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Masayuki Nawa felt helpless when black tsunami waves crested a seawall last year, wrecking his hometown and killing more than 600. Now the city planner feels empowered, thanks in part to a Portland visit.
Nawa, 34, is one of 30 Japanese municipal managers who spent this week in Portland studying civic engagement from the ground up. Group members bicycled around the city, joined a Sunday Parkways bike ride, learned about neighborhood involvement and sampled Portland's vaunted food carts.
Among the group this year are officials from the tsunami zone, who say they'll return home and apply techniques learned here to build and strengthen community, something they've discovered to be critical for disaster survival and recovery.
"I want to find ways to avoid tension between residents and returnees" to the tsunami zone, Nawa said. "By doing so, we might also be able to create a community that's more welcoming and inclusive for young people."
Managers of cities hit by the March 11, 2011, tsunami found that the closer the community, the more neighbors could help one another escape the waves and the better survivors coped afterward. But in tradition-bound Japan, local government efforts to strengthen community and overcome rifts often suffer from a top-down approach.
In Portland, city government features operations such as the Office of Neighborhood Involvement's diversity and civic leadership program, designed to boost participation by minorities, immigrants and refugees. Japan is a homogenous society compared to the United States, but Nawa said he learned useful techniques from Portland officials who described connecting with underrepresented groups by working through people they know.
Residents who remained in the tsunami zone, where as many as 20,000 died, often resent townspeople who were evacuated and then return months later, Nawa said. He plans to encourage community members, not City Hall, to organize fun events with music and food to build bridges.
Masami Nishishiba, a Portland State University professor of public administration originally from Japan, coordinates the program funded by The Tokyo Foundation that has brought Japanese officials to Portland annually for nine years. Mayors across Japan nominate city staff members for the training, which is designed to build skills as the nation decentralizes governance.
Nawa described becoming speechless in city offices while on the phone after last year's 9-magnitude earthquake as he watched the gigantic tsunami roar over a seawall that residents of Miyako, Japan, considered impregnable. Car horns blared. Nawa and other workers climbed higher in the building, smelling spilled fuel and watching the water clear the second floor.
He saw a man climb to the top of a power pole. He heard a woman yell, "I have a baby. I have a baby."
It wasn't until two days later that Nawa was able to search for his girlfriend, Emi, a day care worker. He found that Emi -- now his fiancée -- had led about 30 children to high ground, saving their lives.
Junichi Matsuo, a firefighter who joined the delegation visiting Portland, said neighbors who know one another can help rescuers find missing people.
Matsuo, from Sanda, Japan, described visiting two evacuation centers after the tsunami. Residents in the first one had organized to maintain and clean toilets, agree on rules and keep quiet at night. In the other shelter, toilets overflowed and harried residents constantly made demands on officials.
"In the first camp, everyone knew one another from before," Matsuo said. "In the other one, there were no leaders. Everyone was in a state of chaos just looking out for themselves."
Again, he said, the difference was a sense of community.
"You need to love your town in your everyday life," said Sakuragawa city official Hiromasa Konnoh, conveying advice to Oregonians who are expected to face a similar-scale earthquake and tsunami someday. "Otherwise even when you think you're fully prepared, you can't do anything in the face of disaster."
-- Richard Read @ReadOregonian