Japan in the Post–3/11 Era: The Road to Rebirth

A Land Awash in Despair

Politics Society

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.”

This is my third visit to the Tōhoku region since the earthquake and tsunami, following previous trips in March, shortly after the disaster struck, and again in early June. On my second visit, I spent most of my time talking to the families and other people involved with the Ōkawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, which became notorious nationwide for the horrendous death toll it suffered in the tsunami, when 74 of the school’s 108 students lost their lives. In this case, what happened was more than just a natural disaster. The school had no contingency plans in place for evacuation in the event of a major tsunami, and failed to issue instructions for pupils and teachers to move to safer ground during the 50 minutes or so between the earthquake and the tsunami. When the huge tsunami struck, it surpassed all expectations, and large numbers of people were killed all at once. The school stands as a chilling symbol of the unprecedented scale of the calamity.

A Pervasive Feeling of Helplessness and Resignation

As of the end of July, official statistics compiled by the National Police Agency list some 20, 600 people as either confirmed dead or still missing after the disaster. Of this total, around 9,400 are from Miyagi, the prefecture closest to the epicenter. This is more than double the number of fatalities in Iwate Prefecture, the second-worst-affected prefecture, where some 4,600 people lost their lives. Immediately after the disaster, some predictions forecast that the eventual death toll would be in excess of 30,000. It now seems likely that initial estimates were on the high side, as a result of multiple relatives and acquaintances submitting missing person notifications for the same individual.

Inside the Ōkawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, where nearly three quarters of the children lost their lives in the disaster.

It is certainly true that things have started to move forward. As the volunteer coordinator in Onagawa tells me, the situation has improved dramatically from the conditions of chaos that prevailed in March. I am hearing many more optimistic comments from disaster victims on this visit than on my previous trips. Time and again I have been impressed by people’s determination to look on the bright side of things. “We can’t keep crying forever,” one person tells me. “Now we’ve found a place to live, we feel we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel,” says another.

Nevertheless, more than 10,000 people in Miyagi Prefecture alone are still without permanent homes. Many—like the man I quoted at the beginning of this piece—have not even been able to get into temporary housing. Cases of suicide and attempted suicide have been on the rise, and growing numbers of people are driven to the point of despair after losing everything they had—family, property, livelihood, and employment.

Living as I do in Tokyo, I find it hard to avoid the sense that the national media has shifted its focus to the unending nuclear crisis in Fukushima and the latest speculations about the specter of radioactive fallout. In fact, even these stories have long since lost their novelty as news. But back in the disaster areas, the grim reality is that there is still no clear road map in place for moving forward to recover and rebuild from the tsunami.

What strikes me more than anything else on this third visit to a region still ravaged by the devastation of March 11 is the pervasive sense of powerlessness and resignation that seems to hang in the air everywhere I go. Here at the heart of the devastated coast, all the jingly slogans and sunny exhortations to “Keep fighting, Japan!” ring hollow, fading without a trace into the endless expanse of the midsummer skies. Now that the initial confusion has passed, people’s memories are also starting to fade. It is impossible not to be upset by the cruelty of it all.

This Onagawa apartment building bears the scars of the tsunami, which reached as high as the third floor.

It goes without saying that one of the biggest reasons for the gulf that now divides the disaster areas from the rest of the country is the disarray and bumbling incompetence of the nation’s political leadership. Prime Minister Kan Naoto announced in June that he intended to step down, but for whatever reason, he has not yet followed through. In July, the country was treated to the spectacle of Matsumoto Ryū, who was handpicked by Kan to serve as minister for reconstruction, resigning in disgrace barely a week into the job after being caught on camera subjecting the governors of Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures to a barrage of insensitive remarks. Frustration and discontent has been mounting within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. Meanwhile, politicians in the opposition Liberal Democratic Party and New Kōmeitō have become so obsessed with the question of Kan’s resignation that their attacks on the government have been largely ineffectual.

The total cost of damage caused by the disaster is now expected to come to some ¥17 trillion. This will rise even higher once the effects of the radiation fallout from the nuclear accident in Fukushima have been factored in. There is a mountain of issues requiring an urgent government response—coming up with a budget to fund reconstruction, working to rebuild ports and harbors, relocating large numbers of displaced people, and dealing with the nuclear disaster, to name just a few. But although both the government and opposition parties have repeatedly called the situation a “national crisis,” their response has been marked by little more than petty political point-scoring.

