By Nick Narigon
Michael Anop was in Miyagi prefecture’s Kesennuma recently carrying out repairs on some playground equipment when a man filling up at the nearby gas station put down his pump and walked over to shake Anop’s hand. ‘He said there was absolutely no place for our kids to play,’ says the Massachusetts native, whose non-profit organisation, Playground of Hope, builds playgrounds in cities decimated by the 2011 tsunami. ‘Absolutely nothing, and we are just so thankful for you to come down here and do this.’
Anop, a Tokyo resident since 1989, joined the Save Minamisoma Project immediately after the March 11 disaster. For the next year, he made regular fresh-produce and water deliveries to the city on the outskirts of the radiation evacuation zone surrounding the disabled Fukushima nuclear power plants.
Anop noticed the only interaction among neighbours living in temporary housing seemed to be the day the food truck arrived. Old men smoked cigarettes together, housewives chatted and children played in the expansive concrete parking lots.
‘So many times you would hear a mum say, “Don’t play in the parking lot because it is dangerous,”’ says Anop. ‘I thought, “What if we made a temporary swing set?”’ He connected with an acquaintance who distributed wooden playground sets for the American company Rainbow Play Systems, who agreed to give Anop a significant discount to become a distributor in Japan.
Because radiation levels were too high to build outdoor play areas in Minamisoma, Anop turned his attention further north to Ishinomaki, and the first Playground of Hope was completed there in April 2012. ‘They were in the process of rebuilding the school, but they didn’t have enough money to rebuild the schoolyard,’ says Anop.
‘So we stepped in and said we’ll bring you a play set for free, and all the hands went up.’ Since then, Playground of Hope has built as many as 50 playgrounds and play sets in Tohoku. They also renovate play areas at children’s homes in Kanto, and this fall, built a playground for a school in Kyushu’s earthquake-stricken Kumamoto region.
With the average build costing approximately ¥4 million, Anop now solicits sponsorships from corporations who send 30 to 50 employees to volunteer alongside local residents.
Mike Connolly, who has volunteered with Playground of Hope since its inception, assists with the pre-build, which involves digging holes, setting the base for the equipment and erecting the basic frame.
The corporate builds are then finished in one day, and end with a ceremony complete with a hamburger and hot dog barbecue for all the volunteers. ‘The most difficult part is setting up the security line for the kids before the official opening,’ says Connolly. ‘You haven’t stopped a bull until you try to stop elementary kids from playing on playground equipment.’
Once such playground was built at Komagamine Elementary School in Shinchi, where one-fifth of the city was demolished by floodwaters and 110 residents were killed. The school has since received an influx of students from surrounding cities who lost their homes.
‘Building the playground together with volunteers, parents and local residents provided a good opportunity for neighbours to connect with one another regardless of where they are from,’ says school principal Sumiko Takahashi. ‘In one sense, a new community is being built.’
Sitting in his Azabu-Juban office one recent afternoon, Anop recalls the Kesennuma play set, which was the first standing structure built in the neighbourhood following the disaster.
‘The guy that walked across the street from the gas station. That’s the kind of stuff that makes me glad to come to the office,’ he says. ‘The opening events still bring tears to my eyes. The happiness, the sounds of laughter, that is really rewarding.’