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Japan tsunami, two years on
Publication Date : 11-03-2013
Two years after Japan's catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, many long to return home, but can't
Today marks the second anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake.
The catastrophic earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011 left more than 18,500 people dead or missing, and more than 35,000 people have since left 24 cities, towns and villages on the Pacific coast in hard-hit Miyagi and Iwate prefectures.
Many of these people long to return, but are unable to do so due to a lack of jobs.
"I would return to my hometown in an instant if only I could find a job and earn a livelihood there," Hisato Yoshida said in the living room of his apartment. His newly-built house in the Akahama district of Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, was washed away in the tsunami.
After the disaster, the five members of the Yoshida family moved to Hanamaki, which is about 70 kilometres inland, in the prefecture.
Yoshida, 33, had previously worked as a deep-sea fishery seaman, a job that provided an unstable income. In Hanamaki, he started a new job as a driver for a home-delivery service along with his wife, 37.
With a 3-year-old son to care for, along with aging parents who have been prone to illness, the couple has yet to repay 20 million yen (about US$2 million) in loans they borrowed for the house that was swept away.
"I can't help but rely on my wife to support our living expenses," Yoshida said. "I want to move back, but there are few jobs in coastal areas that suit women."
70 per cent of Otsuchi businesses gone
Because there are few hospitals in Otsuchi where his parents can receive treatment, Yoshida and his family intend to continue living in Hanamaki.
The tsunami submerged 52 per cent of the town's urban areas. According to the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, business facilities such as seafood processing factories in the town have fallen by more than 70 per cent, the largest decline among municipalities in the three prefectures hardest hit by the disaster. The result has been a sharp drop in local employment opportunities.
Otsuchi's population has officially dropped by 20 per cent from pre-disaster levels. This is second only to the 22 per cent recorded by the town of Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture.
However, a recent survey by the Otsuchi government showed that the actual percentage of residents who left after the disaster has reached 26 per cent, including those who have not yet registered with the municipalities they now live in.
Furthermore, about 4,900 people, or about 40 per cent of Otsuchi's residents, still have no choice but to live in cramped temporary housing.
The town government has made securing housing for disaster victims its highest priority through such efforts as preparing housing sites in elevated areas. But town authorities are so stretched that they struggle to take effective steps that would lure businesses to Otsuchi.
Some residents have decided to move away in consideration of their children who have settled in at schools in areas where they relocated.
Otsuchi Mayor Yutaka Ikarigawa is well aware of the enormity of the challenge of giving his town a bright future.
"There's no quick remedy that will halt the outflow of residents," he said.
Feasible plans a must
In the town of Yamamoto, Miyagi Prefecture, the tsunami wiped out the station on the JR Joban Line and tracks that hugged the coastline. Plans are afoot to rebuild them further inland.
The Yamamoto government has drafted a proposal to convert the town into a "compact city" by clustering the bulk of its residential areas near the future site of the station.
Experts have praised the plan as an example of "a new level of advanced urban planning capable of continuous development." However, the town must first contend with the continuous exodus of its population.
One major obstacle is the fact that service on the Joban Line will not resume until after the new station is built, which is expected to take at least four years.
Yamamoto was a "commuter town" before the disaster, as it was a 40-minute train ride from Sendai Station. Deprived of that convenience, the town's population now stands at 13,600 - a drop of 18 per cent compared with before the disaster. The figure virtually matches the projection for 2018 made by the local government shortly after the March 11, 2011, disaster. However, this decline has been reached five years earlier than estimated.
Shoichi Isobe, chief of the town's Nakahama district, said these plans will come to nothing unless the population drain can be reversed.
"If the population outflow continues, the plans for the new city will end up as just wishful thinking," said Isobe.
According to Hokkaido University Prof. Suguru Mori, an expert in city planning, these municipalities are in a very tough situation.
"It's cruel to tell people they should stay in their hometown despite the slim chances of finding jobs and schools for children there," he said. "Disaster victims have been forced to put up with difficult living circumstances in evacuation areas for the past two years with no prospects for the future, as proposals have consistently fallen short.
"Local governments in disaster-hit areas must not only provide attractive future visions for these communities, but also come up with specifics about the feasibility of these plans."