This is the first of a five-part series on the lingering impact of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster on the three hardest-hit prefectures in the Tohoku region.
“Bridge of Hope” is the name of a temporary span over the Kesen River in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture.
It connects a hill where construction is underway to create a residential area on high ground and to raise a low-lying coastal zone where 4,045 dwellings were destroyed by gigantic tsunami on March 11, 2011.
The bridge is not for people. Built in front of the city’s symbolic “miracle pine tree” that survived the tsunami when the rest of its grove was swept away, the temporary bridge is a link in a 3-km-long conveyor belt system that carries 40,000 tons of soil and gravel — the equivalent of 4,000 10-ton truckloads — from the hill every day.
Four years ago, 18-meter-high tsunami hit the coastal city and killed 1,556 residents; 207 are still listed as missing.
The waves also devastated the city’s famous oyster farms and a pine forest the government had designated as one of 100 locations nationwide of special scenic beauty.
Rikuzentakata is one part of the Tohoku region aiming to fast-track its rebirth and become a safer place to live.
To that end, the city is building two seawalls 1.8 km long, one 3 meters high and the other 12.5 meters, as part of efforts to mitigate the threat of future tsunami. It is also elevating the land in the coastal zone by some 10 meters.
Thanks to the conveyor belt system built in March 2014 by general contractor Shimizu Corp. at a cost of ¥12 billion, the city can shorten the time it will take for the reconstruction work from an initially planned nine years to two.
Besides being efficient, the conveyor system offers hope to the tsunami survivors waiting to get back to a semblance of normalcy, Rikuzentakata Mayor Futoshi Toba said.
“Thanks to the eye-catching machine that symbolizes the reconstruction by operating every day, survivors can experience step-by-step progress,” he said, adding that the conveyor system, which has rarely been used for ordinary construction work, has also drawn sightseers.
Seeing the progress with their own eyes is “much more encouraging for people” than what officials can do behind closed doors, the mayor said.
Rikuzentakata’s progress represents Tohoku’s hopes — and struggles — to reconstruct life as usual.
With most of the tsunami debris disposed of by last March, except for in some no-go-zone and evacuation areas in Fukushima Prefecture where radioactive decontamination work is still underway, Tohoku has finally started full-scale building of permanent dwellings, both detached houses and condominiums, for survivors who lost their homes in the disaster.
Many survivors, however, are still in limbo as municipalities face delays in providing permanent housing units.
Iwate Prefecture had constructed 1,049 publicly funded replacement homes for survivors as of January — just 18 percent of the 5,933 units planned to be built by September 2018. The deadline was initially March 2018.
Miyagi is also experiencing construction delays.
As of January, the prefecture had built 2,692 housing units, or 17.4 percent of 15,484 units planned to be completed by March 2018.
In Fukushima, only 261 units, or 5 percent of the 4,890 units planned by March 2018, were available for nuclear disaster evacuees as of January. Also, just 1,190 replacement houses, or 44 percent of the 2,702 units planned, were constructed for tsunami and earthquake survivors in the prefecture.
The delay is due to the rising cost of labor and construction materials, Iwate Gov. Takuya Tasso said.
Meanwhile a vast number of people continue to live in temporary housing units.
In Iwate, 22,300 people were still in prefab temporary housing as of January, down a mere 13 percent from 25,619 last March.
Miyagi in January still had 35,332 people living in temporary shelters, down 16 percent from the 42,310 listed 10 months earlier.
The situation in Fukushima also remains problematic, with 24,098 people still living in temporary housing in January, even though 15 percent of 28,367 had moved away from such units as of last March.
The number of temporary shelter dwellers is surprisingly high, considering that all displaced survivors of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake had moved out of similar housing five years after that disaster. The Hanshin temblor caused greater structural damage than the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, but there were no huge tsunami.
Industries in the Tohoku region are also suffering from slumping sales and manpower shortages.
Seafood production in Tohoku remains low. According to a survey by the Fisheries Agency between November and January, just 53 percent of facilities in Iwate Prefecture were operating at 80 percent or above of their pre-disaster levels. In Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, the number is even lower, at 50 percent and 25 percent, respectively.
Worse, the percentage of facilities at or above the 80-percent production threshold hasn’t changed much since last year’s survey, which recorded 57 percent in Iwate, 49 percent in Miyagi and 24 percent in Fukushima.
A recovery in seafood sales has also foundered, with this year’s survey showing just 58 percent of firms in Iwate reaching 80 percent or above pre-disaster levels. The figure is 40 percent in Miyagi and a mere 21 percent in Fukushima.
Iwate Gov. Tasso said the slumping sales in Tohoku fisheries is due to delays in the recovery of factories to process fish products, and radiation fears stemming from the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Despite abundant job opportunities, the three hardest-hit prefectures are suffering a labor crunch.
Local industries, especially fish processing, construction and nursing care, are suffering from the shortage of human resources. Specialists who can take the lead in constructing infrastructure for community development are also in short supply, Tasso said.
Some Rikuzentakata residents don’t hide their anxiety about life after reconstruction.
Taxi driver Haruyuki Sato doubts people want to return to live in areas where they lost their homes to the tsunami.
“I can’t foresee how the city will turn out (after all the reconstruction ends),” he said.
Some citizens oppose the city’s planned seawalls, which will mar the traditional coastal scenery and the planned 70,000-tree pine forest to be planted on land between the embankments.
Midori Murakami of sightseeing promoter Marugoto-Rikuzentakata said that as the construction progresses, there is an emotional gap between locals who lost loved ones in the disaster and those who didn’t.
“Some people complain about creating a (raised-ground zone) on land where about 200 missing people may be buried,” she said. “But otherwise we can’t move ahead. . . . I feel both excitement and concern while the reconstruction advances.
“But local people are looking forward. . . . Thanks to the reconstruction, I get to know many new people and we work together,” she added.
Fiscal 2015, which starts next month, will mark the fifth year of Iwate’s eight-year reconstruction plan and the second year of its three-year “full-fledged” effort to rebuild housing, lives and industries for survivors. The estimated reconstruction budget will reach ¥1.1 trillion, the highest since the disasters if not counting past debris disposal, the governor said.
“When thinking about disaster victims . . . I feel it’s a mission for us survivors to reconstruct a city filled with smiles . . . (so) that even the most depressed people come here and become encouraged by finding diverse people at work and full of pride,” said Rikuzentakata Mayor Toba, who lost his wife in the disaster.
Fiscal 2015 will also be the final year of the government’s ¥25 trillion five-year reconstruction budget, which Toba said is the biggest concern for those hoping the rebuilding work won’t grind to a halt.
The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has not made an official plan on whether or how to distribute the reconstruction budget after March 2016.
Toba is worried that the apparent waning sense of crisis among the public may lead to policymakers placing less priority on reconstruction.
“If possible, I want as many people as possible to visit the reconstruction sites — not necessarily Rikuzentakata — while the damage from the great earthquake still remains. Then, I want them to revisit after five, 10 years (to see the dramatic changes after the reconstruction),” he said.
“All bereaved families have something unforgettable inside them . . . but I think even that sorrow may turn to become an unbeatable energy (to generate positive effects).”