Dysfunctional Government, Dysfunctional Diet

Azumi Nobutaka, mayor of Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture since 2003.

Faced by the bleak reality of disaster areas still in a totally destroyed state months after the waves receded, the anger and frustration of local authorities in the affected regions is mounting. When I visit the mayor of Onagawa, Azumi Nobutaka, in July, I find him still working out of the same temporary office in the town’s elementary school where I had met him in March. Although he looks a little less tense than the last time we met, the signs of exhaustion remain etched deep into his face.

“We still don’t have an accurate idea of how many people have moved to a new location within the town. It’s only since municipal authorities have started to process emergency relief and condolence payments that we’ve finally started to get a better idea of the numbers. The situation is even harder to grasp with regard to people who have relocated out of town. A lot of people moved away without filling any kind of paperwork. Some of these people may have moved away on a temporary basis—it is hard to say for sure where we stand. It will be some time yet before a clear picture emerges of the overall housing situation.”

Large mountains of rubble continue to disfigure the landscape.

Like other affected areas, Onagawa is currently drawing up a blueprint for reconstruction. Mayor Azumi tells me that the municipal government is aiming to finalize a plan by mid-August. After this, the town is looking at a period of roughly eight years to rebuild. Azumi is eager to clarify that the town’s number-one priority is to clear away the 440,000 tons of rubble left behind by the disaster. This alone is expected to cost to some ¥15 billion—more than double the ¥6.7 billion allowed for in the town’s initial general account budget for the current fiscal year (starting April 2011). The hope is to complete about 30% of the work this year. The costs of clearing away the rubble will bring the town’s supplementary budget for costs incurred since the disaster to ¥23.2 billion. The town is doing everything it can to scrape together the funds it needs to stay afloat.

Frustration is building at a dysfunctional government and national legislature at a time when local communities in the worst-hit regions are in dire need of government assistance. Choosing his words carefully as he discusses the government he is forced to depend on for help, Azumi laments the inefficiency of the present administration. “Nothing happens in a unified way,” he says.

“The expenses involved are huge, but the reality is that we need to move forward quickly to clear away the rubble, out of town if need be. This is not something we can achieve without funding or policies from the central government, but under the present administration there is a total lack of coordinated action, and we have had no choice but to go ahead and start the process on our own.”

In particular, Azumi believes that the government needs to take positive steps to move forward with a proposal under discussion since March to designate the disaster regions a “special reconstruction zone.” The idea is to establish special administrative zones in the worst affected areas, in which government restrictions and regulations would be relaxed to encourage reconstruction projects. These would then get special treatment in terms of the budget and taxation system—an idea that Azumi believes might be effective in the face of a disaster on such an unprecedented scale. “In normal circumstances, it’s a priority of the legal system to ensure that the national law applies to all parts of the country equally. But the normal system doesn’t function properly after a disaster on this scale. Establishing special zones tailored to the various disaster areas would make it easier to formulate policies matching the reality and needs of the situation on the ground.”

The Future of Onagawa’s Fishing Industry

Roads close to the harbor are still under water.

Onagawa is located at the southern end of the Sanriku coast. Blessed with good natural harbors and excellent fishing grounds, the town has relied on coho salmon farming and oyster cultivation as the backbone of the local economy. Mayor Azumi says that rebuilding the port, where the ground level is more than a meter lower than before the disaster, is an urgent priority.

“Despite everything, this is an ideal opportunity for redevelopment. Whole areas of the shoreline were swept away—that got rid of problems with land use rights. The national government needs to take the lead in ascertaining tide levels and so on and in establishing the appropriate levels for new wharfs as quickly as possible.”

Azumi talks about the prospects for restarting the town’s fishing industry and what he hopes to see from the government in this regard. “Unfortunately, we expect around 30 to 40 percent of the fishermen currently based in the town to leave. Even before the disaster, older people made up a disproportionate percentage of the population engaged in fishing, and the tsunami decimated the number of families involved in the business. Our local fishing industry is heavily dependent on aquaculture, and this requires considerable investments in terms of facilities, equipment, and labor. Unless we work together, we will get nowhere. At the moment we have fifteen fishing areas with attached port facilities; we hope to be able to support the community by consolidating these into around six areas. We are putting up prefab ‘fishers’ stations’ in each fishing area to give people somewhere to speak frankly and exchange ideas about the future of the industry locally. This is why we need to have the area designated as a special zone—to protect the area’s unique businesses and industries for the future.”

