In Rikuzentakata ist ein Gebäudekomplex bestehend aus 3 acht – und drei 9 geschossigen Apartmenthäusern mit 301 Sozialwohnungen. Wahrscheinlich werden davon 206 bezogen, ca. 25% werden allein lebende ältere Personen sein. 95 Wohnungen werden leerstehen. Die Vereinsamung ist vorprogrammiert.Ein weiteres Problem ist, dass die Feuerwehr bisher nur Leitern für 15 Meter
hohe Gebäude besitzt (5 stöckige Gebäude). Diese Gebäude sind doppelt so hoch. Die Leitern müssen beschafft werden und die Feuerwehr muss geschult werden.
A March 2015 view of the progress of the incremental landfill operations in centrol Otsuchi that began in 2013 after debris-clearing. To the left is the district of Ando, with its fishing jetty protruding into the harbor; across the Kozuchi River to the right is Nobematsu, now connected by a temporary span that replaced the original bridge and its six-meter high floodgates.
A tsunami-battered town tries to get back on its feet: struggle, conflict, bureaucracy and, yes, hope.
by Charles Pomeroy
Not all has gone smoothly in the town of Otsuchi as it struggles to recover from the tsunami devastation wreaked upon it five years ago. (See my story, “The Perilous Beauty of Otsuchi,” in the April, 2011 edition of No. 1 Shimbun.) For starters, the loss of its mayor, Koki Kato, together with key department heads and the more than 30 experienced staff that made up a quarter of the town’s civil servants meant that there was no one to immediately get to work on a master plan for recovery. It wasn’t until January 2012 that a draft was finally completed, under a new mayor, Yutaka Ikarigawa.
Mayor Ikarigawa was faced with a number of tough issues, from organizing housing for survivors to sorting out land problems for the dead and missing. And over the next several years some progress was made, including a partial revival of the fisheries industry and construction of new residences to replace the temporary structures housing survivors.
But two key projects in the master plan led to discontent, as the long-range view of those who had forged the plan clashed with the more immediate desires of the survivors. One was a plan to raise the ground level in central Otsuchi by 2.5 meters; the other, to build a huge seawall 14.5 meters high.
After months of uncertainty, many displaced townspeople could not wait another six years and departed for other locales.
The plan to raise the ground level, intended as a safeguard against smaller tsunami and future rises in the sea level, will bring it up to the level of the entry road from National Highway 45 and the new town offices, formerly the burned-out elementary school. It is a six-year project, started in 2012 with debris clearing, followed by incremental landfill scheduled through 2016, and finally ending with a year of waiting for it all to settle before rebuilding can begin in 2018. But after months of uncertainty following the tsunami, many displaced townspeople could not wait another six years and departed for other locales.
THE PLAN TO BUILD the huge seawall – favored by Tokyo bureaucrats, but with the responsibility in the hands of the prefecture – has yet to get underway. Strong doubts have been expressed about its usefulness in protecting the town against future, perhaps even larger, tsunami. Critics also say that any concrete structure of this kind will deteriorate and require replacement in 50 years, which will mean another huge outlay of tax money. They prefer an enhanced system of tsunami alerts and evacuation routes, which are already included in the master plan for central Otsuchi.
In particular, opposition was voiced by the fisheries folk in Akahama, which is also home to Tokyo University’s International Coastal Research Center (ICRC). Akahama also has a walkway to Horaijima, an islet known to most Japanese from a popular 1960s NHK puppet program Hyokkori Hyotan-jima that featured a popular theme song. Many of its residents were lost in the 2011 tsunami, opponents said, because the earlier seawall at 6.5 meters had blocked their view of the “drawback” – receding water from the harbor that preceded the onslaught – that would have alerted them to seek higher ground. In their opinion, a seawall 14.5 meters high would just make such future situations even worse.
Opponents had their point made for them with the release in April, 2015, of a documentary by director Haruko Konishi, titled Akahama Rock’n Roll. The film makes a strong case for the more traditional fishery environment rather than a high seawall. Even Akie Abe, the prime minister’s wife, expressed sympathy for the opponents’ cause at a UN Disaster Prevention Conference in Sendai last year, according to newspaper reports.
After losing almost 10 percent of its 15,239 citizens to the tsunami (one of the largest losses among the affected towns), Otsuchi’s population continues to drop. In fact, it had fallen by 23.2 percent by the end of 2015, according to a report in Asahi Shimbun. This is far and away the largest decrease among the coastal communities affected by the tsunami, with the next highest being Rikuzentakata at 15.2 percent. The reasons were various. Some former residents who had evacuated to inland towns just opted not to return to the gutted community. But the biggest hit came from the post-tsunami exodus of younger people looking for work or schooling elsewhere.
Today, Otsuchi has become a town occupied mostly by retirees and transient workers.
Aside from cleanup and landfill work and rebuilding, long-term jobs that can help persuade locals to stay are in short supply to this day. Although the partially recovered fishery industry continues to offer opportunities, these jobs seem to offer little appeal for the younger generation. And though MAST – Otsuchi’s major shopping center that attracted many residents of surrounding communities – reopened in December 2011, its consumer base began eroding after 2013 as a result of increasing competition from shopping centers in nearby towns, especially the Aeon shopping center in nearby Kamaishi.
Driving home the reality of a shrinking population was the merger of three elementary schools in April 2013. Today, Otsuchi has become a town occupied mostly by retirees and transient workers.
TO ENCOURAGE REBUILDING IN Otsuchi, government subsidies totaling ¥5 million are on offer to qualifying families. But no rebuilding can take place in the town center until 2018, and those who want to build in other areas face escalating construction costs. That is assuming, of course, that a construction company can be found, for even local governments are having difficulty in obtaining bids for their projects. Costs have been rising not only from demand in the stricken areas of Sanriku, but also from the general upgrading of the national infrastructure by the Abe administration, a situation further aggravated by the decision to hold the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
These developments have fed growing cynicism among survivors all along the Sanriku coast. Many sense they are being abandoned, or at least having their futures downgraded in favor of other government projects. These feelings have only increased following the decision to hold the Olympics. And when the central government recently announced an end to the intensive five-year phase of Tohoku reconstruction and a reduction in such funds for the next five-year phase from fiscal 2016, this only added to their pessimism.
