies. I'd like to see how Onagawa will develop and get back on its feet. I'd like to live here in the future."

Paying respect to the past and reporting on the unfolding future of their community -- as the printing presses roll, that's the mission of Ishinomaki Children's Newspaper.

"I want to keep reporting on people's stories of the disaster, and what they are doing and want to do now through our newspaper," Hinako says.

"I also want to report on people who take an active part in helping the stricken areas. I want the readers to feel and know what the disaster-hit areas are like now."