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Japan’s 3/11 Disaster Endures in Broken Families

Japan’s 3/11 Disaster Endures in Broken Families
Chikako Abe's grandparents Imiko Hayashi, left, Kazushige Hayashi, center, and their daughter Yukari Abe stand at the site of where her house stood before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Minamisoma, Fukushima. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Chikako Abe’s desk is decorated with flowers and candy at her school in Minamisoma, a reminder of a 17-year-old life cut short a year ago. Instead of attending a graduation ceremony this month, her family will pray tomorrow at the ruins of a house where the sea snatched away the lives of Chikako, her father and two grandparents.

“She was always the center of our family,” said Chikako’s mother Yukari Abe, 43, fighting back tears next to the concrete foundations where the house stood. “The year has gone by so fast, even now I feel that she will come back.”

Her mother and two sisters, who survived because they were visiting a doctor’s clinic beyond the reach of the tsunami, will offer flowers, chocolates and incense. Scores of similar memorials will be held along hundreds of kilometers of Japan’s Pacific coastline to mark a disaster that left 15,854 dead and 3,272 missing.

The magnitude-9 earthquake that struck at 2:46 p.m. triggered a tsunami that in just 60 minutes laid waste to entire towns, engulfed four-story hospitals, left hundreds of thousands of homeless and crippled a nuclear plant.

Many memorials will be private and distinctly personal -- prayers and incense on the thousands of scarred, empty plots where houses lined the previously picturesque coastline. Others will be larger attempts to acknowledge the scale of a national disaster. For a day, families, communities, companies and politicians will be united in grief.

Simmering Conflicts

That unity belies the conflicts hampering Japan’s recovery from the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster as local and central governments fight over budgets, cities and towns over consolidation and rival companies over new regulations.

There are also widening social divisions as the legacy of 3/11 takes its toll. Grief for friends and loved ones is tainted with guilt at having survived. The relief of not losing everything is tinged by envy of those who did and are now showered with handouts. Gratitude toward the army, which in many areas arrived before tsunami waters receded, is offset by resentment at the government’s bungling of recovery efforts.

About 150 kilometers (90 miles) north of Chikako’s house, Koichi Tanimura stands on a hilltop near his home overlooking the fishing port of Kesennuma.

Tanimura can see the rooftop from where a military helicopter rescued his son the morning after the tsunami. Below is the city where oil from damaged fuel tankers washed ashore, creating an inferno that millions watched on their televisions on the morning of March 12.

Washed Up

About a kilometer inland, a fishing trawler is surrounded by the empty plots scraped clean of buildings that are still the dominant feature of tsunami towns.

“They’re talking about keeping it there as a memorial to the disaster,” said Tanimura, 59, who had a stroke earlier this year that he blames on stress from the disaster. “That means we’ll have to remember the tsunami every day.”

In the damaged business district next to Kesennuma’s port, the city has set up a temporary ‘shotengai,’ or shopping street, for displaced restaurants. Customers aren’t coming, though, because the community’s economy no longer functions, said Mikie Onodera, whose sushi restaurant, Isshin, is up the street.

“Even those who can afford to eat out are staying home because they don’t want to be seen spending money,” she said.

Free Housing

Aid is also being distributed in a way that prevents recovery, Onodera said. Food items, clothes and other goods are handed out, so residents no longer need to shop locally. That strangles the economies of small towns where businesses have relied on mutual trade for decades.

“Money isn’t circulating,” she said.

About 30 minutes’ drive along the coast, the town of Rikuzentakata faced the full fury of the tsunami as it sits on a wide bay facing the earthquake’s epicenter 130 kilometers offshore. Most of Rikuzentakata was obliterated and more than 1,700 people out of a population of 24,000 were killed.

“We’re really only reaching the starting point for rebuilding,” said Mayor Futoshi Toba. “Reconstruction money hasn’t been available.”

The central government is holding up progress, he said. The initial decision to put the disaster recovery office in the prefectural capital of Morioka three hours’ drive away delays problem solving, while the Reconstruction Agency only began operations on Feb. 10, he said.

Foreign Help

“If I can’t get companies here within one or two years to provide jobs, they will go elsewhere,” Toba, who lost his wife in the tsunami, said in an interview in his temporary office last month.

Toba was successful in getting Tokyo-based restaurant operator Watami Co. to set up a call center in the city, creating 100 jobs, yet the town’s own fisheries cooperative opposes his plan to attract private companies to the industry because of competition fears, he said.

Toba has also approached foreign governments and charities for funds, including the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and the United Nations. The Singapore Red Cross Society is building an S$11 million ($8.7 million) community center in Rikuzentakata.

That’s an initiative that for some residents of damaged towns along the Tohoku coast only highlights the central government’s failure to properly distribute aid to its own citizens.

“The tsunami happened to all of us on the east coast,” said Onodera in Kesennuma. “Everyone should receive the same assistance.”

Faltering Farms

Rebuilding after the tsunami has exposed the economic fragility of Japan’s rural areas, which have been plagued by aging, shrinking populations and faltering farms and fisheries for decades.

While places such as Rikuzentakata try to build new industries, most towns plan to revive what was already failing. Some have little choice.

“When it’s all you’ve done your whole life, it’s difficult to just find something else to do,” fisherman Kiyoshi Kanno, 50, said in an interview. “I’ve had to contemplate a life on government benefits,” he said on the dock in Kesennuma next to his 10-meter vessel that was at sea when the tsunami struck.

“People in Tohoku have very good reason to feel abandoned,” Jeff Kingston, editor of “Natural Disaster and Nuclear Crisis in Japan: Response and Recovery after Japan’s 3/11,” said in an interview. “While all the arguments just continue, the people are left to their own devices.”

