YAMADA, IWATE PREF. – The coastal town of Yamada, Iwate Prefecture, used to have a railway station, cafes, restaurants and medical clinics, but all that remains now are the foundations and twisted iron support bars of buildings.
In the months since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami devastated the town, various reconstruction efforts have made progress: Temporary accommodations have been built for some of the survivors living in shelters, and debris has mostly been cleared up in Yamada’s central commercial and residential areas.
But for the town’s disaster survivors, daily life hasn’t gotten much better or any easier.
Above all, they worry about how their local community will look after it is rebuilt, and wonder what their lives will be like after they move out of their temporary housing in the future.
For elderly residents of Yamada, whose population is steadily aging and declining, one of the most pressing problems is receiving medical care.
Before the disaster, it only took Aiko Domeki, 77, a few minutes by bicycle to visit her doctor, who she used to see three times a week, at a local clinic.
But now, a trip to her doctor entails a 30- to 40-minute walk from her temporary housing, which was built on top of a hill as a safety measure against future tsunami.
As a result, Domeki, who has high blood pressure, only visits the clinic around once a month.
The tsunami swept away Domeki’s home and all her belongings, and in the immediate aftermath of the disasters she went to live with her son and his family in Sendai.
But few people understood her local dialect and she also had difficulties getting around in Sendai — the biggest city in the Tohoku region. In addition, the great care and kindness of her son’s family made her feel like a burden, and she soon decided to return to Yamada.
In April, she moved into prefabricated housing in the town. Her daily routine includes three meals a day, taking a bath and walking in the hilly neighborhood. She said she is looking forward to picking mushrooms in the area in fall.
Domeki feels a deep attachment to Yamada. “As I have been living here for about 30 years, this place has become a part of me,” she said.
But she is trying not to dwell on the past. “No matter how much I fret over (the past), nothing good can come of this,” she said. “Things can only get better.”
Hiromi Kikuchi, a 27-year-old resident of Yamada, lost her younger brother, 24, and home in the March tsunami. “I can’t understand how time has passed so quickly (since the disasters),” she said. “Our town has completely changed, and our lives along with it.”
But no one in her family has suggested moving away from the town. Kikuchi said her younger sister, a junior high school student, feels it is up to her generation to work hard and create a new Yamada.
Kikuchi complained about the inconveniences of living in temporary housing, such as the lack of a nearby convenience store, bank or ATM, or even a mailbox. If she wants to get anything done, she has to walk 30 minutes to the town office.
She also hopes a temporary voting station will be built near her new accommodations, as she doesn’t want to have to pay for a taxi to travel to the nearest one to vote.
Children living in temporary accommodations are also having a tough time, said Kikuchi, who has a 3-year-old daughter. For example, there is no playground or equipment for kids to use near her housing, forcing them to play indoors — which for some neighbors is a nuisance.
Kikuchi also called on the ruling and opposition parties to stop bickering and instead work together to rebuild devastated areas.
Local business owners are also struggling in wrecked coastal areas.
Takuo Sasaki, a 64-year-old resident of Otsuchi, also in Iwate Prefecture, reopened his electric appliance store in a prefabricated building in July but has had few customers.
He says the Japanese Red Cross Society, which provided survivors with home electric appliances for their temporary accommodations, unintentionally robbed him of his customers.
Most of his business since reopening has involved installing loudspeakers and amplifiers for last Sunday’s Iwate Prefectural Assembly election, he said.
Six months after the catastrophe, there are no signs of reconstruction in the commercial area his business is located in, even though most buildings were either destroyed or severely damaged.
Nonetheless, Sasaki is opposed to moving his residential area to higher — and safer — ground.
“It will take decades to relocate the neighborhood,” he said. “Our community would disappear because people will have already moved out (by the time it takes to relocate to higher ground).”
Despite a chronic heart problem and breathing difficulties, Sasaki is determined to remain in the area and keep running his business.
“Since I was born and raised here, I will remain here until I die,” he said. “I will not let the tsunami defeat me.”
In July, five elderly volunteers from Mie Prefecture, all in their 70s, traveled to Otsuchi and spent two days helping clean up his tsunami-damaged home, pumping out mud and water, and removing furniture and his family’s Buddhist altar.
“They were so friendly and did so many things for me,” Sasaki said. “I feel an indescribable sense of gratitude (toward the volunteers).”
Toshiaki Fujimoto, a priest from Amaterasu-mioya Shrine in Otsuchi, started visiting nearby shelters after the March calamities to try to help survivors cope with their trauma.
Fujimoto, 61, attempted to ease the anxiety and depression many evacuees were experiencing by telling jokes, but he said that while some would smile he could sense their lack of joy below the surface.
Some 750 households were in his local community, but more than 300 homes were damaged by the tsunami, along with his shrine’s torii gate.
After the shelters close, Fujimoto fears some evacuees, who were staying there together with their old neighbors, could experience difficulty coping with life on their own at their new temporary accommodations.
He also expressed deeper concerns over the future of his community.
“People who survived the disaster are really having a hard time — they are not sure how they will secure new housings, or even if they can remain in the town,” he said.
Emperor thanks Colombia
Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko met with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his wife in Tokyo on Tuesday and expressed gratitude for Bogota’s support in the aftermath of the March disasters, the Imperial Household Agency said.
“We are very grateful that we received relief supplies from the Colombian government,” the Emperor was quoted as telling Santos.
Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba meanwhile held talks with his Colombian counterpart, Maria Angela Holguin, and agreed that the two countries will launch a joint study on a free-trade agreement, according to government officials.
The meeting with Holguin was the first time Genba, who was appointed foreign minister Sept. 2, has held face-to-face bilateral talks with an overseas counterpart.