Japan's tsunami tragedy: already fading from sight?
More than six months after a quake triggered a devastating tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan, there is still much left to do – and a fear that no one’s listening.
Tokyo and MinamiSanriku, Japan
In the immediate aftermath of March 11, when Japan was struck by the most powerful earthquake and tsunami in its history, there was a feeling that the country had changed irrevocably. As images of entire communities being swept away were burned into the national consciousness, many believed this represented a "year zero" for Japan, a chance to break from decades of economic stagnation and political malaise.Skip to next paragraph
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Six months later, few still hold such high hopes and there is little sign of the promised rebuilding of homes and lives for those in the disaster zones. Some feel that the rest of the country, including the Tokyo political class, is already forgetting.
The scale of the disaster remains hard to comprehend. At 2:46 p.m. on that Friday in March, a 250-mile-long and 100-mile-wide section of the Pacific tectonic plate suddenly crashed under the plate on which Japan sits. This violent shifting of the Earth's crust moved Japan's main island eight feet in the direction of the US, knocked the Earth off its axis by four to six inches, and shortened the length of a day by 1.8 microseconds. It also set off the tsunami that was to batter more than 500 miles of Japan's northeast coast, reach heights of up to 130 feet, and penetrate as far as six miles inland.
The tsunami claimed nearly 20,000 lives (including the 4,057 people who remain missing half a year later), and set off the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which operators are still struggling to get into a cold shutdown.
The total bill for reconstruction is estimated to be as much as 23 trillion yen ($300 billion) or 6 percent of Japan's gross domestic product, though this will be spread out over five years, at least. With tax revenues down following the disaster, a rise in the already huge national debt – currently around 200 percent of GDP – is inevitable.
While the central government has been criticized for not distributing funds quickly enough, of the 31 municipalities that suffered the most damage, only four have final reconstruction plans.
"Nobody outside the Ministry of Finance knows exactly how much money has been distributed, or of the money that has gone out to local authorities, how much has actually been spent," says Jun Okumura, senior adviser at the Eurasia Group. "It's very frustrating."
There is money being issued, though: 1.2 trillion yen ($15.7 billion) in insurance money has already been paid out, plus the compensation money from Tokyo Electric Power company, the operator of Fukushima, and aid from local and central government, says Mr. Okumura.
Still, the recovery from the vast triple disaster is proving to be painfully slow in many places.
Some of the worst-hit towns still resemble a wasteland. The quake and tsunami left an estimated 22.6 million tons of rubble in the coastal towns. Out of that, nearly half has been moved to temporary storage. Much of the power has been restored to towns and cities, but power outages remain common. Out of the nearly half a million people displaced, more than 80,000 people remain in temporary accommodations. And the debate over whether to rebuild towns in the same locations continues.
Though that may seem like a good idea to outsiders, it has been difficult to accomplish given that even in towns such as Minami-Sanriku – where 95 percent of the buildings were swept away – many residents, still very much healing their emotional wounds, are conflicted.
Minami-Sanriku: largely uninhabitable
On the morning of Sept. 11, more than 2,200 people traveled to attend a memorial service in the town's Bayside Arena. "We pray for the lost lives and for the missing to be found as early as possible. We hope that people can return to this town and we can hear cheerful voices again," said Jin Sato, the mayor of Minami-Sanriku, at the service. His voice faltered as he spoke about the many friends and colleagues who were lost.