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TOHOKU TRAPPED IN TIME

Traumatized port struggles to stay together, move on

Tsunami-hit city lacks game plan, although change is inevitable

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

When the Kinoya fish processing company in Ishinomaki opened its brand new flagship factory last month, it gave employees a ray of hope that it would recover from the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed much of the city.

Like many of the 200 fish processors built near the port, tsunami destroyed all of Kinoya’s facilities. But there was a silver lining: The brand became more famous after about 1,000 volunteers salvaged and cleaned a half million cans of Kinoya mackerel left over in its crippled storage facilities.

And its signature canned whale meat, made by the company for the past 50 years, became a coveted item after its 11-meter-high whale can monument was toppled by the waves. Demand for the meat has spiked 50 percent since the quake.

“Without the support of the volunteers, we would not have thought about restarting our business,” said Kinoya President Nagato Kimura.

After spending nearly ¥800 million to build new factories with ¥2 billion in aid from the government, Kinoya still faces a murky future. It won’t be easy to regain customers and attract the younger workers who were already averse to the labor-intensive food-processing jobs before the disaster. Most of Kinoya’s 40 employees are now in their 50s and 60s.

“We really have to come up with a new Ishinomaki brand and growth strategy to move on,” Kimura said.

The company is a microcosm of Ishinomaki and other tsunami-hit cities and towns in the Tohoku region. Like Kinoya, many of the devastated areas have made significant progress toward recovery in the past two years — at least on the surface: Most of the rubble is gone, and vacant lots sit waiting for new projects.

But it is not clear whether the area can return to anywhere near its original form, attract new businesses or create new jobs to rejuvenate its rapidly graying population. In fact, the need for change is almost a given.

More than 72,000 people from the 40 towns and cities in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima prefectures either died or abandoned their hometowns. About 65 percent of those who left constituted people under age 30, accelerating the depopulation trend.

In Ishinomaki, which had about 161,000 residents before the disaster, more than 7,000 people have left. The earthquake and tsunami killed more than 3,400 residents — the largest death toll in Miyagi Prefecture.

The region’s shrinking population is being driven partly by the mismatch between job seekers and jobs. While the region has almost double the number of job openings it had before March 11, 2011, mostly in construction or food processing, people are snubbing the work. Ishinomaki has the highest ratio of job offers to job seekers in Miyagi Prefecture, at 1.68. This means there are 168 positions available for every 100 people seeking work in the city. The prefectural average is 1.25.

“Young people in particular prefer to work in clean and automated factories. That’s why fish-processing factories are having such a hard time recruiting people,” said Kimura. Kinoya plans to add eight young workers in April.

In the 44 fishing communities that make up Ishinomaki, the tsunami have contributed significantly to the population decline by chasing young people away while leaders struggle to make progress on restoring infrastructure. Most have not even drawn up blueprints for moving onto the future.

Ryuji Kano, 43, is one resident who has given up on returning to the small fishing town of Ogatsu, which lost more than 70 percent of its 1,660 homes to the merciless waves.

After the sushi restaurant his father started was washed away, Kano reopened a temporary Denpachi Sushi restaurant at Ogatsu’s prefabricated shopping arcade, which now has 11 stores and restaurants.

The sushi chef thought he could stay in business based on the relentless flow of volunteers who were visiting when the expressway tolls in Tohoku were abolished. But according to a survey, only 20 percent of Ogatsu’s residents are expected to return — and most are likely to be pensioners over 65.

Now Kono is having second thoughts.

“People don’t eat sushi every day. To keep the business afloat, we need at least 3,000 people to keep going,” said Kano, who is thinking of relocating to the neighboring town of Kahokucho, which does not have a sushi restaurant.

“Even my parents want to live in Kahokucho, where they currently live in temporary housing, because it’s more convenient,” he said.

Further accelerating the population decline is the central government’s inability to draft a reconstruction budget in a timely manner.

According to the Reconstruction Agency, only 45 percent of the fiscal 2012 reconstruction budget, plus funds carried over from fiscal 2011, were spent in the first half of fiscal 2012 in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. This was responsible for delaying many reconstruction projects, including public housing. Obstructionist politics in the Diet played a role in the delays.

Some 24,000 public housing complexes were planned for the three disaster-hit prefectures, but only 56 have been completed.

Local municipalities have also yet to secure construction sites for more than 9,000 of those units. The shortage of building materials only exacerbated the delays.

“The damage in Ishinomaki was beyond comparison to many other disaster-stricken areas, and there was much less space to even provide temporary housing,” said Vice Mayor Takeshi Sasano.

The city plans to provide public housing for about 4,000 households — by 2015.

“We are spending much time listening to residents who haven’t yet recovered from the trauma to obtain enough land to build public housing,” he said.

As life in temporary housing continues, the residents’ frustration is nearing the boiling point. Nearly two years after the quake and tsunami, more than 16,000 people remain homeless in Ishinomaki.

At one temporary housing facility in Ohashi, there are still 1,000 residents. About 100 of them tend to languish in their units in isolation most of the day, a condition that will lead many to die alone.

“There are diverse people with different lifestyles who often clash with each other,” said facility chief Shinya Yamazaki, 77. He said he receives constant complaints about noise or garbage disposal every day.

Yamazaki, president of the temporary housing association in Ishinomaki, will soon move into a new house that his daughter built with his wife. He said there is a stark contrast between those who can leave temporary housing and those who aren’t ready to move on.

Setsuko Nasukawa, 68, is one of the survivors struggling to overcome the traumatic loss of life. She confessed that she was contemplating suicide after the disasters.

Nasukawa, whose fisherman husband died almost 30 years ago, took refuge at her brother’s house when the earthquake hit, but felt unwelcome and moved into a shelter. When she moved into temporary housing in July 2011, she felt disheartened by the bleakness of the unit, which didn’t even come with a single tatami. She was also depressed because she was separated from her son and his family, who are living in another housing unit.

“I felt I was cornered,” she said. “I thought there was no hope.”

After she was appointed to the board for the temporary housing unit in Ohashi, the community helped her deal with her depression, she said. Recently, she made the decision to not rebuild her collapsed house.

“My husband died while he was fishing 30 years ago, and he left the house to us,” said Nasukawa. “It was not an easy decision to part with it, but I have to move on.”