|An altar placed in front of the remains of the Disaster Prevention Office in Minamisanriku Town, Miyagi Prefecture. Among 50 people stayed in the building during the tsunami, 43 were washed away while another 6 still counted as missing. — VNS Photo Chi Lan
MIYAGI, Japan (VNS) — Time has all but stopped in Tohoku.
Four years after the historic earthquake and tsunami killed nearly 16,000 of its residents, the northern coastal region is locked in a seemingly hopeless struggle to get back on its feet.
In Arahama, a suburb of Sendai City in Miyagi Prefecture, the tsunami had encroached five kilometres inland. The debris has been cleaned up, leaving behind land that stretches vacantly with nothing separating the earth and the sky except the line on the horizon.
This is an anomaly in a country famous for cities densely packed with people and buildings.
Vestiges of some cement structures and a gloomy black memorial standing small and lonely as it is buffeted by strong winds from the sea stand as solemn reminders that houses, convenience stores, hospitals and offices once stood on this vacant land.
Such sights are not uncommon along the 700 kilometre-long coastline in the Tohoku region, which was hit by waves as high as 40 metres in 2011.
Maki Sato, one of the survivors of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the following tsunami in Ishinomaki City's Ogatsu Town, could not hold her tears as she looked out at the place that used to host her world – her parents' house, her children's school, the supermarket where she worked and the cozy home her small family had lived in.
Sato's world was among 19,962 buildings completely destroyed in Ishinomaki City by the biggest earthquake and tsunami in Japan's history.
After the disaster, Sato and her family had to move to a temporary house built by the government in the centre of Ishinomaki City, bidding goodbye forever to her mother and grandmother, who were among the victims; and also Ogatsu Town, where she was born and grew up.
She would never be able to live there again.
"Ogatsu was a very beautiful place," Sato said sadly.
"But now the government does not allow me to rebuild my home there."
The government's decision was based on a newly adopted disaster mitigation plan that aims to create three protective layers future tsunamis. The first and most important layer will be set up in the most damaged areas along the coast, and restrictions have been placed on the construction of houses and other buildings for residential, medical or childcare purposes. A part of Ogatsu Town falls in the building banned zone.
Sato is one of thousands of people who've had to leave their hometowns and live in small, temporary housing for the last four years.
On what used to be the Togura junior high school's playground in neighbouring Minamisanriku Town, 60 temporary houses were built and used as shelters from snow and rain for about 180 residents who lost their homes in the tsunami.
Every day at 9am, all the elderly living on this place gather in a community hall to do morning exercises and check if their neighbours were okay.
Chiako, a retired teacher of disabled children in her late eighties, let the tears flow as she recalled the son she lost (he would have been 61 now), and how she had to move repeatedly from place to place after the disaster. Her current dwelling is the fourth one she's moved to after the disaster, she said.
"In the countryside, people used to have large houses. My temporary house has two rooms, and is just about 15sq.m. I could not stand it at first, but now I have got used to it.
"But the first thing I want now is still a proper house to live," she said softly.
Many elderly people said the same thing; that they wanted to live the rest of their lives in their own homes, not tiny composite shelters.
But having a house of one's own, once taken for granted, now seems like a faraway dream even four years after the tsunami.
Preparatory work on four relocation sites in the town for local disaster-affected residents began in 2012, but there is no sign that it is nearing completion.
"I still don't know where to build my house. And I am not even sure if I've saved enough money to build one," said Sato, the oldest person in the community, who refused to divulge her name and her age.
Borrowing money from banks to rebuild their houses is difficult for the elderly because they have low repayment capacity.
The situation is getting worse as the expiration date for their temporary housing nears with every passing day.
Kazuma Goto, another old man, said that the temporary accommodations have wooden foundations that will rot after about five years.
"Without changing to a new one (foundation), the house will collapse," he said.
This risk adds to the stress and anxiety that the elderly feel in their short-term houses in Minamisanriku Town, which has about 5,500 such dwellings.
Worse still, there is no respite on the horizon. Under the most recent relocation plan prepared by local authorities, it would take another year to complete land clearance and a year after that to build houses.
Before the earthquake and tsunami, Minamisanriku Town's income mainly derived from tourism and fishing. The disaster changed that and left residents hapless and helpless.
Norio Sasaki, chairman of Shizugawa Office of the Miyagi Prefectural Fishermen's Cooperative, said that about 90 per cent of the fishing boats were destroyed in the tsunami along with other facilities and the fishermen's houses.
"I even said at that time that we could never go fishing again. Many other fishermen thought of giving up fishing too," he recalled.
Four years after the disaster though, the local fishermen have begun to pull back, with 780 households rejoining the sector. They were able to restore about 80 per cent of the boats they used to have, but the Fukushima incident has cast a huge nuclear shadow over their efforts.
The Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant was hit by the earthquake on March 11, 2011. The following day, substantial amounts of radioactive substances began to leak in the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in April 1986. There have been continued spills of contaminated water in the plant, and some of it has flowed into the sea.
The leak of radioactive water to the sea raised concerns and rumours about the quality of food products in coastal regions including Tohoku.
Kozo Nagami, an advisor to the Reconstruction Assistance Unit under the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)'s Tohoku Branch, said the rumours and fears had seriously damaged local economic growth and undermined reconstruction efforts.
"Tohoku used to be at the bottom of the supply chain pyramid to Tokyo and other metropolitan areas. But after the Fukushima incident, residents of metropolitan areas did not want to consume products originating from Tohoku even after the quality was checked and declared safe. Therefore, the supply sources were shifted to other areas," he said.
Noriko Abe, proprietress of a local hotel, said she was worried about the future of her hometown because Japanese consumers were boycotting Tohoku products.
"The industries tried to operate again but their usual business partners did not accept their products. Two years after the disaster, 70 per cent of the local industries had to close their business," Abe said.
The slumping economy also drove away local residents, especially the younger generation, as they could not find jobs to feed their families amidst slow and delayed reconstruction work.
Before the disaster, the population of Minamisanriku was 17,666, but this fell to about 14,000 in 2014, according to the National Police Agency and the Reconstruction Agency.
About 800 people were counted as dead or missing in the area, indicating that about 2,800 residents have decided to leave the town since the disaster.
The mini-exodus has led to a serious shortage of workers, hindering reconstruction work as well as efforts to promote large scale production in the local industries.
Residents see no choice but to struggle to survive. But this is a tiring business.
Abe was wistful. "I just wish that the wrong idea about our products is corrected and we are able to recover our old daily life." — VNS