OSHIKA, Miyagi Pref. — Survivors of the March 11 magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami are expressing reservations about returning to their homes, raising the prospect of already depopulated communities turning into ghost towns.
“I have no desire to live here anymore,” said Masashi Abe, 54, as he and his son, Kohei, 17, looked around the wasteland that was once their home in Ikohama on Miyagi Prefecture’s Oshika Peninsula. “About 35 years ago, our home was destroyed by another tsunami and we only recently finished paying off that loan. I couldn’t face starting all over knowing that the same thing might happen again.”
Similar sentiments are expressed in communities up and down the coast.
In Nobiru, a coastal village that falls under the jurisdiction of the city of Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, Hiromi Onodera and her husband, Kenji, were adamant they would not return to their home, which was completely flattened by the tsunami.
“My father was born here and has lived here for 70 years, but even he is scared to come back,” said Onodera, 40, who lost her 3-month-old daughter, Yume, when the force of the tsunami washed them away.
“We are all conscious of predictions of another quake that has yet to come. When it does, we will be back to square one once more,” she added.
In the neighboring community of Tona, resident Makoto Takahashi, 36, expressed similar concerns.
“The thought of another tsunami coming means I could never come back,” said Takahashi, a crane operator who returned to his home to find the body of his 77-year-old mother lying by what used to be the entrance to their home. “This tsunami was a monster. I can’t see how anyone would want to risk going through something like that again in their life.”
A local government official charged with coordinating cleanup operations said another practical consideration that may hinder Tona’s rejuvenation was the sinking by up to 1 meter of the ground following the March 11 temblor and the total destruction of the seawall.
“It’s not impossible for this area to recover, but this complicates things considerably,” said Teruo Kijima. “It could take several years just to rebuild the seawall, and without that line of defense, I wonder if residents close to the sea front will want to come back.”
Miyagi assemblyman Kazuhiro Nitta expressed concern that the psychological barrier may result in residents seeking new homes on higher ground.
“The tsunami in some places was between 15 and 20 meters high, so it’s natural that people will not want to return to lower-lying areas,” he said. “Some fishing industries have been wiped out as well, so even if they did return, there would be no job to go back to.”
Akio Nishizawa, a professor of economics at Tohoku University, said the almost total destruction of some coastal communities means that no one knows exactly how long it will take to rebuild them — if they ever are.
“Coastal communities here already have experienced the twin problems of aging populations and younger people leaving for the cities,” he said. “A hundred years ago they might have been rebuilt, but now I’m not so sure. This might be the final straw.”
Another practical consideration is the cost of rebuilding to individuals.
According to an official of Tokio Marine and Nichido Fire Insurance Co., no house in Japan is covered by standard fire insurance in the case of a quake or tsunami, although “earthquake insurance,” which is jointly operated by insurance companies and the government, covers between 30 and 50 percent of damage. No vehicles or wreckers’ costs are covered by either type of insurance, the official added.
Despite these obstacles, there are those who express a desire to return.
Masaki Ogata, 62, whose family has lived near the waterfront in Nobiru for 14 generations, said while he has given up on the possibility of re-creating the Japanese-style home and extensive gardens — Japanese on one side, English rose garden on the other — he hopes to rebuild on a smaller scale.
“To build what we had before would cost around ¥40 million, but as we are only insured for half of that we will have to settle for something smaller,” said Ogata, a retired furniture salesman. “If I was younger, I would probably move away to higher ground. But this is home and I plan to stay here.”