Farmers look for signs of hope six months after Japan's tsunami

Healthy grass and refurbished houses along the coast hard-hit by Japan's March 11 tsunami represent the frail beginnings of a return to normalcy.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

“This is a rice paddy!”

Chie Nihei is standing beside a field of chest-high weeds piled with the remains of destroyed houses and a single gray van at her farm in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture. Six months after the March 11 tsunami inundated her neighborhood, she still seems surprised by the state of the once-orderly fields where she and her husband have grown vegetables and rice for 30 years. Since the tsunami, they have been unable to grow any crops.

Inside their immaculate post-and-beam farmhouse, newly refurbished with shiny floors and tatami mats, Tsugio says the ocean brought thick layers of salty, debris-laden sediment – but also an unexpected gift of nutrients to his fields.

“I thought nothing would grow, but the grass is brilliant green and very healthy,” he says. The green grass and the refurbished house represent a still-shaky hope that this devastated community, and dozens like it along the coast, can once again become pleasant, prosperous places to live and work.

Nevertheless, he is concerned about radiation from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant about 50 miles away, and other contaminants that may have washed in from the industrial port nearby. He estimates it will take another year to finish restoring the farm.

Of 120 households in their neighborhood, the Niheis say half have yet to return.

“It’s flat around here so you can’t escape from a tsunami. People are uneasy and don’t want to come back,” he says. But Chie says her family is determined to get back to work.

“We have no income, and the money from the government isn’t enough. We’re trying to plant some vegetables for the fall. We just want to move forward,” she says.

About an hour up the coast in the heavily damaged city of Ishinomaki, Toshiyuki Hirayama and his wife, Mitsuko, are also trying to restart their cucumber farm.

Mitsuko says the couple spent the past three months cleaning debris from their fields and scraping off the top eight inches of soil. But when they finally tested the groundwater as a last step, they discovered it was too salty to plant anything.

“We worked so hard for three months, and it was still no good. Now all we can do is wait and see what will happen,” she says. All of the couple’s farm machinery was ruined by the salt water and the oil that washed in from nearby factories.

"It’s already been six months, and we haven’t gotten any help from the government with restarting our farm. We grew up farming, and we want to continue. We just need a little help,” she says.

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