Japan Towns Hit Hardest by Tsunami Stuck in Limbo

By MALCOLM FOSTER | August 5, 2011

Gazing down on the gray, rubble-strewn valley, as a backhoe lifts twisted metal into one of hundreds of piles, Takako Abe clutches her walker and points to where her house once stood.

From the same hill, she and scores of others watched a huge tsunami obliterate the Japanese fishing town of Minamisanriku on March 11. By June, she could see a few signs of rebirth. The main roads had been cleared, and cars pulled up to gasoline pumps powered by humming generators. Workers raised telephone poles, and about 1,200 temporary houses had gone up.

Still the recovery is only inching along in the hardest-hit towns. Many survivors remain in limbo, gripped by deep fears and uncertainties that raise questions about Minamisanriku’s future. Nearly 1,200 of its 18,000 residents are dead or missing. Hundreds more have left to live with relatives or seek jobs elsewhere. Those who remain are conflicted.

“I don’t really want to live here, but I’ve spent so many years in this town,” says Abe, who came to Minamisanriku more than four decades ago as a 23-year-old bride.

Her former neighbor, 74-year-old Kiyoo Sato, comes over to chat. Together they look out at mountains of crumpled cars, concrete and wood.

“Can my grandchildren work and live here?” Sato wonders out loud.

Many speak of a deep bond with this town, where families have lived for generations. But what will the reconstruction plan will look like? How will they survive until the town is rebuilt? Will another tsunami hit?

“I’m not sure if we can return,” says Sato, who lost his wife in the tsunami. “We need to see what the authorities decide. It’s hard to know the future.”

While death and destruction was severe along much of Japan’s northeastern coast, a handful of communities face a particularly uncertain future. One is Minamisanriku; others include Rikuzentakata and Otsuchi, both farther to the north.

They stand out because more than half their residents died or were left homeless, their town centers were destroyed, and government was paralyzed by the loss of so many officials and documents.

Already, these towns are falling behind. In the less damaged Ofunato, for example, the fish market reopened in July.

“The gap is widening and affecting the pace of the reconstruction process, and people in worse-off towns are really worried whether they can recover,” says Junichi Hirota, a professor at Iwate University and a member of a government reconstruction study group.

Up and down the coast there is talk of rebuilding better than before – towns and cities less polluted, better protected from tsunamis and more easily navigable by aging populations.

Reconstruction also could be an opportunity to create jobs if the processing and sales of fish and farm products can be expanded, Hirota says.

But the extent of the damage means it may be as long as three years before people can start building permanent homes again. Fishermen, their lives wedded to the sea, may wait it out, Hirota says. Others may despair and leave.

At the water’s edge, where seagulls sit on the skeleton of the destroyed fish market and warehouses, 52-year-old Choya Goto fixes a boom on his fishing boat, bent from lifting debris out of the harbor.

A third-generation fisherman, he represents the town’s chief source of income. He has lost friends, home, truck and just about everything else, but considers himself fortunate.

“I only have my boat and my family, but I’m happy,” he says with a smile, standing near his 22-year-old son, Yuuki.

His is one of only 50 boats out of 1,000 that survived intact – and only because he remembered the advice of old-timers and took it out to sea immediately after the tsunami warning sirens wailed. From the bay, he watched the waves hit his town.

When he returned the next day, weaving around entire houses and other debris, he found the unimaginable: Virtually the whole town had disappeared.

He’s eager to get back to fishing, but says the outlook is so unclear that planning is impossible. “We don’t even have basic necessities like food, clothing … ,” he says. “It’s not that I don’t want to return, it’s whether we really can live here.”

The mayor, Jin Sato, knows that reviving the fishing industry is crucial to Minamisanriku’s survival. At the battered docks, he proudly points to a half-built structure meant to be a temporary market and warehouse. He hopes to bring back not just fishing but also the thousands of tourists who visited the picturesque cove every year.

“That’s the start of our economic rebuilding,” he says. “Once the fishermen can work again, people will eventually come back to eat good salmon, abalone, oysters and seaweed.”

He knows residents are impatient for a plan, but he is proceeding deliberately, wary of imposing anything from above. The town is holding meetings with experts and residents to have a reconstruction plan by the fall.

“I’m not really in a position to say, ‘We’re going to do this or that,”‘ says the mayor, dressed in a blue work shirt and white running shoes. “We’re gathering everyone’s opinions.”

He understands from personal experience the trauma this disaster has inflicted. He still can’t bring himself to revisit the spot where he narrowly survived _ the rooftop of the three-story disaster prevention center where about 30 of his colleagues were swept to their deaths.

Only once, when Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard visited, has he been back to the building, reduced to a frame of steel girders tangled with nets, large orange buoys and other debris. He wants to keep it that way as a memorial and warning.

At 59, the mayor is old enough to remember the 1960 tsunami, spawned by an earthquake in far-off Chile, that killed 41 in his town. He believes physical reconstruction alone isn’t enough.

“If you don’t pay attention to matters of the heart, people won’t feel like starting over,” he says. “Minamisanriku has a deep tradition and strong bonds within its community. We need to tap into that to recover.”

Back up the hill, 82-year-old Keikoh Yamauchi, in jaunty cap and white goatee, sits with his wife Misao on the steps of his temporary home.

It is one of 102 prefabs built in tidy rows next to a middle school baseball field. Laundry hangs on clotheslines, and potted flowers add a touch of home.

Each unit of two small rooms, kitchen and bathroom comes with a microwave, washing machine, TV, rice cooker, air conditioner, refrigerator and futon bedding – provided by the Japanese Red Cross Society and others. The town aims to build 2,300 units by mid-August.

“It’s a little cramped inside, but it’s very well made. It’s really quite nice,” Yamauchi says.

After months of communal living in the school gym, the small houses provide a modicum of privacy and autonomy. But they also mean utility bills and shopping for food – a challenge with the nearest supermarkets about a 40-minute drive away. The Yamauchis have borrowed a car from their grandson to get around.

A half-dozen of their former neighbors live in the same housing cluster, but others have moved to temporary homes farther away, fraying the sense of community.

Looking ahead, the couple insist their home must be rebuilt on higher ground.

Having survived two tsunamis, “We don’t want to live down in the valley again,” says Misao, 80.

Across the baseball field, Yaeko Tabata, her younger sister Yuko and a friend have just finished preparing lunch – rice balls, ham slices and instant noodles – for the dwindling number of survivors in the gym.

The sisters ran a hairdressing salon, which was wiped out in the tsunami. Impatient to rebuild their lives, they are unsure whether to stay here or move on.

“If we knew what the plans were for the town, then we could have a better idea of what we should do,” says the elder Tabata, an energetic woman in her 50s. She recently was selected through a lottery system to get a temporary home 5 kilometers (3 miles) out of town.

Sitting in a blue tent, the three women joke and laugh. It’s a psychological weapon against despair.

“If we think about the disaster too long, we just start crying,” Yaeko Tabata says.

“Laughter makes us more positive,” their friend, Ikuko Abe, adds. “If I cried, then I’d just fall apart.”

(Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.)

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