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In-depth Rebuilding a Region: Tōhoku Five Years Later
Rehousing in Tōhoku: The Two Faces of Reconstruction

Kikuchi Masanori [Profile]


The pace of recovery in the five years since the Tōhoku tsunami has varied by sector and locale. Big urban centers like Sendai have fared relatively well, and many local industries are making a comeback. Yet some 60,000 tsunami survivors—many of them elderly—remain in housing purgatory, especially in the region's smaller communities. Journalist Kikuchi Masanori continues his series on post-disaster recovery with a report on the reconstruction gap in Miyagi Prefecture.

In February this year, the Sendai 3.11 Memorial Community Center opened in the brand-new Arai Station building at the eastern terminus of the Sendai subway’s Tōzai Line, completed just last December. Added at the last minute to existing station plans (the Tōzai Line had been under construction since 2006), the Memorial Center features photo exhibits and other information about the impact of the March 2011 tsunami and the progress of reconstruction. I found it bustling with visitors from nearby and farther afield, even on a weekday.

From Arai Station, I drive four kilometers toward the coast under a blue winter sky, arriving at the old Arahama district in Wakabayashi ward. Once a community of about 2,700 homes nestled between a patchwork of fields and the seashore, the district is now a barren waste. The only major structure that remains standing is the abandoned ruin of Arahama Elementary School, which was flooded almost to the third floor. I watch dump trucks come and go in the distance, laying the foundation for development on higher ground.

Arai Station, the eastern terminus of the Sendai subway’s Tōzai Line, opened last December, more than 20 years after plans were approved. The area around the station is undergoing redevelopment.

The 2011 earthquake and tsunami claimed more than 900 lives within the Sendai city limits, most of them residents of Wakabayashi ward and neighboring Miyagino ward. Now the low-lying coastal areas have been designated tsunami hazard zones and placed off-limits for residential construction. The city is in the process of “collectively relocating” the former inhabitants of those neighborhoods to new housing on higher ground, much of it concentrated in the area around the newly built Arai Station.

Arai Station is just a 10-minute walk from the large temporary housing facility where thousands of homeless Arahama residents lived while awaiting resettlement. The rows and rows of prefab structures are still standing, but they are mostly empty now, as is the large parking lot on the site. Many of the occupants have moved into one of the nearby public housing developments for disaster victims, while others have paid out of their own pockets to build new single-family homes on lots acquired and developed by the city.

Sendai has recovered quickly compared to many tsunami-stricken communities in the region. A major regional city with a population of more than a million, Sendai has the advantages of a solid tax base and a highly developed urban and residential infrastructure. The city government drew up a five-year timetable for the rehousing component of its disaster reconstruction plan, and local officials say that they are more or less on schedule.

Even so, it was a long wait for people like 73-year-old Daigaku Kumiko. She and her husband spent four and a half years in disaster shelters and temporary housing after their home on Fukanuma Beach in Arahama was swept out to sea. During that time they sold their land and somehow managed to pay off the mortgage. Finally, last November, they were able to move into a new subsidized single-family home on one of the sites the city has set aside for residential development in the area around Arai Station.

“After all that time in cramped, dark quarters, we were finally able to move into a real house that we can call our own,” she says with a sigh of relief. They have to pay ¥30,000 a month in rent, but they manage to get by on their pension benefits and the money her husband makes working part-time in Tokyo.

“It’s hard to make ends meet,” she says, “but I have a lot of friends here. I’m looking forward to getting on with my life and enjoying my hobbies—cooking and Nagoya harp.”

Not far away is the Arai Higashi municipal housing development, a large two-building complex built to house about 300 families. Among the occupants is Ōhashi Kimio (72), head of the development’s neighborhood association, who lost his Arahama home of more than 30 years to the tsunami. He spent the first few weeks after the disaster moving from shelter to shelter, then lived in temporary housing in Wakabayashi ward for about three years before finally moving into the complex two years ago.

Sendai’s Arai Higashi municipal housing complex has become home to many former residents of Arahama, an outlying coastal community that was all but obliterated by the Great East Japan Earthquake.

The opening of the Tōzai Line has been a huge plus for this neighborhood,” says Ōhashi. “It’s getting more convenient all the time. Some of the tenants have moved here from temporary housing in Onagawa and Ishinomaki.”

Ōhashi Kimio, head of the neighborhood association at the new Arai Higashi municipal housing complex for disaster victims, spends most of his daytime hours at the development’s community center. “This is the heart of the community,” he says.
“I like to spend my time here exercising and socializing with the other tenants.”

In fact, Sendai has become something of a magnet for survivors from the surrounding area, including those frustrated with the pace of recovery in their own communities. With many Sendai natives still reeling from the loss of friends, loved ones, and property, one occasionally hears complaints that this influx is pushing up the cost of living and inflating real estate prices. But Ōhashi stresses that all the tenants of the Arai Higashi development are displaced survivors like himself who want nothing more than a place where they can live in peace and quiet after their harrowing experience.

“There are a lot of people here in their eighties and nineties,” says Ōhashi. “I do my best to reach out and keep an eye on them.” Ōhashi understands that elderly people uprooted from their homes and communities are at high risk. “Solitary death was a big issue in the temporary housing facility, and unfortunately, we’ve had a few cases here as well.” In view of the high concentration of elderly residents, Ōhashi has asked the city to install automated external defibrillators.

From the housing complex, I head back to the central business district around Arai Station, where redevelopment is proceeding apace. One of the district’s attractions is Moroya Farm Kitchen, a farm-to-table restaurant established in 2000 by a family that has lived and farmed in this district for nine generations. The restaurant operated inside the family home for 15 years, then moved into one of the new commercial buildings near Arai Station when the Tōzai Line opened. Its vegetarian-oriented cooking, highlighting homegrown seasonal heirloom vegetables, is popular with locals and visitors alike.

Kayaba Ichiko of the Moroya Farm Kitchen explains her pleasure at the restaurant’s role in helping along development of the station area.

“We leverage our unique strengths as a producer and try to let the natural good taste of the ingredients come through,” explains spokeswoman Kayaba Ichiko (67). “We think about the menu before we even begin planting. We grow 150 different vegetables, all suited to specific dishes.”

Although the tsunami left the family home undamaged, it flooded half of the farm with seawater. It took a full year to remove the debris, rehabilitate the soil, and render the fields fit for cultivation again. As a result, the restaurant was forced to close its doors temporarily. It reopened a few months later, however, with the help of friends who lent the owners farmland where they could continue to grow their vegetables.

According to Kayaba, business has increased five-fold since the restaurant moved to its new location. “The new subway line is changing the face of this district,” she said. “We’re hoping we can become a kind of meeting place for local residents and visitors from other regions.”

I toured the coast of Miyagi Prefecture on March 22, 2011, just 11 days after the earthquake and tsunami. Heaps of rubble and wreckage littered the shoreline as far as the eye could see. Although the tsunami itself spared central Sendai, the entire city was paralyzed, and the Sendai Station area was a scene of utter chaos. My return visit almost five years later revealed to me a community that, while still facing formidable challenges, is well on its way to recovery.

  • [2016.03.09]

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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  • British Expat: “Don’t Forget Ishinomaki!”No single municipality suffered more from the March 2011 tsunami than Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, where the disaster claimed 3,500 lives and destroyed 20,000 buildings. British citizen and longtime Ishinomaki resident Richard Halberstadt, a passionate advocate for his adopted city, spoke with us about his 23-year relationship with the town and shared his perspective on the long and arduous road to reconstruction.
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