TOKYO: Tractors and forklifts are a busy sight along much of Japan’s north-eastern Pacific coast these days. Much this 500km coastline was devastated by the Mar 11, 2011 tsunami.
The machines toil to bring dirt and rocks from the mountains, which are then dumped along the coast in order to raise the level of the land.
Except for towns close to the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that were contaminated with high doses of radiation, the areas are hardly left with reminders of what they used to look like before the tsunami.
There are attempts in some towns to preserve the structures that remain standing. Takano Hall is one of them. Situated in Minamisanriku in Miyagi prefecture, 80 per cent of the town was damaged and more than 60 per cent swept away in the tsunami.
There were hundreds of people in the hall at the time the earthquake struck, attending a party for the senior citizens. Staff ordered them not to leave the building but instead to take refuge on the roof top. More than 300 lives – and two dogs – were saved.
Today, the sturdy building stands with a mark at 15 metres, an indication of how high the tsunami reached.
At another building not too far from Takano Hall, those inside also fled to the roof top. But 36 people, mostly town officials, perished.
Hotel Kanyo, a hotel in the area, holds tours that take visitors to tsunami-affected sites in the hope of reminding people of the importance of disaster prevention.
A guide takes visitors on a tour of tsunami-affected areas in Minamisanriku. (Photo: Michiyo Ishida)
Damaged building in Minamisanriku. (Photo: Michiyo Ishida)
The hotel itself was partially damaged.
I stayed at the hotel two months after the disasters. There were 600 evacuees there. There was no running water, no electricity. In one room I visited, there was a seven-member family, including teenagers. They stored dozens of bottles of water for drinking and to clean themselves up.
Today, the hotel is back to business as usual, and they are doing pretty well. They serve their signature fresh seafood dishes, including abalone.
“The view, the warmth of the people, our rich seafood - these are some of the things we’ve been promoting,” said Hotel Kanyo’s general manager, Noriko Abe. Another sign of recovery - fish farming - was visible from the hotel.
As Ms Abe is involved in arts and culture promotion for tsunami victims and their families, some of them often stay at her hotel.
One of them is Toshie Hashidate, an award-winning artist. She was commissioned by Ms Abe to portray the sun she saw the morning after the tsunami. But Hashidate at the time was unable to paint. “I paint the ocean. But the sea took away my brother and many people,” she said. “I was so shocked, I decided to quit.”
But she was asked by many to paint, and so she completed a piece titled “An orange-coloured dawn”. She later revised the work by talking to many others who witnessed the rising sun the day after the tsunami.
Today, she continues to paint with a purpose. “I think about my brother’s three daughters who also died and portray them as three seagulls in all my works,” she said.
The girls were aged eight, five and three when they were swept away. Onagawa, also in Miyagi prefecture, is another town deeply damaged by the tsunamis.
One in 10 lives were lost here and 70 per cent of buildings were destroyed. Six years on, 50 per cent of the apartment complexes for those who lost their homes have been completed.
A housing complex in Onagawa. (Photo: Michiyo Ishida)
At one, built on a former running track, houses close to 400 residents, more than half are over 65 years old. Many live alone.
A cafe has been built inside the complex so they can get together and overcome their loneliness. They finally settled down in this public housing project after moving from gymnasiums, relatives’ homes and a temporary shelter. It has been a trying six years.
Residents at a housing complex in Onagawa. (Photo: Michiyo Ishida)
Harumi Fujimura, 74, lost her son in the tsunami. She spent time evacuating with her husband as her home was destroyed in a blazing fire ignited by the tsunami. “It was two years after the disaster,” she said of her husband’s death. “He was heartbroken and his health deteriorated due to the loss of our son.”
She has a daughter living in Fukushima, but she is trying to live her life alone the best she can while remembering the lives lost.
The disaster did not defeat her or the town Onagawa. Rather than building huge tsunami walls along the coast, which many tsunami-devastated towns are doing, Onagawa is designing its town by gradually raising the level of its ground higher and deeper into the land. That is to ensure that walls will not block the view of tsunamis as it is likely that such disasters will hit the town again, according to statistics based on previous tsunamis.
Reconstruction is aggressive.
Unlike many towns that have not rebuilt their railways swept by the tsunamis, a new train station has been opened. It is designed by the renowned architect Shigeru Ban. Across the station, a busy shopping street sells many stylish items, such as Spanish tiles made by women who lost their homes in the tsunami.
There is a shop that sells bags, camera and phone covers made from wet suit material in Onagawa. Its owner is 40-year-old Toshihiro Takahashi. He used to run the business with his parents, but lost both of them as well as his grandmother in the tsunami. He has since reopened a shop in the new location.
A shop in Onagawa. (Photo: Michiyo Ishida)
“In Onagawa, there are those in their 20s, 30s and 40s who are active and I sense there is energy returning,” he said. The survivor spirit has drawn many from outside Onagawa too.
