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A quick blow, then lingering death for devastated towns

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

One of the defining images from the Great East Japan Earthquake is of a tsunami-hit tourist bus stranded on the roof of the two-story community center in the Pacific coastal district of Ogatsu, Miyagi Prefecture.

The last sight Akinari Abe, 24, remembers about his hometown before it was obliterated by massive waves is that of local residents yelling at him from a hill.

“I was on the roof of a house that was being pulled out to sea by the receding tsunami. Neighbors were telling me to jump off, but I didn’t. If I had, I wouldn’t have survived,” Abe told The Japan Times in a recent interview.

Abe, his parents and three brothers, as well as two neighbors, floated on the roof overnight out in Ogatsu Bay.

By luck, the eight found an empty boat nearby and hopped aboard the next morning. They paddled back to Ogatsu in the wee hours of March 12, 2011.

Two years after their epic struggle for survival, Abe feels that the restoration of Ogatsu, now part of Ishinomaki, hasn’t made much progress and instead believes the district is on its way to a slow, agonizing demise.

“Only 17 percent of the original residents can return to the district under the current reconstruction plans,” Abe said, adding that the rebuilding effort “is being wasted and will only create a depopulated village.”

The reconstruction of Ogatsu, or lack thereof, embodies many of the issues the tsunami-hit communities face since the disaster.

In the beginning, the government laid out grandiose plans for rebuilding Tohoku, including calls for creating “smart cities” — compact villages on high ground that rely on renewable energy.

In reality, relocating communities to higher ground alone is moving forward at a snail’s pace.

While most of nearly 250 communities that require relocation have received approval by the land ministry for budget support, only some have actually started construction.

Even rarer are cases in which residents and local governments work in harmony, in some places due to limited land and in others because of the project costs.

Ogatsu and Abe’s concern shed light on the issue. On March 11, 2011, 236 of the local 4,300 residents died, while 90 percent of the houses were damaged completely or partially by the tsunami.

The survivors quickly began discussing relocating their community to higher ground.

But Abe and a group of local residents questioned the hurried decision. A survey they conducted in summer 2011 revealed that of the 2,238 locals who replied, 19.3 percent said they didn’t plan on returning to the district.

The survey also showed 22.4 percent said they would like to return, and another 33.7 percent said they would return if circumstances allowed them to do so.

The plan proposed by Ogatsu, however, can only bring back fewer than 10 percent of the households due to the limited area around the mountainous region. Ogatsu is basically a flat plain at the mouth of a river, surrounded by forested mountains.

The tsunami-struck area of Ogatsu, basically most of the flat plain, will be off-limits and designated a no-residence zone.

“Simply relocating to higher ground isn’t going to bring our town back. We do understand that there is no area near Ogatsu that all 600 households can move together to,” Abe noted. “So we proposed a mix of relocation and elevation of the houses as a measure to revive Ogatsu.”

Yet, the proposal drew opposition from not only the local government but also from those who wanted to quickly relocate, creating tension within a community that before 3/11 was tightknit.

History shows that moving a town from point A to point B isn’t as simple as it sounds.

One such case is Okushiricho on Hokkaido’s Okushiri Island, where residents chose to move to higher ground after tsunami from a major temblor in 1993 wiped the community out.

The town originally enjoyed the demand created by reconstruction and the relocation projects following the decision. But it soon faced a harsh reality: Okushiricho’s population has dropped from over 4,500 in the early 1990s to about 3,000 today.

The relocation of Okushiricho to higher ground “escalated the pace of population decline and the town’s aging. It further worsened the shortage of those who would take over the local agricultural and fisheries business,” the Policy Research Institute of the agricultural ministry said in an October 2011 report.

Despite requests by Abe and his group of Ogatsu residents, his district continues to claim that creating a safe neighborhood is the priority. A plan to build a 10-meter-high seawall is also moving forward as well.

Abe’s family has run a waterfront electric appliance shop for three generations. He is well aware of the dangers of living in Ogatsu after what he experienced, but feels returning there and carrying on with their lives is the only way to revive the district.

“People ask me plain and simple why I won’t leave Ogatsu” after such catastrophe, Abe said. “I tell them it is because living in Ogatsu has provided us with lots of advantages, including a rich fisheries industry. Living there is worth taking the risk.

“Unfortunately though, I believe the district is on track to experience a quick population drain.”