Despite these negatives, one of our family members, a brother-in-law in his mid-60s who spent most of his adult life in Tokyo, returned to Otsuchi after retiring in 2015. He now works part time to supplement his retirement income while looking for new opportunities in his hometown. So far he has found none.
Many sense they are being abandoned, or at least having their futures downgraded in favor of other government projects.
Still, all is not lost, and perhaps the long-range planning of Ikarigawa’s experts, representing central and prefectural governments as well as academia and knowledgeable locals, will see a new dawning in Otsuchi. But he won’t be in a position to lead it. Difficulties with his master plan’s implementation eventually led to his defeat in the August 2015 election. His victorious opponent, Kozo Hirano, ran on a platform calling for a review of the planned reconstruction projects.
In addition to the slow but ongoing recovery of the fisheries, positive signs include the revival of the old railway line by Sanriku Railways in 2021 and the completion of the new Sanriku coastal expressway in 2022. Both will make Otsuchi more accessible for commerce and tourism as well as much easier to live in, especially for students who had pleaded for a return of the railway to enable commuting to schools in other towns. This should also increase the town’s attraction for families with school-age children.
OUR HOME WAS AMONG the 3,359 in Otsuchi destroyed by the tsunami. My wife Atsuko and I plan to begin rebuilding in 2018 on our small parcel of land at the southern edge of the central district, which will allow us to continue our retirement that began there in 2004. It will again put us within a five-minute walk of the family gravesite at Dainenji, and give us easy access to that mountain’s scenic hiking trail.
Sadly, we will no longer be joined on these hikes by our favorite companion, Atsuko’s elder sister, Noriko, who had lived nearby. She and her husband, Yuji, were both lost to the tsunami. Her remains were not identified until August of 2011 and his were never found. The addition of her ashes to the family gravesite has made our visits for the annual Obon Buddhist observances even more poignant.
Half of our neighbors were also lost to the tsunami and, apparently, none among the surviving families will return. So we will start afresh with new neighbors, but bedrock support from Atsuko’s brother and other relatives as well as friends dating back to her childhood.
The author’s feature on Otsuchi in the April 2011 earthquake special.
And with any luck, some of our favorite local shops will restart their businesses. In particular, I would like to see the reappearance of Akabu Sakaya, which made it a point to keep my favorite gin and vermouth in stock. ❶
Charles Pomeroy retired from journalism 12 years ago. He is the author of Tsunami Reflections—Otsuchi Remembered.
Wie geht es den Kindern in den zerstörten Gebieten? Haben sie die Erinnerungen an den Tsunami und den Verlust von nahe stehenden Verwandten und Freunden verarbeitet? Wie verläuft der Alltag in den vorübergehenden Gebäuden der Ersatzschule und das Leben im Container. Es gibt keinen Platz, in Ruhe Schularbeiten zu machen.
Tokio (JAPANMARKT/fr) – Die japanische Wiederaufbereitungsanlage für abgebrannte nukleare Brennelemente geht erst im Herbst 2018 in Betrieb. Stur wird an der Plutonium-Fabrik festgehalten, obwohl sie sich nur noch schwer rechtfertigen lässt.
Der Start der über 15 Milliarden teuren Fabrik zum Recycling von Plutonium im nördlichen Küstenort Rokkasho wurde damit zum 22. Mal verschoben. Eigentlich sollte die Fabrik schon 1997 fertig sein. Doch lange Zeit gab es Probleme mit dem Einglasen des Atommülls. Jetzt muss die Fabrik noch die nach dem Fukushima-Unfall verschärften Sicherheitsauflagen erfüllen.
Wegen der riesigen Mengen von hochradioaktiven Flüssigkeiten und dem komplexen Leitungssystem ist die Anlage besonders durch Beben und Tsunami gefährdet. Außerdem braucht die Anlage ein zweites, doppelt so großes Kontrollzentrum, das im felsigen Untergrund verankert werden muss. Das bisherige Kontrollzentrum wurde erst 2011 errichtet.
Kreislauf ohne Schnellen Brüter
Die Fabrik wurde ursprünglich für einen geschlossenen Brennstoffkreislauf aus Uran und Plutonium gebaut, der im Jahr 2100 zustande kommen sollte. Dafür wollte Japan auch Schnelle Brüter entwickeln. Doch der einzige Versuchsbrüter Monju ist ein technisches und finanzielles Desaster. Das Aus für den Brüter ist wohl nur noch eine Frage der Zeit.
Dennoch wird die Kreislaufidee in Japan nicht hinterfragt, weil sie Autarkie in Energiefragen verspricht. Statt in Schnellen Brütern will man das recycelte Plutonium in MOX-Brennelementen, die aus Uran und Plutonium bestehen, weiter nutzen. Die dafür notwendige Fabrik – ebenfalls in Rokkasho – verzögert sich jedoch bis mindestens 2019.
Atommüll außer Kontrolle
Ein zweiter Grund für das sture Festhalten an der Wiederverwendung von Plutonium ist der wachsende Atommüll von Japan. Die provisorischen Zwischenlager in den Reaktoren sind in wenigen Jahren voll, auch in Rokkasho ist bald kein Platz für die angelieferten Brennstäbe mehr. Die Fabrik würde daraus jedes Jahr 9 Tonnen Plutonium produzieren und die Zahl der abgebrannten Brennelemente damit reduzieren.
Doch die meisten Experten sind sich einig, dass es angesichts der niedrigen Uranpreise und der teuren Wiederaufarbeitung wenig Sinn ergibt, Plutonium zu extrahieren. Je weniger Atomkraftwerke es zudem gibt, desto weniger rechnet sich die Wiederaufarbeitung. Für den Stromkunden wäre es billiger, wenn die abgebrannten Brennelemente sofort zwischen- bzw. endgelagert würden. Dennoch gibt es niemanden in Japan, der diesen Vorschlag macht.
Ein Grund dafür ist, dass alle Experten für die Atomindustrie arbeiten. Als zweiten Grund nennen Beobachter, dass ein funktionierendes Zwischenlager für Atommüll fehlt, geschweige denn ein Endlager. Doch es gibt Druck aus dem Ausland: Japan hat 48 Tonnen Plutonium angehäuft – genug für fast 6.000 Atombomben. China und Korea misstrauen daher Japans Erklärung, dass man damit Brennstoff für Atomkraftwerke produzieren will.
The town of Okuma in Fukushima Prefecture, which houses the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant and where the majority of residential areas have been designated as „difficult-to-return zones,“ is designing a new sub-town in the form of a reconstruction hub, which will be located in residential zones with comparatively low radiation levels.