The other major plank in Onagawa’s financial scaffolding is the subsidy it receives from the government in return for hosting the Onagawa Nuclear Power Station. The tsunami destroyed facilities belonging to the prefectural nuclear power disaster prevention center, and also came perilously close to the main reactor buildings themselves. The reactors are still shut down, and there is no knowing yet when, if ever, they will start up again. When I spoke to him in March, Azumi was eager to emphasize the differences between Onagawa and Fukushima, stressing that the nuclear power station itself withstood the earthquake as it had been designed to do. But this time he speaks slowly, choosing his words with care. “Personally, I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t start the power station up again. But there’s no denying that the situation is tough. And again, there’s no sign of unity on the issue among the administration, the central government ministries, and the power companies. Guidelines and instructions on radiation levels and the limits of the evacuation zones have changed time and time again. Even if they do decide to abandon nuclear power, I don’t see how we can afford to just give it up overnight . . . Whatever happens, the national government needs to put a dependable long-term plan in place that will serve us for several decades to come.”

The Importance of Micromanagement in an Emergency

Leaving Onagawa, I head 30 kilometers west to the town of Matsushima, home to the fabled bay of inlets and pine-covered islands that are renowned as one of the “three views of Japan.” Sixteen people are listed as dead or missing here—relatively few compared with neighboring municipalities, where fatalities numbered in the hundreds or thousands. It is thought that the peninsula and numerous small islands for which Matsushima is famous may have helped to soften the impact of the tsunami. The fact that on average the water in Matsushima Bay is just 3.5 meters deep may also have played a part.

In fact, when I walk along the waterfront, I am astonished to find that the breakwaters and woodlands along the coast appear to have escaped almost totally unscathed. It is hard to believe that just a few kilometers away scenes of devastation similar to those I had seen in Onagawa stretch in both directions along the coast.

The intricate coastline and hundreds of small islands allowed Matsushima to escape with relatively little damage.

Even so, the town estimates that the total cost of the damage will come to ¥8.6 billion—far in excess of the town’s initial general budget of ¥5.3 billion for the year. Despite Matsushima’s growing status as a “bedroom community” for the nearby prefectural capital city of Sendai, it is tourism and fishing that have always been at the heart of the local economy. Facilities crucial to both these industries were flooded in the disaster. The situation was particularly bad over the Golden Week holidays in May, which would normally be a peak tourist period for the town. The mayor of Matsushima, Ōhashi Takeo, explains: “The loss of the local Sanriku seafood specialties has hit us hard in terms of tourism. A lot of people involved in local reconstruction projects are staying in the town’s hotels and inns at the moment, but in many cases they don’t take dinner where they’re staying, so the innkeepers can only charge about half their normal rates.”

Ōhashi Takeo, mayor of Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture since 2007.

By comparison with other places, though, Matsushima suffered relatively little damage from the disaster, and it still has the natural attractions that have always made it a major tourist destination. Ōhashi argues persuasively that the town has an important role to play—both by providing a base for disaster response operations throughout the region and by helping to draw back tourists from Japan and the rest of the world.

Matsushima’s seafood specialties are returning to the shelves.

“I believe we have made a certain contribution to the disaster response effort, such as by providing a refuge for many disaster victims from nearby communities. There is always the possibility that another disaster will strike in the future, so we want to strengthen our ability to work together with other local governments and organizations in the region. Also, over the past twenty years we had seen a steady rise in the number of visitors from places like China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United States, and France; we need to work hard on PR activities so as to attract a renewed flow of foreign tourists.”

Ōhashi has serious reservations about the disaster response of the national government. “As someone who has had to deal with the government response to this disaster,” he says, “my gut feeling is that they are trying to muddle through by following standard operating procedures. The regions are far removed from the center of politics, so perhaps this is inevitable to a certain extent. But what we are dealing with here is a huge natural disaster; a broad-brush response is not good enough. In normal circumstances, managing things on a macro level probably results in greater efficiency and lower costs. But in an emergency situation where even the most basic social services have ceased to function properly, it’s essential to micromanage everything, down to water and gas and other essential supplies. I wish the politicians and other people responsible on the national level would come and spend some time in the affected areas and then set their priorities for reconstruction after seeing with their own eyes what things are really like here.”

