Reflecting, Exploring, and Walking to honor the 11th Memorial Day of the Great East Japan Earthquake
March 11, 2022 marks the 11th memorial day since the Great East Japan Earthquake that damaged prefectures in the Tohoku region in 2011. Through games such as Ingress and “Pokémon GO, Niantic have been working to provide opportunities for people to visit the Tohoku region and learn about the recovery with their own eyes (https://nianticlabs.com/blog/tohoku2021/?hl=en).
Last year, we launched the Niantic Tohoku Memories and Shops Rediscovery Program to support businesses in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima prefectures. And this year, we had the opportunity to meet directly with some of the business owners participating in the program and hear their story about recovery. These businesses were also honored by the “Fukushima Industrial Award” sponsored by Fukushima Minpo.
Niantic’s mission is to Inspire people to explore the world, together, and this mission is very close to all of our hearts. Our hope is that as people explore the real world, our products and services can help them experience the power of social connection and community.
Tohoku’s recovery is ongoing. To continue highlighting and supporting the revitalization of the impacted cities, we thought that it was important for us to visit each location and see for ourselves. We would like to share with you what we have heard from business operators.
Iwaki Chocolat, Iwaki Station Store, Sales Division Manager, Atsushi Furuta
With the store now registered as a Gym in “Pokémon GO,” I have also resumed playing for the first time in a long time. I saw people around the store from a distance with smartphones in hand, game screens open, and finger movements as if they were catching Pokémon, and I sensed that people were coming to the store. Some of them were not only young people, but also business people and elderly people. I was surprised to see that people of all ages were still actively enjoying the game themselves.
Our shop staff members have even been playing “Pokémon GO” with each other before and after work hours more often. This has also become an opportunity for us to socialize more, and I hope they will teach me how to play better.
Recently, health and safety regulations have made it difficult for many people to travel and visit our stores. Our company originally had many business people visiting Iwaki on business trips and customers in their 40s and 50s who bought our products as souvenirs, but now we are shifting our focus to local people so that they can enjoy our products. In spite of this, redevelopment is gradually progressing in the area around Iwaki Station, where the store is located, so that people can enjoy the area after the flow of people recovers.
Even now, 11 years after the disaster, I have never forgotten that day. Although it is difficult to gather people now, I would like to continue to share about the recovery and our company so as not to be defeated by this situation. Once the flow of people returns, I hope that even people from outside of the prefecture who had never heard of our company will visit us because of the “Pokémon GO” Gym.
Wonder Farm, Sales and Promotion, Miyuki Watanabe
At first, I thought Pokémon GO was just another game. However, once we were actually registered as a Gym, I learned that the experience doesn’t end just on the screen. People actually visit the site because of the game, and they get together and make new discoveries and get to engage all five senses with what they see and hear in the real world. We realized that it was something that could be established through such experiences.
I was also surprised to see a broader demographic of customers when our shop became a Gym. We have seen an increase in male customers wandering in for meals or shopping.
Eleven years have passed since the earthquake, and the meaning of “recovery” seems to be gradually changing. As someone in my 20s, I think it is important to create an environment to welcome back the young people who left. Those who left once will come back to their hometowns and see what is going on now and remember or feel something. I would be happy to help that happen.
Iwaki Takahashi, President, Masayuki Takahashi
Our facilities are visited by many children, including elementary school students on field trips, so we felt there was a strong synergy with Pokémon GO. In fact, since the game was registered as a PokéStop, we have seen fathers with their families and their children playing together on their smartphones while waiting for the horseback riding experience that we offer.
I myself originally lived outside of Fukushima, but due to the influence of my grandfather’s work as an executive of a forestry company, I often visited Iwaki City from my childhood. My attachment to the rich natural environment also led me to start a chopstick company to promote reforestation in Iwaki City in August 2010, about six months before the Great East Japan Earthquake struck.
11 years later, one of the current challenges in the reconstruction of Iwaki City is the depopulation of the area due to the outflow of population. Once young people leave the area for college or other programs, the new place becomes the center of their lives and they do not come back. One of the reasons for the lack of U-turns by locals is the reality that there is no place where they can demonstrate the skills they have acquired.
What I can do as a business owner is limited, but I hope that even those who have left their hometowns will feel proud that there is an amazing chopstick company in Iwaki City, and that I can help them feel prouder about their hometown.
We are a facility that utilizes an elementary school building that was closed after the earthquake. Elementary school was a place where people would naturally gather after school and play together. It is our hope that we can make it a place where people can casually gather and have fun together.
After speaking with business owners of Pokémon GO sponsored locationsin Iwaki, Fukushima, we hope that many of us will visit the recovering areas to experience what is happening 11 years after the earthquake.
Walking around Iwaki City in Fukushima Prefecture and listening to the stories of the people there gave us an opportunity to reflect on the earthquake and recovery. And we felt we should do what we can to rebuild together. The challenges that they still face after more than a decade of recovery and the thoughts of the local people are something that we all should have close to our hearts.. There are things that can only be learned through direct interaction with people’s thoughts and feelings, and we were reminded of that once again.
It may not be easy to travel or casually meet people with the current situation, but once it’s settled, we hope you will explore the current Tohoku.