Narrow road to resiliency

Front of UshiogamiStreamMr. Tsukahara making paperJapanese paper on a table waiting to be dried

Reporting by HIROMI TABEI Program Coordinator, Headquarters




1. The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.

2. The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

(from Oxford Dictionary)

The word ‘resilience’ is becoming widespread even among the general public. At Architecture for Humanity, we have discussed our version of the definition of resilience. The above dictionary definition interprets this as the capability to bounce back after a disruption. While it is true, we at Architecture for Humanity are trying to go beyond that. We are (re)building affected communities that suffered from natural disasters and chronic social issues to have a better, stronger, more socially and environmentally sustainable future. It is not just about returning them to their previous state. We always think about our next challenges, and try to prepare for them.

I visited Tohoku, Japan for the first time in 16 months to meet several clients that we helped through the second round of the ‘Build Back Better Tohoku’ Request for Proposal program. I woke up at 6 a.m. on a drizzly Sunday to meet with Kayoko, our Communications Associate at MakiBiz. We were going to meet with Mr. Hideo Tsukahara, the Japanese paper-making master, at his workshop called ‘Ushiogami’ (Ushio means tide, and gami means paper) in Sasaya – about 90 minutes southeast of Ishinomaki. When we finally arrived at his door around 8 a.m., he was ready to start making paper. I hurriedly gathered my camera and notebook, and crossed the stream between the community room, which we provided the construction funding for, and his workshop at the back.

‘This workshop used to be a stable,’ Mr. Tsukahara explained. He used to teach at a job training facility for mentally and physically challenged people in Sendai. The 2011 tsunami damaged the facility as well as his workshop, but he dug out his equipment from sludge to get ready for his future workshop. His business partner, Mr. Yasuaki Kubota, and him searched for a site with crystal clear water. ‘Ninety percent of Japanese paper is water. Water is the key to a strong washi [Japanese paper].’ The first site that they looked at was much closer to where he lives, but its water contained too much sodium. They did not know anybody in the current location, but he fell in love with the ice-cold water running through the site. Neighbors were wary of the new business and the influx of visitors it would bring to their small and modest village. The village sits on a foothill that includes a major ski resort on the other side of the mountains. They renovated the stable/storage, and turned it into a workshop before we helped to build the community room up front.

Mr. Tsukahara making pour over coffee

After Mr. Tsukahara worked for a while, he called for a break. He served us pour over coffee using his paper as a filter. How luxurious! 

Hiromi in Japanese paper jacket and shoes

I happened to notice a slightly wrinkled jacket and a pair of white sneakers in the community room. They were product samples that had been taken to several shows in Japan and Spain. I was very careful not to rip them, but it was actually quite strong!

After a cup of coffee and some Japanese sweets, Mr. Tsukahara shared:

Thank you for helping us. I hope this facility becomes a small but important institution to pass down the tradition of Japanese paper-making. I was a businessman 10 years ago. When I discovered Japanese paper-making, I thought I should become a paper-maker so that I can be a part of the tradition. We must preserve the knowledge and techniques for our future generations. I have learned paper-making from a 90-year old lady, not in a classroom. I learned this trade by doing. She did not teach me per se, but she listened while I was making papers. Afterwards she pointed out, ‘Mr. Tsukahara, it sounded like your papers are a little thick today.’ And they were. I would like people to experience this traditional craft, and learn something from the experience. It is OK that everybody does not become a paper-maker. I just want people to understand what it takes to make a product – paper, food, whatever. I think it is unfortunate people do not know the process, so they cannot appreciate it.

Our contribution to this facility is actually a small part of his endeavor. However, through space-making, we built the first step toward preservation of a Japanese tradition of paper-making. MakiBiz will continue supporting Ushiogami and other clients even after construction is completed because we believe these small businesses are the engine of community resilience.

Hiromi joined Architecture for Humanity in June 2011. She manages the Tohoku Rebuilding Program, and co-manages the Typhoon Haiyan Recovery Program and the One Burrows Pocket Park project. Originally from Japan, Hiromi came stateside to study geography at the University of Oregon and after graduating, got a job as a cartographer with a U.S. company. Her work stirred a curiosity in the human scale and architecture. Hiromi acquired a Masters degree at the Boston Architectural College, and followed that up with several years of experience at design firms in Boston.

Upcoming: Hiromi will be a guest speaker at Asia Society Northern California’s ‘Resilience by Design: Post-Disaster Innovations from Asia‘ on December 10. The event features a compelling discussion around innovative concepts taking place in resilient architecture and design, and selections from the UN exhibition, ‘Resilience by Design,’ which showcases some of the best resilient DIY designs from across the world. 


Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami Rebuilding

Architecture for Humanity is collaborating with local design and construction professionals to reconstruct the northern region of Japan, where the earthquake and tsunami hit on March 11, 2011. It has been three years since the disaster, but many communities still need assistance in long-term reconstruction.