It is envisioned that the new zone will encompass a total area of around 40 hectares — around 0.5 percent of the town as a whole — and will house some 3,000 residents.
The Okuma town mayoral race, during which the need for the new residential area should by all accounts be raised as an issue to be questioned, was announced on Nov. 5. There are no likely candidates, however, other than sitting incumbent Toshitsuna Watanabe.
Even Watanabe himself has said, „I had actually hoped to retire and pass along the job to someone younger“ — a statement belying his true feelings, which only goes to show how fraught with difficulties the road ahead truly is.
„I plan to take on the task of implementing local development so that residents can feel their hometown is moving toward recovery one step at a time,“ commented Watanabe, 68, who is seeking a third term in office, in his first campaign speech on the morning of Nov. 5 in the Fukushima prefectural city of Aizuwakamatsu, which is located some 100 kilometers west of Okuma.
A temporary building for the Okuma town government has been set up in Aizuwakamatsu, where around 1,500 Okuma residents are additionally living in temporary housing facilities.
Okuma’s population stood at 10,778 as of the end of October, with 23 percent of the town’s residents having evacuated outside of Fukushima Prefecture — mostly within the Kanto region.
The designated „difficult-to-return zones“ — whose prospects for residents ever being able to go back are unclear — comprise some 62 percent of the town’s total area, and around 96 percent of its residential districts.
In September of last year, the town agreed to be one of the locations to host temporary storage for radioactively contaminated soil and other materials resulting from radiation decontamination work — with the area targeted for the facility covering around one-third of the town’s residential area.
Even so, some residents — the majority of them elderly individuals — insist that they wish to return to Okuma. It was within this context that the town government announced plans in March of this year to construct the new, smaller town in Okuma’s residential Ogawara district, which is designated as a restricted residence area where decontamination work has been carried out for residents to return within a few years.
New facilities are targeted to be built within an agricultural area of around 40 hectares in the new zone, including office buildings and research centers for the nuclear reactor decommissioning projects, as well as disaster recovery public housing for local residents.
The plan envisages around 2,000 reactor decommissioning workers living in the area in three years‘ time, along with some 1,000 Okuma locals, mainly elderly residents, returning to the town.
While the town government had at one time considered constructing a local elderly care facility, this plan was rejected due to the likelihood that not enough employees could be recruited to work there.
In addition, the town has no plans to rebuild elementary or junior high schools, with few parents bringing their children back to live in the town due to fears regarding the effects of radiation.
„Those who return here will likely be elderly individuals living on their own,“ commented a high-ranking town official. „For such people who have the desire to live here, we wanted to give them hope.“
Watanabe began telling others last autumn that he planned to retire as mayor, saying that his „back pain makes it difficult to work.“
Every town assembly member that he approached as a possible successor, however, declined — citing the numerous problems with local administration that made the job appear too daunting. Eventually, Watanabe was convinced to change his mind about retiring.
When he announced his candidacy at the beginning of October, with less than one month left before the deadline to do so, he let slip the comment that „things really aren’t seeming to go my way.“
A man in his 60s who is living in temporary housing in Aizuwakamatsu said, „Plans need to be put into place so that people who wish to return home may do so.“
He added apprehensively, however, „I wonder if a town that has no children and only elderly residents can actually work.“
On April 11, Wataru Takeshita, the minister for reconstruction of the areas most seriously affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, met in Kamaishi with local government representatives to discuss the budget for Iwate Prefecture. After the meeting, the mayor of Kamaishi spoke to the press and said Takeshita told them the central government would continue paying for reconstruction work through next year, but after that he expected the prefecture and municipalities to cover part of the burden themselves.
“Please understand that the money we spend on reconstruction is from taxes levied on people nationwide,” Takeshita reportedly said during the meeting, which was closed to the media.
According to an article in the Asahi Shimbun, the local governments in attendance rejected the minister’s remarks, mainly because he neglected to go into detail about how much of a burden he was talking about and what sorts of things they would be paying for. The mayor of the city of Rikuzentakata seemed offended by the government attitude.
“They must discuss our financial situation and the reconstruction process,” he told an Asahi reporter. “Otherwise, we can’t envision a future for ourselves.”
Rikuzentakata is currently spending ¥30 billion to elevate levees and prepare higher ground for new residential housing, an amount equivalent to 2.7 times its whole annual budget. “And we still have to build schools and a new city hall,” he added.
Takeshita seemed oblivious to the resistance. He told reporters that he and the local governments “came to a common understanding” regarding division of reconstruction costs. A prefectural representative tried to point out that the municipalities weren’t saying “the central government should pay for everything and we pay nothing,” only that there had been no substantive discussion about what would happen after the current reconstruction budget expired in 2016.
As the Asahi presented the story, it read like a classic instance of official condescension, but the situation is more complicated. The report implies that the local governments formed a united front, but as the vice mayor of the town of Otsuchi said, the degree of damage suffered and the amount of reconstruction required differs from one place to another. By treating all the local governments the same way, the agency effectively demonstrates a lack of imagination and coordination, while the media gives the impression that money is the only issue.
Otsuchi, in fact, is the subject of a new documentary by Haruko Konishicalled “Akahama Rock’n Roll.” Akahama is the district closest to the sea and the one that contains the town’s fishing industry. One-10th of Akahama’s residents died in the 2011 tsunami or remain missing. The central subject of the film is the surviving residents’ objections to the central government’s plan to build a 14.5-meter-high seawall along the edge of the community. The rest of the town approved the seawall, or, at least, didn’t object to it.
The budget for construction was set in January 2012, when the town’s residents were still in shock from the disaster and hadn’t had time to think over the plans carefully. Since then, the people of Akahama decided that a better idea would be to move homes in the district to higher ground. The seawall, they contend, causes more problems than it solves. The tsunami, after all, was 22 meters high, so 14.5 meters may not do any good, but in any case, the fishermen of Akahama need to have constant visual contact with the ocean, and not just for the sake of their livelihoods. One reason so many people died in the tsunami was that they didn’t see it coming, since there was already a seawall blocking their line of sight, and that one was only 6.5 meters high.
