Wiped out city waits for Tokyo to wake up

Rikuzentakata mayor wonders when 'power games' will stop

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

It has been almost two years since much of Tohoku’s coastline was wiped out by tsunami on March 11. Gone are many of the destroyed buildings and vehicles that served as reminders of the horror and tragedy caused by the monster earthquake in the Pacific.

But in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, instead of concrete signs of rebirth, all one can see is barren, flat land waiting to be developed.

Rikuzentakata Mayor Futoshi Toba can no longer hide his frustration with the slow progress being made in one of the cities damaged worst by the quake and tsunami.

“When you experience something like (March 11) and are in despair, it is hard to have hope for tomorrow. So we imagine what it will be like in a year or two, and hang onto that hope,” Toba, 48, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “But what we see now is very different from where we had imagined we would be in two years.”

The mayor blames most of the delay in the city’s recovery on the politicians in Tokyo, who spent crucial months playing partisan “power games” that held crisis-related legislation hostage while thousands of victims languished amid nuclear contamination fears.

The Democratic Party of Japan’s Naoto Kan was prime minister when the triple calamity struck. But instead of uniting to overcome it, the Liberal Democratic Party, the leading opposition force at the time, and rebellious members of the ruling party spent months scheming to bring Kan down.

Despite his hands-on efforts, Kan was accused of mishandling an unprecedented emergency.

After Kan came Yoshihiko Noda. But to Toba’s dismay, Noda was focused on raising the consumption tax, turning him into another political target.

The LDP, which proposed the tax hike in the first place, threatened to block it unless Noda dissolved the Lower House and called a snap election. By the time the LDP succeeded in twisting Noda’s arm, it was December, and the disaster victims had to spend another ice-cold winter in shelters wondering when their hometowns would be rebuilt.

“Looking back, the LDP and DPJ spent almost two years either engaged in political power struggles or an election — and nothing moved forward,” Toba said. “It is absolutely ridiculous that the disaster area was affected by politicians playing their own game of musical chairs.”

This lack of political leadership also allowed the bureaucrats to perpetuate their rigid rules despite the state of emergency, Toba pointed out.

For example, Rikuzentakata’s request to build a much-needed supermarket was shot down by the officialdom in Tokyo because the land it was trying to use was registered as farmland.

Then gasoline was requested so residents could drive around looking for missing loved ones, so the trade ministry sent barrels of gas to the city. Soon after they arrived, the ministry said the Self-Defense Forces troops sent to assist them couldn’t distribute the gas because it was ministry property. As a result, the city had to look for licensed people to dole it out.

“It was a life or death situation for the people in the disaster area, but the vertically divided bureaucracy got in the way. I felt that the officials lacked the normal emotions of a human being,” Toba said. “People without a human heart should not be involved in politics or become bureaucrats to govern the state.”

One thing the DPJ and LDP finally agreed on was the establishment of the Reconstruction Agency, which officially kicked off a year ago. But instead of spearheading the reconstruction process, all it did was create more paperwork for the municipalities it’s trying to help, Toba said.

LDP Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government intend to reorganize the agency so it can become the control tower it is supposed to be. It has set up a branch office in Fukushima to oversee restoration measures and promote on-the-spot decisions on radiation decontamination.

“The disaster area and its municipalities were in a state of confusion and the Reconstruction Agency was supposed to be our window, but the reality was we still had to go to all the ministries involved in each reconstruction process in addition to the agency,” Toba said. “The Reconstruction Agency was supposed to stand by the disaster area, but instead it came to persuade us” to go along with the decisions made in Tokyo.

Rikuzentakata was one of the cities hurt most on March 11. Thousands of homes were destroyed and 1,735 residents were killed, shrinking its population by 7 percent.

On that day, Toba, who had been the mayor for less than a month, spent the night together with 127 other city employees huddled on the roof of the City Hall as they watched their hometown get swept away by the massive tsunami.

As mayor, Toba had to stay strong for the whole city. He had to put aside his personal fears and had no idea whether his wife and two sons had even survived.

On March 12, he ran into a friend who told him his sons, Taiga and Kanato, had escaped and were safe. But he didn’t hear anything about his wife.

Tearing himself away from the desperate desire search for his wife, Toba devoted himself to dealing with the aftermath of the disaster.

Her body was found nearly a month later.

“I am filled with self-hatred, wondering if she would still be alive if we had never met or gotten married,” Toba said. “As time passes, I go back and forth between self-hatred and trying to summon the energy to move forward. But it is still hard, even now.”

Like Taiga, now 14, and Kanato, 12, close to 200 Rikuzentakata children lost one or both parents. Although his kids seem fine on the surface, Toba said they refuse to talk about their mother.

The mayor expressed strong concern about how the trauma affected the city’s youth and the difficult healing process. He criticized the central government for its lack of sensitivity in forcing the city to use the same loud earthquake alarm, which still causes children to burst into tears as they relive the trauma of March 11.

“Physical reconstruction will proceed because buildings will be constructed as long as you have money. But the reconstruction of the human heart is not that easy,” Toba said. “There are many issues that are hidden behind visible problems . . . and you have to take things step by step.”

Toba said he hoped that reconstruction will finally begin, now that he and the city have spent almost two years filling out paperwork. At the end of January, the razing of the former City Hall had begun in line with a directive from Toba to destroy all public buildings where people died, in an attempt to ease the pain for their families.

Rikuzentakata’s famous “miracle pine” is also expected to rise again later this month after undergoing treatment for decay prevention and being given a new carbon spine. The tree was the only one of some 70,000 pine trees to withstand the coastal onslaught, prompting the city to preserve it as a symbol of hope.

“We were torn apart and thrown into the depths of despair, but the fact that this pine tree showed us that miracles do happen . . . It has become a symbol of hope for the disaster area and I hope that it will continue to stand by Rikuzentakata,” Toba said.