Q&A with Amya Miller of Rikuzentakata City Hall
The town of Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture was one of the communities worst hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake, with just under than 1,800 of the town’s then-24,000 residents and approximately 80 percent of its homes lost to the tsunami that subsequently devastated much of the Tohoku coast on March 11, 2011. While reports at the time suggested Rikuzentakata had been “wiped off the map”, the town and its now-19,000 residents are rebuilding.
APRICOT spoke to Amya Miller, Director of Global Public Relations at Rikuzentakata City Hall, to hear how the town has been working to overcome the physical and the mental scars left by the tsunami. APRICOT: What has been the main focus of city hall’s work since the earthquake and tsunami?
APRICOT: What has been the main focus of city hall’s work since the earthquake and tsunami?
Amya Miller: While pre-disaster city hall was the office handling matters related to health, education, housing, taxes, rules, family care, and so on, it’s now working on these same tasks plus the enormous project of rebuilding the city, literally (i.e. buildings, etc.) and figuratively (i.e. mental health care, etc.). The main task of city hall has been to find and create land suitable for rebuilding homes and businesses, along with the necessary infrastructure, such as police and fire departments, schools, hospitals, and so on.
APRICOT: What kind of challenges is city hall facing in carrying out this work?
Amya Miller: The main challenge is exhaustion. City hall staff are also victims of the disaster, having lost homes and/or loved ones – immediate family as well as colleagues. The amount of work the staff have to get done all while fulfilling professional duties has taken a toll. Around 110 full and part-time city hall employees (there are currently 300 full- and part-time staff) were lost in the disaster and the city does not have the population base from which to rehire. Prefectural headquarters and municipalities throughout the country have sent us their staff “on loan”, but this will not continue forever. We need to rehire the necessary staff.
APRICOT: How are these rebuilding efforts funded? Are you able to secure sufficient funding?
Amya Miller: Federal disaster relief funds account for most of the city’s budget and prefectural money pays for some of the rebuildings. Rebuilding projects not funded by federal and prefectural funds need private-source funding. Municipal projects like the library, museum, city gymnasium and sports facilities (baseball field, etc.) need to find additional sources of funds to buy land and pay for building work. To date, there are 24 orphans in the city who have been taken in by family or live in an orphanage. The city still collects funds to help with the expenses of these children. With more funds, we will be able to see all of them through university. Currently, once the children graduate high school their funding is cut off.
APRICOT: On the subject of children, one health ministry survey reported that 30% of children in Tohoku are now suffering from PTSD. As someone working on the ground, what are your thoughts on the issue?
Amya Miller: Someone in Japan must start talking about the collective toll this disaster will take on the youth. One of my deepest concerns is that we will see an increase in mental health problems 10 to 20 years from now as residual trauma and stress start manifesting itself in both mental and physical illnesses. For those who are growing up in this environment where the abnormal is now the new normal addressing how this affects one’s outlook on life is a must. Unless Japan wants to face an epidemic of illnesses directly tied to Tohoku youth in the future because we did not properly handle is the problem now, this must be addressed. The time to not get counselling because of its stigma and taboo is over. Enough is enough.
APRICOT: Three and a half years have passed since 3.11 and with that outside attention on Tohoku (in particular, overseas media attention) has inevitably decreased. How important is ongoing outside awareness and help for Rikuzentakata?
Amya Miller: Outside assistance, whatever form it takes has been key. The needs of the city as it works towards recovery now focuses more on emotional resilience. Remembrance leads to mental health. Knowing “we matter” means there’s relevancy and that source of support is a key part of recovery. My role in keeping people in Rikuzentakata relevant has led to a sense of importance. Seeing foreigners in the city means someone took the time to visit, and when I bring people such as reporters, VIPs, delegations, students, individuals, and others to town and they are seen, this becomes a visual reminder “we are still important”. This matters to the residents greatly. The sense of self-worth that arises from feeling relevant is a very legitimate and necessary part of mental health care. The city is easy to cover because there’s a direct point of contact. For three years, Rikuzentakata has been the only city that hired a foreigner to work with the global community within Japan and abroad. My presence at city hall means there’s someone to answer questions, help arrange appointments, introduce reporters to key individuals and help create a good story. Rikuzentakata is the city that has received the most foreign press coverage to date.
APRICOT: How do you see your work developing over the coming years?
Amya Miller: I’m busier now than ever before. With my term ending in March 2015, the city has decided to assign an individual with the most English skills to be my replacement. A lot of what I’ve done over the past three years will be discontinued, and my replacement will serve as a point of contact primarily for the foreign media. We assume foreign-related support will dry up. The city relies on the goodwill of those who still express an interest and the foreign community has stepped up to the plate in offering this help in the pasts, but without a native English-speaker, the city will not likely see this continued assistance.
APRICOT: Thank you very much. To learn more about Rikuzentakata, please visit
To learn more about Rikuzentakata, please visit www.city.rikuzentakata.iwate.jp. NB This interview is the first one we have chosen for our new Tohoku Voices where we showcase remarkable individuals who have selflessly put their careers on hold while they volunteer to support the mental health care for the children of Tohoku. Following this essay, Amya decided to stay on after her contract was up for renewal and continue her work with her beloved children of Tohoku.