Akahama is too small to attract the interest of the mass media, but Konishi managed to enlist one powerful supporter: Akie Abe, the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. At the U.N. Disaster Prevention Conference in Sendai in March, she raised the matter of the seawall during an awards ceremony, saying that if you have to destroy the environment in order to safeguard a community from the forces of nature, then something is wrong. Since then, the movie and Akahama have been featured in a number of newspaper articles.
Konishi divides her footage between two principals: Tsutomu Abe (no relation to the prime minister), a fisherman who went back to work a few days after the tsunami, even though it killed his father, and Hiromi Kawaguchi, chairman of the Akahama Reconstruction Committee, who spearheads the local resistance to the seawall. This dual narrative approach toggles between the political aspects of the issue and the less concrete cultural ones.
Abe the fisherman represents the community’s soul, a man whose close relationship with the sea is primal. The tsunami was a tragedy, but, as he says over and over, you can’t fight nature.
“As long as our lives are connected to the ocean,” his mother says, “we have to be here.” And what’s the point of being here if you can’t see the water? When your life is dependent on the sea, you make peace with it as best you can.
People, however, are another matter, and it’s Kawaguchi’s job to fight the powers that try to tell him and those he represents what is best for them. Once the bureaucracy has a notion in its head, it’s difficult to change, and his fellow committee members, worn down by the subtle but relentless force of authority, seem willing to compromise, but Kawaguchi isn’t.
“Life comes from the sea,” he says. “And keeping the sea separate from us destroys life.”
If Konishi’s purpose is to show how a community’s desires should not be discounted even if those desires place it at risk, her movie acutely points out how specific needs can’t be summarily dismissed by logic or taken care of by charity.
“I’m not interested in people’s sympathy,” says Abe as he shucks oysters. “I just want to sell my products.”
Right after the earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, volunteer individuals and groups rushed to provide assistance.
Many were one-off efforts and gradually, the number of volunteer activities decreased in the four years that followed, but enthusiastic volunteer efforts remain on various levels — be it by individuals, nonprofit organizations or firms.
Regarding firms, large amounts of donations were collected, and large domestic and foreign firms, as part of their corporate social responsibility, or CSR, plans, undertook volunteer activities.
Panasonic Corp., headquartered in Osaka, is one such firm that has continued its CSR efforts in Tohoku.
“As a company, we feel that CSR activities in the devastated areas should not be just temporary, but continuous. We want to make the right effort by listening to the demands of the people in the disaster-hit areas,” said public relations officer Yayoi Watanabe.
“More recently, we have been putting a strong emphasis on supporting the next generation — the young,” she said.
Regarding young people, “Kitto waraeru 2021″ (No doubt you can smile in 2021) is a program aimed at bringing smiles back to children’s faces, through the loaning of audiovisual equipment from Panasonic, allowing the students to film two videos: “What they want to tell people now” and “A message for themselves 10 years on.”
The program has been carried out in 19 elementary and junior high schools in Iwate, Fukushima, and Miyagi prefectures since September 2011, with volunteer staff from the company giving advice to students on the technical part of the filming process.
The Tokyo branch of U.S. securities company Morgan Stanley is another firm that has been supporting the people in Tohoku after the disaster, assisting with a wide range of volunteer programs.
Since June 2011, company employees have engaged in onsite recovery efforts to support communities in quake-hit areas.
Specifically, volunteer staff from the company spent several weekends right after the disaster, taking part in onsite recovery efforts in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, removing debris from houses and gardens and clearing mud out of street gutters.
“We expanded our volunteer leave allowance to provide employees the opportunity to engage in earthquake-related volunteer activities. We allowed employees to take up to five days of leave until December 2012, instead of only one day, which was the original policy,” said a Morgan Stanley spokesman.
Additionally, in collaboration with Second Harvest Japan, a nonprofit organization specializing in sending food to those in need, including disaster-hit areas, nearly 100 employees volunteered to pack and send a total of five tons of food to the disaster-hit areas.
Employees also gathered to pack and send sewing materials to the nonprofit organization “Arts for Hope,” to help its doll-making therapy sessions held in evacuation centers for children and the elderly.
More recently, in October last year, a team of Morgan Stanley employees volunteered for a weekend playground-building event in Fukushima Prefecture.
Together with kindergarten staff, parents, the local Lions Club and staff from nonprofit organization Playground of Hope, they built a new playground for Fukushima Lumbini Kindergarten, a preschool in Fukushima.
The team of 60 moved 20 tons of dirt to create a solid foundation for a play structure with towers, a slide and vividly colored benches.
Money for the playground was collected through donations at the company’s annual charity drive.
The company has also supported a reforestation project in Chiba with its joint venture partner, Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities, participating in reforestation volunteer programs organized by nonprofit organization “Mori no Lifestyle Kenkyujo” (Forest Lifestyle Laboratory).
The project aims to restore the coastal forest, which had served to protect the local community from the impact of seaside winds and flooding, but was destroyed by the tsunami.
In April 2012, 60 employees and family members joined other volunteers to plant 6,000 saplings in the affected area. A total of over 220 employees and family members from both companies have made five visits to the same area in Chiba since then.
Konsul Yasushi Fukagawa lud am Sonntag 15. März 2015 aus Anlass des vierten Jahrestages der gigantischen Naturkatastrophe im Nordosten Japans vom 11. März 2011 eine Vielzahl von Institutionen und Privatpersonen ein, die sich auf verschiedenste Art und Weise für die betroffenen Regionen eingesetzt hatten und mit großem Engagement japanische Landsleute in der schweren Zeit unterstützten.
Ein Bericht über die Veranstaltung mit einer Kurzfassung des Berichtes von
Frau Gesa Neuert zu Spendenprojekten in Tohoku finden Sie hier:
OTSUCHI, Japan — The spot where the town’s center once stood is now a dusty construction site filled with diggers and dump trucks toiling amid huge, man-made mesas of earth and gravel. The work is part of an $850 million project to elevate the land by seven feet and shield it behind a towering 48-foot wall.
Four years after a colossal tsunami swept away most of this remote fishing community on Japan’s mountainous northeastern coast, Otsuchi is starting to rebuild.
However, the wait is far from over for thousands of the town’s survivors, many of them still living in temporary apartments after being left homeless by the waves. Otsuchi was so severely crippled by the calamity — 1,284 people died here, including the mayor and many town hall employees, firefighters and police officers — that the town struggled for years even to put together a recovery plan. Reconstruction began only last year and will not be finished until at least 2019, the new mayor says.
