March 11 marked the third anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami disaster that triggered Japan’s worst nuclear accident.
One question sums up the frustration felt by residents of the stricken Tohoku region of northeastern Japan: “Does the Tohoku region still remain a colony?”
The question was in an essay written by Norio Akasaka, director of the prefectural Fukushima Museum and folklorist, and carried by The Asahi Shimbun on Jan. 29. Akasaka was a member of the Reconstruction Design Council, an advisory panel established by the central government.
In his essay, Akasaka posed critical questions.
He asked why Fukushima Prefecture was obsessively devoted to providing electricity, generated by two nuclear power plants, to Tokyo as if it were a vassal state paying tribute to the capital.
Akasaka also asked why the intentions of local people were ignored in the name of reconstruction that focused on large-scale public works projects.
After raising these questions, he went on to point out that the 2011 triple disaster exposed a bleak reality that the Tohoku region has faced for far too long.
His view is not so far from the truth in three respects.
One is that localities stricken by the nuclear accident have been effectively abandoned.
Even today, newspapers dated March 12, 2011, remain piled up at a distribution store in Namie, a town close to the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Residents separated from their families and communities by radioactive fallout cannot even get close to the point where they can contemplate restructuring their lives.
Secondly, there has been little progress in what is termed as “creative rebuilding,” a vision that was drawn up for the depopulated region which serves as an epitome of any rural area in the future.
The rebuilding projects, which were cobbled together with little coordination among central government ministries, do not offer a new platform that will allow residents to rebuild their communities based on a plan that factors in continued population decline.
The projects do not make it any easier to take on a new model for fishing and agricultural operations, either.
On top of this, preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are accelerating the drain of manpower and materials, which are essential to the rebuilding process.
Thirdly, searing memories of the devastation are fading with the passage of time. The fact that about 100,000 people are still forced to live in prefabricated temporary housing does not make headlines any more.
Last month, an article in The Asahi Shimbun noted that local government chiefs felt a huge gulf between the affected region and Tokyo after seeing a poster celebrating Tokyo’s hosting of the Summer Olympics. It was displayed in the Reconstruction Agency, which they were visiting to lobby for rebuilding. I find the episode a painful reminder of the perception gap.
Admittedly, smiles are returning to the faces of many people in the stricken region.
That said, the Tohoku region still seems to be regarded as a convenient “colony” of Tokyo, the nation’s center of affluence.
This is a reality of Japan that has not changed even after the unprecedented adversity.
I propose that everybody contemplate this third anniversary by asking some key questions.
What kind of a community are we aiming to build? Rebuilding efforts are still in the first chapter and a review of the plans is possible. We should also ask whether investments from government coffers are being spent for a meaningful purpose and are sustainable.
A picture of the stricken region five years from now or 10 years from now must be nothing but a reflection of our own in the future.
RECOVERY STILL DISTANT GOAL
According to the National Police Agency, 15,884 people died and the whereabouts of 2,633 others remained unknown as of March 10 due to the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident.
In addition, 2,973 people died of causes related to the disaster, such as deteriorating health resulting from the evacuation and suicide, in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, the three worst-affected prefectures in the Tohoku region.
In Fukushima Prefecture, the number of deaths resulting from evacuation after the nuclear accident exceeded that of the earthquake and tsunami.
About 267,000 people nationwide are still displaced due to the 2011 disaster.
About 104,000 households live in temporary housing.
The occupancy rate of prefabricated temporary housing is about 84 percent in the three prefectures.
The figure compared with less than 60 percent reported three years after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of Jan. 17, 1995, which claimed more than 6,400 lives in the Kansai region.
According to the Reconstruction Agency, 2,347 units of public housing for victims will be completed in the three prefectures by the end of this month. But the figure is only 9 percent of a total planned.
The circumstances surrounding schools, a key part of efforts to rebuild communities, are bleak.
Many children are continuing their education in makeshift schools or “renting” rooms in other schools.
The affected localities are faced with an array of challenges. These include a population drain, scant progress in rebuilding and a need to provide mental health care services.
Yuzuru Tsuboi is chief of The Asahi Shimbun’s Sendai Bureau and head of its team covering the recovery of the Tohoku region.