Tsunami changed everything in country’s northeast
Once-settled land is now vacant, unemployment is rampant, and few businesses are open
Yet even now, months after the disaster and at a time when most of the world, even most of Japan, has moved on to new concerns, it’s almost impossible to overestimate the impact on life here. Everything changed — from the land itself, which has sunk or washed away in many of the prime areas where people used to live and work, to the day-to-day lives of tens of thousands who lost not only their homes and livelihoods, but also the friends, loved ones and networks of connections that make life worth living.
Here, in one of the places closest to the epicentre of the quake, though far enough from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear reactor to be out of range of the fallout, only the suburbs remain — a ring of pleasant, well-spaced homes on the lower reaches of the hills surrounding the coastal plain where the heart of this little city of 23,000 used to beat.
This land, settled for centuries, now looks raw and new and, at least from some angles, deceptively unblemished. Well organized, well equipped work crews have methodically stacked what’s left of the endless sea of rubble left by waves into scores of scattered piles, each sprawling over a few city lots and towering as much as 30 metres against the sky.
Cleanup crews have sorted most of the rubble by type to facilitate recycling. Only splintered wood is found in some piles, smashed concrete in others, or tires salvaged from the twisted remains of thousands of wrecked vehicles — plus the dozen or more orderly “parking lots” with row after row of bent and twisted cars and trucks and buses.
The land itself has been bulldozed flat and clean. It looks like a huge fallow field — except for all the well-paved roads, edged by concrete curbs, that carve the now featureless landscape into what used to be city blocks that were lined with close-ranked homes and bustling shops.
But all this cleanup, necessary as it might be, is really just superficial sanitization that can’t erase the horrid reminders of that day.
Shoma Okamoto stands by one of those now-pointless curbs that border a paved road that meanders through the featureless landscape. He’s in what used to be his front yard, pointing across the street to where the family home and shop of his boyhood friend — now dead — used to be, and then to the empty space next door to where an entire neighbour family, the Itos, died in the disaster.
Okamoto is lucky — his was one of just three families in the 80-family neighbourhood that didn’t lose anyone. He and his adult sister had both left the family home and were living on their own in other cities. And his mother, father and grandmother all escaped, although with little but their lives.
Now he has given up his career in Tokyo — he worked in construction and interior design — to return to his boyhood home and run a newly minted NGO, Save Takata, that tries to help survivors cope.
That the survivors need help is clear, but the way forward isn’t always so obvious.
This is Japan — rich, organized and disciplined — and there’s none of the chaos and squalor that lingers months or years after big natural disasters in many parts of the world. Here, as in cities and towns up and down the coast, almost every displaced citizen has been moved from temporary shelters — some as basic as school gymnasiums pressed into service and some comfortable resort hotels — and into temporary houses which, although tiny and basic, are solid, neat, clean and equipped with standard amenities.
But unemployment is rampant, especially among those with skills ill-suited to the all-encompassing cleanup tasks. People lost not only their homes but also their cars, both generally not insured, and the trains that once took commuters to work in places a little further inland no longer run. Businesses that were wiped out are just starting to reopen, many in premises as crude as a construction trailer. People are in shock at their losses and the psychological difficulty is compounded by boredom and depression.
So Okamoto’s little group, all with deep local roots, has carved out for itself a niche role helping to coordinate the efforts of dozens of non-profit agencies that have come to help, and looking for things it can do — everything from provision of water filters to replacing wedding rings that were lost in the flood — that will help people get their lives back on track.
The next big step lies with the elected councils in affected cities and the national government, which will play a huge role in funding the expected 20-trillion-yen ($266-billion) cost of reconstruction.
They must approve plans, mostly now in the final stages of being hammered out with residents, for new permanent homes.
Megami Kito, one of a small cadre of civil servants seconded to the new reconstruction secretariat, says the objective is to keep former neighbourhoods together, although many community members died in the disaster and others have already left the region and found new homes.
“In most of the municipalities, we’re waiting for the urban planning — where the houses will be built, where the stations will be built, where we’ll situate the industry,” she said.
She said some businesses may be able to return to some areas that were flooded by the tsunami, “but most people are going to want to live on higher ground.
“So to accommodate everybody, we’ll probably have to cut down some mountains. Make it flat, then move everybody to higher ground. And that’s going to be difficult from the point of view of budget.”
In Sendai, a city of a million-plus people on the edge of the disaster area, about 8,100 households were affected (some by landslides in the nearby mountains) and 704 were killed, although the heart of the city was untouched.
Ironically, after the initial shock, the disaster has sparked something of a boom. Industries like tourism, especially international tourism, are down sharply, but retail trade is way up as people from the devastated coastal towns come to Sendai for both day-to-day necessities and materials to rebuild.
In the city of Higashi Matushima, a city of just 43,000 where 70 per cent of the homes were destroyed or damaged, the intention is to ensure that the new community is not only safer, but also more efficient and better in other ways than the one that was lost.
Morio Furuyam, manager of the city’s recovery policy department, said they’re developing an Ecotown strategy in one subdivision where temporary housing has been erected. So far it features mainly innovative conservation measures, but a permanent settlement to be built will include a community-wide smart grid, and options for generating its own electricity and selling the surplus.