Similar stories could be heard across Japan’s tsunami-struck northeast as the nation held prayer ceremonies this week to observe the anniversary of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami on March 11, 2011, that left 18,490 people dead or missing. Almost 250,000 people lost their homes in the calamity, and 87,000 still live in cramped, prefabricated housing that was originally meant to last for just two or three years.
It is not clear when, if ever, they will move back. In Fukushima, where the tsunami caused meltdowns that destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, some areas were so contaminated with radiation that they may not be habitable for decades.
In small coastal communities farther north like Otsuchi, far enough away to escape most of the nuclear fallout, many survivors have simply given up and moved elsewhere, accelerating the depopulation of rural areas in this rapidly graying nation. Those who want to stay worry they could face additional waits as memories of the tragedy fade in the rest of Japan, where attention is now turning to events like the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
“Everyone seems to think that life has gone back to normal here, but we are still very much a disaster zone,” said Hiromi Kawaguchi, 66, a retired town employee who lives alone in a tiny two-room apartment in refugee housing after losing his wife, mother and 4-year-old grandson, Shoya, to the tsunami.
“Does this mean more delays if the nation has lost its sense of urgency about us?” he said. “Even big construction companies are starting to leave to get a piece of the Olympics.”
To help in the rebuilding, the central government in Tokyo pledged 25 trillion yen, or about $206 billion, to pay for reconstruction and radiation cleanup as part of a “concentrated recovery program” that was supposed to end in 2016. However, local governments have been so overwhelmed by the task of rebuilding that many have fallen behind schedule and proved unable to even spend all the recovery money made available to them.
Otsuchi is a case in point. Once a quiet community of 15,200 residents on a picturesque bay between rugged mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Otsuchi was struck by seething 50-foot waves that destroyed more than 80 percent of the town’s structures, including the town hall, fire department, police station and main hospital. The tsunami killed the mayor and almost 50 town employees, leaving Otsuchi leaderless in the months after the disaster.
“The town was paralyzed by the chaos,” Otsuchi’s new mayor, Yutaka Ikarigawa, said in an interview in the temporary town hall, which occupies a former elementary school that was damaged in the disaster.
Survivors said it took a year to erect temporary housing and supply all the units with electricity and water; the cleanup of a half-million tons of crumpled cars, shattered wooden beams and other debris was completed only last year.
Survivors also struggled to reach a consensus on what they wanted their reconstructed town to look like. Some favored the huge, expensive wave walls that officials in Tokyo urged them to build. Others pointed out that such walls had failed to save residents in other towns. They argued that the safest thing to do would be completely rebuild the town on higher ground.
In the end, the town settled on a compromise in which commercial structures like factories and stores would be rebuilt on the site of the old town center, which would be elevated and protected behind a wall as wide as half a football field at its base. Most residents will move to new housing at higher elevations, including on flattened hilltops.
Today, the neighborhoods that had been left in ruins are being covered by thick layers of fresh soil. The three-story concrete town hall, its insides gutted by the tsunami that almost completely submerged it, is the only building left standing in the town center. Buddhist statues have been placed in front, turning it into a memorial for those who perished inside.
But the start of construction has brought new delays. Otsuchi has struggled to find construction companies to even bid on its contracts, as a boom in post-tsunami rebuilding has created a shortage of contractors. That shortage has been made worse by Olympic-related construction projects in Tokyo, said the mayor, Mr. Ikarigawa.
As a result, Otsuchi has been unable to spend all the money allocated to its recovery by the central government. In 2012, Otsuchi was able to spend just 28 percent of the $178 million made available to it. Last year, with a new reconstruction plan finally in hand, it did better, spending 62 percent, Mr. Ikarigawa said.
“It doesn’t make sense to have to return unused recovery funds when so much of the town still needs rebuilding,” said Keiichi Sasaki, 53, the head of a neighborhood committee in Otsuchi whose home was washed away by the tsunami.
Until their homes can be rebuilt, about 3,700 residents live in temporary housing, waiting. Thousands of others have already given up: The town hall estimates that Otsuchi has lost at least a quarter of its population to the disaster and the exodus that followed.
Mr. Kawaguchi, the retired town employee, said the number who left may be even higher. He said many lost hope after the construction boom started to drive up the cost of labor and building materials, making it more than twice as expensive to rebuild now as just two years ago.
Nor has the central government provided much relief: It offers subsidies of $40,000 to $60,000 to help rebuild homes that now cost $300,000 to $450,000 to rebuild.
“The country has no problem putting huge sums into big public works projects like wave walls, but it won’t help average people,” Mr. Kawaguchi said. “The longer it takes to recover, the more our town will wither away.”
“Inquiry” may be a buzzword in education these days, but for Tohoku students and parents, there are too many questions without answers.
A month before the anniversary of the March 11, 2011, triple disaster, I traveled from Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, to Rikuzentakata and back to Tokyo, via Minamisoma in Fukushima. As I drove through Natori, on the Miyagi coastline, and past the no-go zone surrounding the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant on my way back south, pile after pile of black waste bags stretched out before me, each seemingly begging its own unanswered question.
In Iwate coastal towns, mounds of raised dirt and clean-shaven fields of nothing mark where debris and chaos once reigned. In Fukushima, the ubiquitous bags of contaminated soil are interspersed with signposts indicating current radiation readings.
For students in many of the affected areas, a return to the mundane world of exams and matriculation has been met with conflicting emotions: a newly discovered maturity and seriousness tempered by a growing sense of entitlement and lack of discipline. Everything about the recovery process is complicated, and as I asked one question, three more arose. Yet some things remained clear.
In every town I visited, educators and parents expressed concern about students’ diminished level of physical education. In the Iwate towns of Otsuchi and Rikuzentakata, a lack of facilities and long bus rides to school or playing fields are now the norm; in Minamisoma, concerns about radiation continue to linger. Still, all agree: The students need more space if they are to enjoy an active, healthy lifestyle.
“Almost all of the temporary classrooms were built on school playgrounds, so the children have almost no outdoor space for sports,” explains Satoru Gamou, director of the Hakki Project NPO in Rikuzentakata. “There isn’t even enough space for a 100-meter dash on sports day.”
Residents have been complaining since the temporary schools were first erected in September 2011, but 3½ years on, much remains the same. Gamou’s fond memories of the area’s once-strong volleyball and baseball programs are now tinged with regret.
