Almost every generation has a defining moment – an exact event, which, years later, people will still ask, "Where were you when it happened?" In Japan, the earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011 is, undoubtedly, one such moment. UBS employees recall how they were affected, and how – in those difficult times – they grew close to a badly hit community in Northern Japan.
Adjusting to the shock
On 11 March 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami affected over 500 kilometers of Japan's coastline. Over 470,000 people had to evacuate, 19,000 perished and 400,000 buildings were destroyed. The disaster left the country in shock.
I remember walking home from work right after the earthquake. Tokyo had become a town from a Zombie movie. Cell phones weren't working. Thousands of people were on the streets.
While the greatest effect was felt in the north – far from UBS in Tokyo – its employees in the capital were quick to react. They launched a response team named Team Tohoku, initially comprised of 57 UBS volunteers. Sending them to the worst-hit region (Tohoku), which was over 600 kilometers away and lacking sanitation and utilities, was not simple. However, with persistence the volunteers reached the towns. They set about the immediate tasks – preparing food, repairing fisheries, clearing wreckage, teaching children whose schools had been destroyed and organizing temporary shelters.
I've always wanted to make a difference but lacked the courage to act until I saw Tsunami victims on TV. I knew that the time had come. I took time off, and made my way to the affected area just a few weeks after the earthquake.
The entire Tohoku region had long been in decline due to an aging population and a shrinking economy. Shortly after relief started, UBS took a long-term view. Team Tohoku partnered with NGO RCF and the wrecked Kamaishi City, which was historically a fishing and iron-producing town. They decided to not just rebuild but to develop a sustainable community for the future.
When I signed up for Team Tohoku, I knew nothing about Kamaishi. But I sensed, correctly, that I'd experience something extraordinary. I still feel that excitement today.
Building on lessons learnt
One of UBS's first projects was the building of a wheelchair accessible evacuation route, giving residents a quick way to reach higher ground should a tsunami occur again.
Building the escape routes was tough. But so many lives would have been saved if there had been ways to reach the hilltops. While working, I kept thinking about how many perished right where we stood.
Including all voices
When working with the town, Team Tohoku included people who never had a voice in decisions before, especially women and youth. The volunteers realized that, with the help of the previously underrepresented, Kamaishi would become a more inclusive and sustainable community.
Women were not expected to be socially engaged in a rural community like Kamaishi. I remember one housewife who came to our seminars for female leaders. She told highly engaging stories, and I came to understand that this was something she had always wanted to do.
UBS's program was a five-year strategy, starting from immediate relief and then moving to recovery and economic revitalization. Team Tohoku wanted to develop a sustainable future for Kamaishi. They offered consulting services to local start-ups, helped in regeneration planning, and unveiled a youth development and education program, all in coordination with city residents.
We helped one entrepreneur revive a top-quality oyster farming business. He had lost everything in 2011 but fought back to not only rebuild but to also help other small businesses. He grew into a community leader who touched many in the wake of disaster.
Taking on the next phase
Over the years, the initial 57-person team grew to include over 1,000 UBS employees, family members and clients from across the world. The volunteers have offered a range of personal skills, from entrepreneurial mentoring to financial planning and business management.
One community business that started was horse husbandry, and UBS volunteers developed a horse-riding therapy program for local children still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Education is another focus going forward. The Kamaishi Compass Program provides local high school students opportunities to learn about their community and think about future career paths.
The kids of Kamaishi went through so much. I increasingly understand that they need care and attention, and this type of rare program will be in even greater demand as PTSD is further diagnosed.
As we evolve to now focus on longer-term sustainable growth, we are reaching high schoolers. Continued engagement with the coming generation will build opportunities for everyone. I am offering what I can to make that difference.
All of us were inspired by the resilience of these people. Volunteering activities brought all of us together, perhaps because of the unity of purpose and shared experiences. I feel that as an organization we have benefited just as much as those we helped.