One of them is 33-year-old Yosuke Kajiya who manufacturers guitars, in particular for heavy metal. He is originally from Kagoshima in southern Japan. “The mood here encourages you to take on new challenges,” he said. “So I thought I could produce good quality products and decided to work out of Onagawa.”
But not everyone is happy with the new Onagawa.
A flower shop keeper who lost her home and business in the tsunami is more sentimental. “I am glad that reconstruction is in progress but it’s not the Onagawa I know,” said Michiko Suzuki. “I have mixed feelings about this.”
Spearheading the new Onagawa is its 44-year-old mayor Yoshiki Suda, who was elected to office after the disasters.
“Since we need to start building this town from zero, our generation has to take on the responsibility, to carry that responsibility if we have to one day anyway,” he said. One of his plans is to restart the Onagawa nuclear plant.
Onagawa is home to three reactors. They were hit hard by the Mar 11, 2011 earthquake, but there was no radiation leak. The plant became a safe haven for local residents. Many evacuated inside the plant.
Why was Fukushima Daiichi crippled and Onagawa’s reactors not? “We checked on documents going back 1,000 years,” he said. “And based on that, we built it on higher ground, which I think was the reason that saved us from going through what Fukushima is experiencing.”
Fukushima Daiichi is owned by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), while Onagawa belongs to Tohoku Electric.
Keiko Shigihara grew up just a few kilometres from Fukushima Daiichi. Many of her family members work there.
“Since a young age we have been told the nuclear plant is safe, but my feeling now is we have all been fooled,” she said.
She has since married into a family which lives in Iitate village, 50km away from the plant - but their lives were nonetheless affected by the disaster.
Keiko and her husband Yoshiyuki outside their greenhouse. (Photo: Michiyo Ishida)
The distance from the nuclear plant however, is not the point. It is the direction the wind was blowing when the reactors exploded, spewing high doses of radioactive substance into the air. Iitate was contaminated. With no indication from the government when their home in Iitate would be safe to return to, Keiko and her husband Yoshiyuki decided to restart their lives in Fukushima city, 60km from the nuclear plant, and regarded safe.
They run their own greenhouses now on a rented piece of land. But it took two years just for them to turn the land to a condition appropriate for farming.
“Wild land was finally turned into farmland,” said Yoshiyuki Shigihara. “If there was a rating for land, this land would have been rated as the second worst.”
They received a subsidy of around US$200,000 from the government. But that was not enough, so they invested another US$100,000 out of their pocket. Only this year have they have begun to sell their products, starting with 300kg of asparagus. In order to sell food grown in the Fukushima area, samples are required to undergo radiation checks at prefecture facilities. Even so, many consumers are not keen to buy products from the region, despite government efforts to show the food is safe.
At the Agricultural Technology Center, they have so far checked 180,000 different items. In 2011, they had hundreds of items exceeding 5,000 becquerel per kg, the level set by the EU as being safe for foodstuff.
The standard was revised to a stringent 100 becquerel per kg in order to show that food from Fukushima was safe to eat. Vice manager of the centre, Kenji Kusano said “radiation in just very few items such as wild herbs, mushrooms, river fish has been detected. But it’s very infrequent”.
Fukushima is the third largest prefecture in Japan. Those areas in the north are regarded as safe from radiation. They publish their radiation level like any other local governments do.
Tsuchiyu Onsen. (Photo: Michiyo Ishida)
Tsuchiyu Onsen, a hot spring resort in the north has been faced with plummeting tourist arrivals. One third of its inns and hotels closed as customers declined from 260,000 a year to less than half after 2011.
To combat the decline, local authorities formed an organisation to get the community back on its feet. They built a geothermal power station to generate power using hot spring water and began selling the power back onto the national grid.
“We thought industrial tourism would create a new Tsuchiyu," said Katsuichi Kato, the head of the organisation.
“So we worked on renewable energy such as utilising our high temperature hot spring and river water. But it was harder than we thought to make it work as a business.”
Funding was hard to come by. However, as part of its commitment to rebuild devastated areas, the government agreed to fund part of the costs, and the rest was raised from loans and sponsorship.
The council is now trying to expand the use of the hot springs to heating green houses, and is preparing to farm fish, calling on universities to join the ambitious challenge. “It will take up around 10 years to turn around,” said Kato. “After we recover our investment, we hope this will be of help to our recovery and regeneration.”
Among the residents, there are those who are still pinning their hopes on tourists returning to the area. The owner of Mukaitaki hotel spent more than a year repairing the damage from the quake, and believes the people have a lot to offer.
“This part of Fukushima is not touristy," said the hotel’s manger Takahara Suzuki, “The people here are simple and of a kind nature, which I think many would understand as its appeal." Tsuchiyu is about 80km away from the crippled nuclear plant, and radiation levels are no higher than any other town or village in Japan.
But the fact that it is located in Fukushima prefecture and constant reports of the problems related to the decommissioning process of the nuclear plant are not helping to draw visitors.