“This April, the new Takata High School will be ready, but there is no sports field, and gym classes will still be held in Ofunato, over 30 km away,” says Gamou, 51, who now helps run the temporary housing complex built on the Rikuzen Takata Mobilia campsite he managed before 3/11. “My son, who plays baseball, would have attended Takahata High School, once a baseball powerhouse. Now, nothing remains.”
Many residents voiced their enduring frustration that while there is an abundance of space in the tsunami-hit areas that could be put to use as sports fields — or where temporary classrooms could be relocated to, freeing up playgrounds and sports fields — creating such areas has not been a priority. Of the four elementary schools and one junior high school that existed in Otsuchi pre-March 2011, only one barely survived the calamity, having been flooded and then burned in the fires that razed the port area. But the repaired Otsuchi Elementary School building houses no students; instead, it is now the City Hall, with a spacious adjoining parking lot, while Otsuchi’s 500 elementary and 263 junior high school students are squeezed together in prefabricated buildings on a temporary school site, sharing one small field and a prefab gym.
Construction for a new elementary and junior high is planned on high ground next to the Otsuchi High School, which was untouched by the tsunami, but progress has been slow and completion is still years away. Locals complain that while students spend their days in cramped prefabs, city officials work in a refitted building whose restoration is rumored to have cost ¥8 billion.
“I feel especially sorry that the third-year students here have spent all of their junior high school years in this poor temporary building,” says Yasushi Goto, vice principal of Otsuchi Junior High.
Despite their physical surroundings, the students of Otsuchi Junior High greeted us cheerfully through an open window of their makeshift school, waving and practicing their English.
“The students who survived the disaster are much more positive and motivated,” Goto says. “You might think the experience of the disaster would have made student behavior worse, but in reality, it made the students stronger.”
Goto also praised the hard work and positive attitude of the teachers.
“The staff room is really cramped, but it’s brought us closer,” he says. “Since we are closer, we smile more, and these smiles are passed on to the students.”
In Otsuchi, a rural town hugging the coast of Iwate near Kamaishi, keeping kids in school has always been a struggle, as many quit after junior high to join their parents in the fishing industry, and tensions between inlanders and coastal towns regularly spill over into the schools. Before 2011, Otsuchi schools were known across Iwate for rowdy students and low educational standards, but residents agree with Goto that the students themselves possess a new maturity.
Miyako Ogayu, whose husband is head of Dainenji Temple in Sendai, has run a reading club for the last eight years serving the community in Otsuchi. Ogayu has long seen books as a gateway to new worlds, and she redoubled her efforts after the disaster, expanding the club to a wider area and helping support young mothers. She too prefers to emphasize the positives that have sprung from adversity.
“The children’s horizons have been broadened by meeting so many volunteers — people from other countries or university students from all over Japan,” she says. “I think more students are going to university now than ever before.”
At the same time, Ogayu worries about the students’ emotional health.
“Daily life is becoming easier now, with many new supermarkets or convenience stores opening up, but we are losing our sense of identity as a community. With this loss, people aren’t paying attention to the behavior of those around them anymore.”
Katsumi Sawaguchi, a longtime resident and community leader, agrees.
“Unfortunately, some of the parents receiving aid have started to take the aid for granted, and they pass this attitude on to their children,” he says. “Other parents are so concerned with making a living that they can’t think of anything else. Parents hesitate to discipline their children since the kids have been through so much, and volunteers take on the same attitude. Children have learned they will get their way, no matter what they do.”
Sawaguchi, a retired businessman and accomplished cut-paper artist, taught his art in schools in Kamaishi as a volunteer before the disaster. Since the 2011 tsunami, he has expanded his volunteer work to include Otsuchi and other areas. He also started the Sakura Project three years ago, planting cherry blossom trees along the mountain evacuation path in Otsuchi, with the dual aim of getting students outside and involved in restoring the natural beauty of their hometown. Sawaguchi echoed the sentiments of Ogayu and others I spoke to in Otsuchi and elsewhere in Tohoku: To support the students, we must support the whole community.
Minamisoma, a small seaside town only 25 km from the wrecked Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, and its neighbors are still reeling from the triple disaster. Driving in on the Joban Expressway, I am struck by the stretches of nothingness. Instead of speed limits, the highway signs warn us of the radiation level.
Psychiatrist Arinobu Hori moved from Tokyo to Minamisoma a year after the earthquake and tsunami, when the evacuation order was lifted, to help residents and take up a job at Fukushima Medical University’s Department of Disaster and Comprehensive Medicine. Hori also sees the lack of exercise and growing discipline problems among Fukushima children as symptoms of a larger issue: tired parents, exhausted and overprotective, have few caregivers to support them.
“Parents are torn about the risks involved with radiation exposure,” Hori says. “Some are still very conscious of and anxious about the health impact and do not let their children play outside. A lot of parents feel timid and cautious in their parenting, and are overprotective.”
On the other hand, Hori is also worried about the growing dependence on television and video games to keep children quiet in temporary housing, where noise and the uncomfortable proximity of neighbors are major concerns.
“I am afraid that in 10 years’ time, both the lack of physical exercise and a dependency on gaming will be a problem,” he says.
These may seem like minor problems considering what the families have been through, but Hori believes it is these everyday struggles that are wearing residents down.
“Doctors, nurses, teachers and parents are all tired here. There are just not enough people here” to support the remaining residents, he says. “The government is spending too much money on construction and decontamination. These things are important, I agree, but the government should pay more for specialists who can come and take care of the people, and to the few specialists who are already here.”
Known for their tenacity, Tohoku residents such as Gamou, Ogayu and Sawaguchi soldier on, determined to do their best for the children, despite all the unanswered questions. Outside NPOs continue to play an important role, too. One success story has been the “collaboration schools” in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, and Otsuchi run by Tokyo-based educational NPO Katariba. Named because it is a “collaboration between local teachers, board of education, nursery school teachers and other interested adults,” the Collabo School project started with the aim of providing a quiet space to study for children living in temporary housing. Over time, the schools have become focal points for the local community.
“I tell the parents and the kids that it’s a place where students gather who want to study, but we’ve also heard from teachers that this place has really helped meet the emotional needs of the children,” explains Aya Kawai, 30, director of the school in Otsuchi. “Many children have to commute a long way to school, so as soon as classes are over they get on the school buses to go home, meaning they can’t attend after-school activities or join sports teams. Having a place where they can go after they get home to meet their friends has really helped the children emotionally, teachers have told us.”
