Japan rebuilds tsunami torn towns – Minamisanriku

four_col_the_mayorJapan rebuilds tsunami torn towns
Cushla Norman

Three years after a massive quake struck off the coast of Japan, the rubble has been cleared and the infrastructure largely restored, but the rebuild has been slow.
A shrine has been set up at the disaster prevention tower for people to pay their respects. However the council plans to demolish the building.

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The sea is both friend and foe to the town of Minamisanriku. Fishing is the foundation of the economy and the town is famed for its octopus, oysters and scallops.However, as Insight found out when it visited, because of its hilly topography and v-shaped bays, Minamisanriku is prone to tsunamis.

It has had three major ones since 1896, and the town was prepared for more. A 4.6 metre seawall and 10 metre high tidal gates were built after the 1960 tsunami which followed the Valdivia earthquake in Chile. But this wasn’t enough to protect the town in 2011.

The disaster prevention tower, where the final tsunami warnings were broadcast from. 43 people on the rooftop were washed away and nine survived.

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On 11 March 2011 a tsunami generated by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake damaged and destroyed towns and cities along 600 kms of the Tohoku coast – 18,958 people were killed and 127,291 buildings were destroyed.
The tsunami virtually wiped out Minamisanriku’s town centre, and left about 800 people dead or missing. The town is now a bare plain of brown dirt dotted with the odd mangled building.
But progress is being made. A convoy of trucks ferries tonnes of dirt from the surrounding hills to the coastal plain every day. The dirt is being used to raise the land by 10.6 metres.
Houses won’t be allowed to be built on the newly raised land – it will be for shops, offices and processing factories – houses will be built on the surrounding hills.
Across the Tohoku region, 258,000 people are still homeless three years on from the disaster. In Minamisanriku, more than 5,000 people still live in temporary housing. Many of them didn’t have costly earthquake insurance.
And so the government is building about 21,000 public housing apartments in the region to be rented to residents according to their income.
The government’s reconstruction agency said work has already started on about 70 percent of public housing with the goal to have 80 percent completed by March 2016.
For those who don’t want to live in public housing, the government is developing land for them to build on, with residents paying the expensive construction costs themselves.
Mayor of Minamisanriku Jin Sato said the cost of building materials has risen dramatically since the tsunami. The mayor, Jin Sato, survived the tsunami by clinging to a radio antennae on top of the disasterprevention building.
He said before the disaster a 30 square metre house would have cost $140,000 to build, but now it costs $475,000. He said people look at this cost and just give up on building their own home and that’s a worry for him.
Also a worry for the mayor is increased competition from Tokyo for construction companies to work on Olympics projects. He said some construction companies have left since Tokyo was named as 2020 hosts last year and he fears it may slow the rebuild.
Mr Sato said the construction companies always used to say „the disaster area is our priority“, but now their stance has changed to „the Olympics and the disaster area are our priorities.“
These signs mark the tsunami inundation zone. In most places the waves were at least 10 metres but in some they were 16 metres high.
Before the disaster Minamisanriku’s population was 17,666. Now it has fallen to about 14,000 – although locals fear it could be lower.
Many people, predominantly the young, have left because of what they see as a lack of job opportunities and a lack of progress on the rebuild.
But Mr Sato insists there are jobs, and government statistics back him up. In the Tohoku region there are actually more job offers than people.
However, as an aid worker from the nearby city of Ishinomaki, Akiko Iwamoto, points out, the jobs are in industries such as construction which may not appeal to young people.
Ishinomaki, a city of about 150,000 people just south of Minamisanriku, is facing the same problems as the rest of the Tohoku region – an ageing population, a mass exodus of young people and labour shortages.
Out of the disaster hit regions Ishinomaki has the highest number living in temporary housing – 15,000. Akiko Iwamoto said many of them lead a grim existence with a lot becoming reclusive, staying inside, watching TV and drinking.
She said suicide and divorce rates have jumped dramatically as so much uncertainty hangs over people’s lives.
The Japanese government is spending $350 billion on the Tohoku rebuild over 10 years. Its original goal was to have the rebuild finished in a decade. Mr Sato thought this would be possible at first, but now he can’t believe there are just six years left.
The earthquake caused the land to drop by about 70cm and as a result this low lying area, which was formerly the downtown, floods easily during high tide.
The earthquake caused the land to drop by about 70cm and as a result this low lying area, which was formerly the downtown, floods easily during high tide.

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POINT OF VIEW: Don’t let disaster-stricken Tohoku region remain as Tokyo’s ‘colony’

By YUZURU TSUBOI/ Staff Writer

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.

 

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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.

 

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Yuzuru Tsuboi is chief of The Asahi Shimbun’s Sendai Bureau and head of its team covering the recovery of the Tohoku region.

By YUZURU TSUBOI/ Staff Writer