The Cost of Reconstruction: ¥23 Trillion over 10 Years

On my way back to Sendai from Matsushima, I stop by the wholesale fish market in Shiogama, one of the major centers of the Tōhoku seafood industry. Like so much of the region, it is also a disaster area: Twenty-one people from the town are confirmed dead or still missing after the disaster. When I visited in March, the market was practically deserted, with very little produce on sale owing to the virtual absence of any catch from any of the Miyagi Prefecture fishing ports. There is a far greater quantity and range on display this time. Local seafood retailer Suzuki Kiyotaka, age 58, also looks a lot more cheerful than when I first met him four months ago.

“Gill-net fishing started up again on a limited basis about a month ago. Since then, species like flounder—karei and hirame—have finally started to reappear. But there’s still almost nothing from the Sanriku Coast. Efforts to get the industry back on its feet aren’t going as well as people had hoped. In places like Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture, local residents have had to fix up the boats and harbors themselves, without any help from the central government.”

The wholesale fish market in Shiogama is starting to regain some of its former energy.

A cheerful-looking Suzuki Kiyotaka in the Shiogama fish market.

On July 29, the government’s Reconstruction Headquarters in Response to the Great East Japan Earthquake, headed by Prime Minister Kan Naoto, adopted its Basic Guidelines for Reconstruction. The preliminary estimate is that reconstruction will cost ¥23 trillion over the next 10 years. The blueprints included plans to establish special reconstruction zones with relaxed regulations, and the possibility for preferential tax treatment and the establishment of a system of government subsidies for the region. But no mention was made of relocating housing to higher ground, although this issue was surely a concern for the national government and the disaster regions. The government also failed to get agreement within the DPJ for its financial proposals, including proposed tax hikes, and the question was essentially postponed indefinitely. The outline as a whole is astonishingly thin on concrete details. Given the enthusiasm with which Prime Minister Kan initially spoke of this project, the plan that has been unveiled feels like a damp squib. It is hard to avoid the feeling that the government has ducked the challenge.

Wherever I travel in the disaster areas, I get a strong sense that people are feeling hemmed in and increasingly desperate. People are worried that the region is being left further and further behind by Tokyo. From this distance, calls to “work together as a nation to rebuild Tōhoku” quickly come to sound like an empty sloganeering. In Tōhoku, people’s lack of trust in politics and politicians is reaching breaking point.

Postcript: On September 2, a month and a half after my trip to Tōhoku, Kan and his cabinet stepped down amid mounting public criticism of the government’s performance, and Noda Yoshihiko took over as prime minister. It looks as though the new government is finally starting to move forward to the next stage in terms of addressing such issues the third supplementary budget, increasing taxes to secure the necessary public funds for reconstruction, and setting up special administrative zones. The people of Tōhoku have persevered for long enough. We must not allow them to suffer anymore.

(Originally written in Japanese. Photographs by Kuyama Shiromasa.)

Flypaper inside an evacuation center. Flies have proved a major nuisance during the hot summer months.
Flypaper inside an evacuation center. Flies have proved a major nuisance during the hot summer months.

Operated by the Self-Defense Forces, the “Kōbō no Yu” bath facilities have been a godsend for people in the evacuation centers.
Operated by the Self-Defense Forces, the “Kōbō no Yu” bath facilities have been a godsend for people in the evacuation centers.

Inside “Kōbō no Yu.”
Inside “Kōbō no Yu.”

Laundry hung out to dry next to the tennis courts.
Laundry hung out to dry next to the tennis courts.

In Onagawa port, recovery is still a long way off.
In Onagawa port, recovery is still a long way off.

In the market at Shiogama, a supply of locally caught fish and other seafood has finally started to reappear.
In the market at Shiogama, a supply of locally caught fish and other seafood has finally started to reappear.

A map showing the extent of flooding in and around Onagawa.
A map showing the extent of flooding in and around Onagawa.

A map showing the extent of flooding in and around Matsushima and Shiogama.
A map showing the extent of flooding in and around Matsushima and Shiogama.

Great East Japan Earthquake Tōhoku Kikuchi Masanori Onagawa Ishinomaki