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.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
Schoolgirls observed a minute of silence for victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on Sept. 11, six months after the area was devastated.

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.

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.

"They should think about building the towns again on higher ground, not in the places that could get hit by another tsunami," says Toshifumi Takada, a professor at Tohoku University.

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.

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-foot 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 memorial service from other areas, as Minami-Sanriku remains largely uninhabitable. Thousands of tons of debris has been piled into mountains of wood, earth, metal, and concrete along the waterfront. But there is no sign of rebuilding.

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 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 the service was held, is now home to a fraction of the townspeople who lost their homes.

Kaeko Gyoba and her husband were in a club for Minami-Sanriku's elderly residents when the earthquake struck. They made it up to the fourth floor as the waves swept through the stories below. It was one of the few buildings spared in the 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 received, some of those still struggling to rebuild their lives say their frustrations are compounded by the feeling that they are gradually fading from public consciousness.

"What the people want more than anything at all is the sense that other people – the rest of Japan – are keeping a careful watch over them and are ready to help," says Yuka Kusano, leader of the Miyagi Jonet aid group for victims. "Instead, they fear that the rest of Japan is watching the baseball and comedies on TV and have forgotten about them."

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 – who resigned in part because of heavy criticism 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, who resigned only eight days after being sworn in when the media accused him of insensitive behavior on his first trip to the disaster zone.

"The politicians in Tokyo are fools; their behavior is simply unbelievable. We don't expect much from them. We have to do this ourselves," says Tohoku University's Professor Takada.

It is not only outsiders whose memories of the disasters appear to be fading; some residents of the northeast are starting to worry that the tight bonds that bound survivors are fraying.

"At the time of the disaster," says Ms. Kusano, "acts of goodness gave people a new perspective. The next stage was people helping each other because they didn't have anything," she says.

"There was a sense of community. But now as some semblance of normality is returning," she says, "there are signs that all that has been forgotten."

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