Katariba also hopes to make the nation’s student body more aware of their local communities with an initiative that began in Otsuchi called My Project, in which local high school students create and execute a community service project. Kawai’s face lights up as she shares the stories of local students who have accomplished impressive things with “minimal adult interference”: One girl created a program for preschool children to help get them outside and active; another organized the Otsuchi Starry Night Project to “convey the magnificence of the night sky in Otsuchi,” making the most of the absence of street lights after the disaster; another created a wooden monument, hoping it would inspire future generations to rebuild while still remembering the tragedy.
The process of recovery is complicated, explains Hori, especially for young and impressionable students.
“The very ordinary things are in danger: having hope for the future, believing in the community support system — just normal, ordinary things are important for their everyday lives,” she says. “Japanese believe they are focused on harmony — and maybe it is true with individuals, but groups in Japan also tend to withdraw inward, saying, ‘This is our area and we will deal with it.’ This kind of thinking makes it very difficult for broader social welfare programs to work, as they depend on the cooperation of many smaller groups, working together.”
Local residents ask: When will construction move forward on the new school in Otsuchi? With school communities fractured, how can people rebuild and reconnect in Rikuzentakata? When will the young caregivers — the pediatricians, day care workers and nurses — and teachers return to Minamisoma to provide support to overwhelmed parents? What do students need most now in the affected areas?
Four years on from the disaster, the people of Tohoku deserve some answers.
Special thanks to Kerry Shioya — guide, translator and storyteller — whose introductions and assistance were invaluable. Learning Curve covers issues related to education in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org
Auch vier Jahre nach dem Tsunami lässt der Wiederaufbau an der Sanriku Küste auf sich warten. Die Bauvorhaben für die Olympiade 2020 in Tokyo verteuern die Baumaterialien und das Interesse der Bauunternehmer, sich in Tohoku zu engagieren ist drastisch gesunken. So müssen die Evakuierten noch einige Jahre in ihren temporären Containern ausharren.
Rebuilding the north-eastern region of Tohoku is being bungled
NEARLY four years after north-eastern Japan’s huge earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown on March 11th 2011, more than 170,000 people are still stuck in temporary housing along the ravaged coast. One of them is Sumiko Yoshida, a woman in her 70s who lives with her husband in cramped, mouldy quarters in Rikuzentakata, a fishing port that was washed away by the tsunami. More than 1,750 people died there, including the Yoshidas’ son, Isao, a city official who was helping others to get to higher ground. With no place to call home and no butsudan (household altar) for her son, Mrs Yoshida says she cannot properly mourn him—a photograph on a makeshift table has to do. She has suppressed her grief for so long, she says, that the tears will not come.
Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, says that the devastated north-east is a crucial test of his plans to revive the country’s economy. Indeed, an early campaign stop for the general election last December was one of many prefabricated housing blocks crammed into school grounds in Rikuzentakata. Yet other national priorities seem to trump the region’s reconstruction. A building boom fuelled by Mr Abe’s monetary and fiscal stimulus has sucked construction capacity away from the north-east to Tokyo, where deals are more lucrative. Locals ask why the capital is building an ostentatious stadium for the Olympic games in 2020, when the poor and elderly who lost their homes in the tsunami are still not rehoused. Takuya Tasso, governor of Iwate, one of the worst-hit prefectures, says the government is losing interest in the region.
From the start, reconstruction called for money, energy and vision. In the months following the disaster locals showed great resilience, and volunteers from other parts of the country flocked to help. Some 20m tonnes of debris were quickly cleared. Hopeful planners sketched out new towns built on higher ground, powered by renewable energy. Some people even wondered whether rebuilding the north-east could pull the whole country out of its economic stagnation.
Given those early hopes, the slow progress has been hugely disappointing. Up and down the coast, much infrastructure has not been replaced and only a sixth of planned new construction of public housing has been finished. Drive through the wasteland of Rikuzentakata, and satellite-navigation screens eerily show where every house, petrol station and municipal building formerly stood. The city is only at the stage of moving earth from a nearby mountain to fill in land that sank by a metre (three feet) during the earthquake.
As for Ishinomaki, a city in Miyagi prefecture where 3,700 residents drowned in the tsunami, only 150-odd households have moved into permanent new housing, with 12,700 people still in temporary quarters. City officials in part blame the bureaucracy in Tokyo for delays in reconstruction. Ishinomaki’s mayor says it took six months for the farm ministry to allow paddy fields to be rezoned as land for a new city district.
In many towns and villages, the early solidarity is now fraying as those with money build new homes. There have been disagreements between generations. Older residents are reluctant to leave coastal villages and family graves for good—many made a good living from oyster farming and fishing. Younger generations, by contrast, want to live in bigger, consolidated communities on higher ground behind the coast. Doubts that such towns will ever be built have quickened the region’s depopulation, under way even before the tsunami. The population of Iwate, the most northerly of the three prefectures that bore the brunt of the tsunami, has declined by 46,000 or nearly 3% since.
After the disaster the central government pledged ¥25 trillion ($213 billion) over five years. Yet the system bars much public money going directly to the victims. Those who lost homes can get a maximum of around ¥3m (many houses were uninsured). Many folk are in financial straits, often still paying mortgages on houses that were swept away and too poor to join communities planning to move to new towns.
Meanwhile, it is often the bosses of construction companies, rather than local officials or central government, who pick and choose what is built. When Rikuzentakata’s city government recently asked companies to bid for the construction of a new junior high school, developers said the budget was a third too low, and the project failed. A consequence is that local banks are brimming with government cash that is not being spent. In Kesennuma, a fishing port in which over 1,360 people died, the first new public-housing block for evacuees has only just opened. Construction firms are generally refusing to build such housing, says its mayor, Shigeru Sugawara. Japan’s reconstruction agency insists that project budgets are reasonable. But with labour and materials costs high, and a boom elsewhere, construction firms can cherry-pick what they take on.
In Kesennuma, for instance, they are happy to pour concrete into the first of over 70 new sea walls planned for the city of 67,000. These are walls, up to 90m wide and 15 metres high, which the central government decreed in 2011 were necessary to protect the north-eastern coastline. Up to ¥1 trillion is to be spent on them. Yet the sea walls are using up money that could be better spent elsewhere. The monstrosities are both unpopular and of little use. Even the land ministry admits that the planned walls would not have coped with the earthquake and tsunami of four years ago. Local leaders say they are moving ahead with the walls mainly because the central government insisted on them.
