As memorial services were held across the northeast coastal regions to mark six months since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, recovery from the vast disaster is proving to be painfully slow in many places.
Some of the worst-hit towns still resemble wasteland. More than 80,000 people remain in temporary accommodation. The nuclear crisis at Fukushima triggered by the tsunami is ongoing, and the new industry minister resigned over the weekend after making disparaging comments about the city.
“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 a service attended by more than 2,200 in the town’s Bayside Arena. His voice faltered as he spoke about the many friends and colleagues lost on March 11.
Mr. Sato had been in the town hall along with 130 staff when the tsunami struck. He was one of only 10 survivors when the 50-ft. waves came across the roof of the building and washed away 20 of the 30 people who had made it that far.
Most of the residents of the town returned for the service from other areas, as Minami-Sanriku remains largely uninhabitable. Thousands of tons of debris were piled into mountains of wood, earth, metal, and concrete along the waterfront.
A boat rests on the second floor of the former city hospital, facing away from the sea, where the tsunami deposited it as the huge wave pulled back to where it came from after obliterating 95 percent of the town.
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Red steel girders are all that is left of the town’s disaster response center where a young local government worker, Miki Endo, famously stayed at her post sounding an alarm and urging residents to evacuate, until the tsunami engulfed the building and she went missing.
People came from as far as Tokyo to pay their respects at the small makeshift shrine that has appeared in the shell of the building, dedicated to Ms. Endo’s sacrifice. Some residents of Minami-Sanriku want the remains of the building to be turned into a permanent monument to her heroism.
A cluster of 20 prefab housing units behind the Bayside Arena, where Sunday morning’s service was held, is now home to a fraction of the town’s people who lost their homes on March 11.
Kaeko Gyoba was in a club for Minami-Sanriku’s elderly residents with her husband when the earthquake struck. They made it up to the fourth floor and were spared as the waves swept through the three stories below, but left the building standing when the waves receded. It was one of the few buildings spared in the entire town.
“We spent two nights up there until a Self-Defense Force helicopter was able to land at the elementary school nearby and get us out,” says Ms. Gyoba.
She stayed with relatives near Tokyo after the disaster, but she returned last month to be with the rest of her family, who now occupy five of the small, flimsy-looking temporary houses.
“It’s very tough living here, I just can’t get used to it. There’s nowhere in the town to shop, you need a car to go anywhere, and I worry how cold it will be in the winter,” says Gyoba. “And none of the family have jobs now. They all worked on the ocean, farming seaweed and oysters. Everything was swept away.”
Fading from public consciousness?
Despite the nationwide attention that the six-month memorials have been receiving, some of those still struggling to put their lives back together feel they are gradually fading from people’s consciousness in the rest of the country. There is also anger at politicians in Tokyo who they see as more concerned with partisan fighting than focusing on helping the region’s recovery.
Even the leadership contest to replace former Prime Minister Naoto Kan – heavily criticized for his handling of the crisis – was seen as a self-indulgent distraction by many in the region. His replacement, Yoshihiko Noda, has already lost his trade and industry minister, only eight days after being sworn in.
On his first visit to the disaster zone last week, Trade Minister Yoshio Hachiro joked with a reporter accompanying him on the trip about infecting him with radiation by wiping his jacket on the journalist after coming out of the no-go zone around the Fukushima nuclear plant. The minister went on to describe the area around the stricken facility as, “really like a town of death.”
Hachiro’s behavior provoked outrage not just among residents of Fukushima, but across Japan’s north-east coast. For many, the minister’s attitude betrayed a lack of real empathy from Tokyo politicians with the victims of the triple disasters, and his tearful apology afterward convinced few.