Japan earthquake leaves ghost towns in its wake

For large swathes of the coast hit hardest by the March 11 Japan earthquake and tsunami, a daunting rebuilding effort is exacerbated by years of falling birth rates and a youth exodus to big cities.

Koji Sasahara/AP
A truck drives by a tsunami warning sign (top l.) in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, northern Japan, Tuesday, March 22, following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami which devastated a vast area of northeastern Pacific coast of Japan.

The Japan earthquake has accelerated the decline of small cities and villages, experts say, and will likely leave behind a collection of ghost towns along the tsunami-devastated northeast coast.

Amid concern of future natural disasters, many communities that were already shrinking due to aging and depopulation now look set to never be rebuilt.

"One hundred years ago, these villages would have been rebuilt, but now I am not at all sure," says Akio Nishizawa, an economics professor at Sendai's Tohoku University. "Coastal communities here have already experienced the problem of young people leaving for the cities and this might be the final straw."

For large swathes of the coast hit hardest by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, a daunting rebuilding effort is exacerbated by years of falling birth rates and youth exodus to big cities. The government, under economic strain even before the disaster, now faces the question of how to balance efforts between rebuilding the economy and rebuilding people's shattered communities.

“There’s nothing here for me now. I don’t want to live here anymore,” says 17-year-old Kohei Abe, whose father works in the local fishing industry. “I go to high school in Sendai [the nearest big city] because there’s nowhere to go around here. I was in Sendai when the earthquake hit, and I came back here, and there was nothing left.”

Mr. Abe says that because the people in his village, Nonohama, had experienced tsunami damage before, they knew to flee to higher ground when they felt the earthquake. Seven of the 90 villagers died, and no houses are left standing. His father, Masashi, says he has just finished paying off his debts from a tsunami 34 years ago: “That’s it for me now. I’m not going to start again."

Economic aftershocks on small towns

Long before the March 11 tsunami, the coastal village of Nonohama had already been merged with four other villages to form Kobura, a new municipality, a pattern seen across Japan as the population of smaller towns has fallen. Between 2000 and 2005, the number of people living in small towns and cities in Japan fell by 10 million. The Japanese working population peaked at 87 million in 1995 and by 2050 is predicted to be lower than 50 million.

“For the smaller towns with older populations, there’s a good chance many of them won’t recover; they just won’t be rebuilt,” says Koichi Hachi, chief economist at the NLI Research Institute in Tokyo. “It’s not just a question of buildings though, if some people leave, the population will drop so far they won’t be able to survive as towns.”

These towns have more to contend with than a shrinking workforce. With supply lines and industry disrupted, gas and electricity in short supply, and a population nervous about radiation, town finances are suffering. When the relief efforts turn to reconstruction, the rebuilding required will certainly boost economic activity – though this will inevitably worsen Japan’s already dire public finances.

“After the Kobe earthquake in Japan, the economy had recovered to normal activity levels within a month – though the scale of this is much larger,” says Mr. Hachi of NLI. “It really depends on how badly the electricity supply is damaged by the problems at the nuclear plants. If there are continuing electricity shortages then this will definitely harm the economy.”

Nuclear plants underpin communities

As authorities struggle to cool the overheated reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which is leaking radiation, the merits of nuclear power are being debated here. But discussions have often overlooked how many villages along the northeast coast are almost completely dependent on such power plants, not just for the employment they provide, but for the subsidies they provide as compensation for having the facilities located there.

“Some of the towns around the Fukushima nuclear power plant may also disappear, especially if the situation gets worse there,” he says. “That’s their biggest immediate problem.”

The Onagawa nuclear power station provides such subsidies to Kobura, and the facility – which shut down safely when the earthquake hit – is being used as a temporary evacuation center for locals. However, even the subsidies may not be enough to tempt the local fishermen to rebuild their communities there.

"These towns and villages have been completely destroyed and no one has any idea how long it will take to rebuild them – if they decide to do so at all," says Professor Nishizawa of Tohoku University.

Farther up the coast in Kamaishi City, the decline of the steel industry had already reduced the population by more than half to around 45,000. The city was proud of its Kamaishi Tsunami Protection Breakwater; when completed in 2009, the 6,400-foot long construction was the world’s deepest at 207-feet. The 14 foot tsunami waves rolled over the top of it and destroyed the harbor’s fishing fleet, as well as its boat repair and steel yards.

“I’m not sure this can ever really be rebuilt,” says an old man, his eyes full of tears as he surveys the wreckage of what used to be his waterfront workplace.

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