As for the evacuees, the real deadline for their rehousing may prove to be 2020, says Satoru Ito, who set up a non-profit organisation to help residents of Rikuzentakata after he lost his mother and home in the tsunami. For if they are still in temporary housing by the time of the Olympics, Mr Ito asks, “what will foreigners think?”
What began as a training session in Tokyo some 30 years ago has turned into a lifelong connection to Japan for one German mother of four.
In 1984, Gesa Neuert, who was then doing research on metabolic physiology at a university in Germany, took part in a training session at the University of Tokyo. She became fascinated with the people and culture of Japan, and became involved in Japanese-German exchange programs. Since 2003, when Neuert became the deputy chairman of the Association of German-Japanese Societies, she has organized homestays for over 800 young people from both countries.
Following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, the German-Japanese Synergy Forum (DJSF) was established to encourage exchange between young people of both countries while supporting recovery in the disaster-hit areas, and Neuert became the organization’s president. The following year, it held its first DSJF Sanriku Fukkou Summer School session, in which students from both Japan and Germany got together and visited areas that were devastated by the 2011 disaster to learn how communities were rebuilding.
In March this year, as Neuert was preparing for DJSF’s second summer school session, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had surgery to remove the malignant lesions and underwent drug therapy. Initially, doctors had told her that treatment would last until early September. Her treatment period was cut back, however, when Neuert insisted that she had to run summer school.
When Neuert first arrived in Japan for this year’s three-week session in September, she was unwell due to the side effects of the drugs she’d been taking. But she couldn’t help but be moved by a traditional shishi (deer) dance performance at a Shinto shrine in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture that to her was evidence of the people starting to get their beloved hometowns back. In Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, meanwhile, she expressed misgivings about government plans to build a massive concrete seawall, saying, „Concrete will not bring back the landscape and lives that have been lost.“
Running the summer school is not easy. But Neuert believes exchange between youths is indispensable for the future of both Japan and Germany. For now, though, she will focus on regaining her strength, so that she can come back again next year.
Please share! ‚Sanriku Reconstruction Symposium‘ held at the National Institution for Youth Education National Olympics Memorial Youth Center on 5 Sep 2014 and at The Goethe Institution in Akasaka on 6 Sep 2014 in Tokyo.
Hiroko Otsuka will talk about: ‚Live Together With The Sea – The Seawalls, Education and Intercultural Communication‘ – The role of education and ‚intercultural‘ communication in post-disaster Kesennuma, my hometown, from the view point of a teacher, a mother and an ordinary global citizen whose survived family and townspeople are being challenged by the issues of giant concrete seawalls, disaster risk and reconstruction of sustainable future.
Please come and give us your opinion, especially if you are interested in giving voices to those who often do not have, like women, children and victims of disasters?
Im Rahmen der 2. Deutsch-Japanischen Summer School DJSF Sanriku Fukkou findet am 5. 9. in Yoyogi, NYC, und am 6.9. im Goethe Institut in Akasaka das 2. Symposium zum Wiederaufbau an der Sanriku Küste statt. Wie sieht es dreieinhalb Jahre nach der großen Tsunami Katastrophe aus? Am 5. September ist u.a. an Beispielen aus Kesennuma: Shibitachi und Koizumi Bucht, der Schwerpunkt auf resiliente Planungen mit Perspektiven auf einen Wiederaufbau und ein Leben im Einklang mit der Natur gelegt. Wichtig ist, wieder Kraft und Identität zu erlangen. Hier spielen überlieferte Traditionen, Shintoriten, Matsuri, Tänze, Volkskunde und überlieferte Kenntnisse vom Leben mit Wald, Meer und Küste in Einklang mit der Natur.
Gerade die Koizumi Bucht ist international in den Medien bekannt geworden, da hier eine 90 m breite und 14,7 m hohe Betonmauer errichtet werden soll, die den nach dem Tsunami übrig gebliebenen gesamten Sandstrand bedecken wird.
Am 6.9. beschäftigen wir uns mit der aktuellen Politik in Japan, das Verhältnis zu China und Deutschland, und ob es ein Umdenken in der japanischen Gesellschaft in Bezug auf zukünftige Energiepolitik gegeben hat, sowie den Strukturen in Politik und Bauindustrie.
Bitte besuchen Sie das Symposium in Yoyogi, NYC und im Goethe Institut, Akasaka
National Institution for Youth Education National Olympics Memorial Youth Center (NYC) 3-1. Yoyogi Kamizono-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 151-0052 JAPAN TEL.+81-3-3467-7201(General number)
Goethe Institut, Tokyo
Adresse: 7 Chome-5-56 Akasaka, Minato, Tokyo, Japan
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.
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.
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.
they couldn’t do anything else with their land and needed the money to rebuild their lives elsewhere.“
Those campaigning against the wall have few allies. Yoshihiro Murai, the governor of Miyagi, is in favour, while the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, told a recent residents‘ forum that walls offered the best protection against a tsunami. His wife, Akie, has cautiously allied herself with the sceptics, warning of the damage so much concrete could do to ecosystems and tourism.
The 3,000 people of Fudai village owe their lives to a 15-metre wall that was dismissed as a waste of money when it was built, at the then mayor’s insistence, in the 1980s. But it was the exception. Most sea walls provided inadequate protection against the March 2011 tsunami. In Kamaishi, the waves simply smashed through the city’s sea wall, then the largest in the world. Concrete barriers offered little or no resistance, and may even have caused deaths among people lulled into thinking they were safe.
„Sea walls have the potential to save lives wherever they are built, provided the tsunami does not exceed the simulated height and runup pressures,“ said Dimmer. „The problem is that you can’t predict how high the next tsunami will be, so sea walls can never give you 100% security. There will always be a risk, no matter how high you build them.“
Campaigners estimate that it will take Japan’s taxpayers a quarter of a century to pay the bill for sea wall construction, which could eventually cover 9,000 miles of the country’s coastline. But the debate is about more than cost. Until each locality decides whether to proceed with the plan, no construction can begin on sites considered vulnerable totsunamis.
„I don’t want the rest of the world to think of Japan as a concrete fortress,“ said Abe. „The tsunami was a force of nature, so I can forgive it for the destruction and misery it caused. But for humans to ruin their own environment … I can never forgive that.“