‘Overcome by Depression’

About 90 kilometers further up the coast from Kesennuma in Miyako, which was battered by the biggest tsunami wave at 39 meters (128 feet), shop owner Junichi Kawabe runs his general store in a temporary building, even though sales are 30 percent of pre-quake levels.

“If you stop to think about whether it makes sense, you’ll be overcome by depression. All you can do is deal with what’s in front of you, then drink sake and sleep,” he said.

The fracturing of communities into temporary housing villages in other locations will have a lasting social impact, said Daniel Aldrich, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Purdue University and author of “Site Fights: Divisive Facilities and Civil Society in Japan and the West.”

“These people have their own space now rather than the less private shelters, but they are isolated and physically farther away from health care, stores and their friends,” Aldrich, who’s in Japan studying how people cope with disasters, wrote in an e-mail. “Isolation and a breakdown of social networks can be a disaster themselves.”

Communities will be fractured even longer in Fukushima, where the nuclear disasters occurred. The meltdown of three reactors in Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi station spread radiation as far away as the U.S. and prompted Japan’s government to consider evacuating the 30 million people in Metropolitan Tokyo.

Uninhabitable Land

What the government later called its “worst-case scenario” never happened. Still, about 160,000 people were evacuated from homes near the plant, where an area half the size of New York City is likely to be uninhabitable for decades.

Critics including Greenpeace International argued that based on international norms since the Chernobyl accident in 1986, the one million people living in Fukushima city should also have been evacuated due to high levels of radiation.

Interviews with Fukushima residents show widespread mistrust of the government on issues including radiation readings and the safety of fruit and vegetables from the prefecture. For many, the decision is boiling down to whether to stay or find new homes.

“Trust in the authorities is completely lost,” Shuji Shimizu, vice president at Fukushima University, said in an interview. “Skepticism may be making citizens more proactive, but they are also fragmented and confused.”

‘Guinea Pigs’

The government budgeted 78.2 billion yen ($1 billion) for research and equipment to monitor Fukushima citizens’ radiation exposure, yet many refuse to take part in a program they say makes them ‘guinea pigs’ in a state-sponsored health study.

Miharu Takamura, a mother of two children in Minamisoma, says she doesn’t even open mail from the government. On March 14 when a reactor building blew up in the Dai-Ichi plant, the 43-year-old stood in line outside for five hours to use a public phone in an area later rated as too contaminated by radiation to inhabit.

Health fears have also divided Fukushima families. In May, Rika Ogawara, 29, left her husband and moved out of the region with their three-year-old daughter, following repeated quarrels about radiation dangers to their child, she said. Her husband, an employee of Tohoku Electric Power Co., wouldn’t leave his job, she said.

Katsunobu Sakurai, the mayor of Minamisoma, said the city’s residents are divided and confused.

Beyond Imagination

“Most people still can’t pull themselves together after an accident that they never imagined would happen,” he said in an interview in the city last month.

Residents of the town of Futaba 3 kilometers from the Fukushima plant were forced to evacuate. About 500 people from the town now live together in an abandoned high school in Kazo, north of Tokyo, about 140 kilometers from home.

“The elderly, those living alone and those who cannot find jobs are here,” Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa said in an interview in January at the school, where a bulletin board advertises a job at a Japanese restaurant in Russia.

Pulling Together

“It is important for us to be together because everyone is a Futaba resident,” Idogawa said. “We must care for them.”

Examples of residents and civic groups ignoring the government and doing things themselves can be seen all over the Tohoku region.

Minamisoma residents set up a decontamination service to accelerate the radiation cleanup with the help of academics and companies. Their work so far includes homes and buildings, including the Yotsuba nursery school.

“You can no longer count on the government or Tokyo Electric,” said the nursery’s 45-year-old Deputy Principal Yoshiyuki Kondo. “You have to do something yourself. No one will feed you just because you have your mouth open.”

For the 160-year-old Hisiya sake brewery in Miyako, private investment stepped into the funding void after the tsunami washed away its giant metal drums for fermenting rice. The fifth-generation owners couldn’t afford to rebuild without assistance, said manager Tetsuo Saito.

Private Help

Help came from the Tokyo-based Music Securities Inc., which raised 12 million yen from 300 investors to help rebuild the brewery.

“Had we waited for money from the government, we would have been too late to produce sake this year,” Saito said in an interview at the brewery, where new drums are fermenting this year’s batch. “It means a lot to the town to have its only sake producer up and running. People who visit Miyako either buy fish or sake. It’s part of our identity.”

Sitting in his imported liquor store in a temporary building in Kamaishi on the Tohoku coast, Kenji Sano said it’s the third time he or his family have had to start over again since World War II, due to U.S. bombings, earthquakes or tsunamis, each time without government assistance.

Sano reopened his store in November and sold about 800 bottles the first month, in part due to pent-up demand, he said. He said those figures aren’t sustainable and he doesn’t expect to get his business back to where it was.

‘Do Your Best’

“I worry that people are hanging around and waiting for help to arrive,” he said. “This is the time to do your best. People need to be in charge of their own recovery.”

In Minamisoma, Chikako Abe’s surviving family are finding it difficult to move on, said her maternal grandparents Imiko and Kazushige Hayashi. The 67-year-old grandfather leads a farmers group trying to recover land lost to the tsunami, while living in the shadow of the Fukushima plant.

It’s the loss of life that hurts the most, he said. Hayashi searched for Chikako for over a month before finding her in a body bag laid out among dozens of others on the floor of the school gymnasium where she once played volleyball.

“I’ve been consumed by anger over what I’ve lost,” he said. “But the anniversary will make us more determined to keep the family together, we have to rebuild and take every opportunity to be with our other granddaughters.”

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