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In-depth Japan in the Post–3/11 Era: The Road to Rebirth
A Land Awash in Despair

Kikuchi Masanori [Profile]


Four months on from March 11, journalist Kikuchi Masanori visited areas of Tōhoku devastated by the earthquake and tsunami that struck on that day. Meeting with residents and local leaders, he finds that they are desperate to bounce back from the tragedy and rebuild their lives.

It is mid-July in Miyagi Prefecture, and daytime temperatures soar as high as 33 degrees. Under the blazing sun, the coastal town of Onagawa is enveloped in an eerie silence. The first time I visited Onagawa, just 12 days after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that ravaged whole stretches of this coast, the town was buzzing with the activity of residents, local government officials, people from the fisheries cooperative, Self-Defense Forces personnel, and police officers. This time, though, there is hardly anyone in sight.

I walk down to the waterfront. Waves lap against the cracked seawall of the port, where massive concrete blocks deposited by the tsunami still lie just as I saw them on my previous visit. The mountain of rubble, at least, is considerably smaller now than it was then. But the only things moving amid the stench of rotting seafood are swarms of flies.

The Temporary Housing Lottery

The municipal sports center is one of 13 places in Onagawa being used as an evacuation center.

There is very little privacy inside the sports center.

At the municipal sports center, now providing a makeshift temporary home to hundreds of the town’s dispossessed, a 65-year-old retired construction worker is growing frustrated with the deprivations of life in an evacuation center. “I’m about ready to give up,” he tells me, making no effort to wipe the perspiration streaming down his face. “It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I apply, I never get in. And I’m not the only one. Lots of people are in the same situation. I’ve got my grandson with me . . . I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

As well as his home, this man lost his mother, his eldest son, and his wife of 40 years in the tsunami. Since May, he has applied four times for a place in temporary housing, but each time his number has failed to be drawn in the lottery. Still stuck in an evacuation center with his grandson, a third-year junior high school student, he says his biggest worry is the boy’s preparations for the high school entrance exams he will face next year.

“In the center, there’s no privacy—just some low cardboard partitions between one family’s area and the next. You can hear everything. And it’s lights out at nine o’clock every night. How can he study in an environment like that? There’s another housing lottery coming up. Maybe this time we’ll get lucky . . .”

Before the disaster, Onagawa had a population of around 10,000. Of that number, 940 people are listed as dead or missing. The center of the town, close to the coast, was almost totally destroyed. According to municipal authorities, another 800 or so were still living in evacuation centers as of mid-July. This is a considerable improvement from the situation immediately after the disaster, when 5,700 people were forced into shelters. But despite the steady progress that has been made to erect temporary housing, this summer many local residents are still facing grim, sauna-like conditions in the town’s 13 evacuation centers, surrounded by swarms of flies.

Heading out of the evacuation center, I stop by one of the temporary housing units that have gone up next door. Again, there is little sign of any activity. I talk to Hirayama Takeshi, age 77, who grew up in Onagawa. Hirayama was fortunate enough to be allocated a place in the first temporary housing lottery in early June. Hirayama and his wife share a small room, roughly 7.5 square meters, equipped with a simple kitchen, bathroom, and lavatory. The Hirayamas are fortunate to have found a place to live. Nevertheless, their cramped quarters are a far cry from the comfort they enjoyed before the disaster.

Hirayama Takeshi finds it difficult to contemplate moving away from the community where he has lived for so many years.

Temporary housing has gone up next door to the municipal sports center. Even in broad daylight, there is no one around.

The town’s volunteer coordination center is deserted too. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, more than 100 people worked as volunteers here.

“Our house was totally swept away. We’re lucky to be alive, so I don’t want to complain—but there’s no denying that this place is a bit cramped for two people. And the insects: Not just flies, mosquitoes too—masses of them. It’s better than the evacuation center, but . . .”

Residents can remain in temporary housing for up to two years. After that, Hirayama says they are thinking of moving in with their eldest son, who lives in Tochigi Prefecture. “But we have an attachment to Onagawa, after living here so long,” Hirayama says, his voice trailing off. “Until the time comes, I can’t say for sure what we’ll do . . .”

The Shrinking Ranks of Volunteers

Things are also quiet at the Onagawa disaster volunteer office, located close to the municipal sports center. A few people, most of them young, are sitting around chatting, but otherwise the place is practically deserted.

One reason is simply that volunteers are no longer coming here in anything like the same numbers as before. According to the volunteer office, there were around 100 of them during the peak period immediately after the disaster, most of them from outside Miyagi Prefecture. Now, there are just 10 or so.

“Things were really hectic at first. We were rushed off our feet with things to do: scraping sludge from furniture, washing the mud from cooking utensils, setting up soup kitchens, and providing people with food. But things have finally started to settle down. Food and other emergency relief supplies are getting through regularly now, so there’s perhaps not quite the same need for volunteers as there was in the early stages. Recently a lot of our work has involved helping get people into temporary housing or other accommodation provided by local governments,” explains Takeishi Kumiko, a coordinator responsible for assigning volunteers.

“Even so,” Takeishi declares, “I’d say we’re in a better state than some of the other towns in the area, like Ishinomaki, where there’s a shortage of volunteers.” She continues: “The summer heat is really starting to kick in now, so we’re doing everything we can to keep elderly people in the evacuation centers from coming down with heatstroke. We’re cooperating with medical teams and making sure that people are getting enough water and rest.”

  • [2011.10.03]

Born in Hokkaidō in 1965. Worked as a reporter at the daily Hokkaidō Shimbun before going freelance. Writes interview-based reportage and social features for such magazines as Aera, Chūō Kōron, Shinchō 45, and President.

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