The nation honored its dead last week from the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Tohoku’s Pacific coastline on March 11 four years ago.
For those who have spent those years helping survivors in Tohoku, the experience has thrown up the challenge of how to knit back together communities built over centuries, then shattered in the space of minutes on that Friday afternoon in 2011.
Doctors and others say the work in Tohoku has also offered a fast-forward glimpse into Japan’s own future and perhaps what awaits other industrialized societies trying to understand how communities will function as their youth populations are slowly eclipsed by the elderly.
The rural northeast coast was already losing many of its young people to jobs in Tokyo and other cities. That trend accelerated after the offshore quake and subsequent waves killed 15,891 people. A further 2,584 are still listed as missing, according to the tally released by the National Police Agency on Tuesday.
The population drain has been especially acute in Fukushima Prefecture, where the tsunami generated by the 9.0-magnitude quake slammed into Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s nuclear plant, giving the world its first triple reactor meltdown.
On average, the Pacific coast has been hit by major tsunami about once every 400 years. Each time, the communities rebuilt the towns and roads. This time, they have to contend with nuclear fallout.
Radioactive plumes thrown into the air from the disaster showered down on the sea and nearby villages. The town of Naraha — known for its salmon runs, persimmon orchards and cattle-grazing grasslands — is one of them.
Written records of the town, whose name means Oak Leaf, stretch back more than 1,000 years. Naraha, 13 km south of the wrecked reactors and host to another nuclear plant, is the home of Kaneko Takahara, a petite 66-year-old who was evacuated four years ago along with the town’s more than 7,400 residents.
After years of clearing radioactive rubble and waste, the government aims to reopen Naraha this spring.
On a recent winter morning, Takahara is in a black cardigan and dark slacks, bustling with the energy of a person half her age and beaming a pretty much permanent smile as she talks of going home.
“I want to send a message that we’re full of life,” she said. “There’s no use crying over the past.”
Yet, surveys of evacuated residents show the majority of those ready to return are retired and elderly. Among those in their 30s and 40s, only 3 percent plan to go back.
“This is Japan in 20 years,” said Tetsuya Ohira, a doctor and professor at the Fukushima Medical University, referring to the town as a microcosm of the nation’s shifting demographics, marked by a falling birthrate and rapidly graying population.
How Naraha functions will be a testing ground for other regions in Japan and aging societies elsewhere, according to Ohira.
“The issue of how to deal with health problems is the same as what we’ll face nationwide,” Ohira said after giving a nutrition seminar last month at a temporary housing complex for Naraha evacuees in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. “We are starting to resolve them now.”
As Ohira’s two dozen elderly listeners prepare for calisthenics, the doctor offers an assessment of this possible future. It isn’t pretty.
Besides higher health costs from increased rates of heart disease and diabetes, fewer older people live with their children, and societal isolation brings on depression, he said.
Since the quake, the fragmentation of traditional communities has led to more people living by themselves. At least 145 people have died alone in temporary housing since the disasters, according to the Yomiuri Shimbun, a major daily that tallied police data acquired across several prefectures.
About 120,000 people, or 6 percent of the population of Fukushima, are still classed as evacuees, according to data from the government’s Reconstruction Agency. A further 110,000 evacuees live in the prefectures of Miyagi and Iwate to the north.
Naraha’s neighboring town of Futaba, which co-hosts the nuclear plant, had about 7,000 residents before the quake.
When the evacuation orders came, about 1,200 of them began a gypsy-like journey on a caravan of buses almost 200 km south to Saitama Prefecture.
There they took refuge, first in the Saitama Super Arena sports stadium, before moving into an abandoned high school. At one point, as many as 1,400 people lived there in classrooms, an official at Futaba Town Hall said in an interview.
The high school also served as the town office until June 2013 as the mayor who led the exodus, Katsutaka Idogawa, tried to keep the community bonded. The last of the residents left the school in December 2013.
Now Futaba’s population is broken into pieces and scattered across the country. Some former residents moved to snow-swept Hokkaido, others to tropical Okinawa. About 2,000 live closer by in Iwaki, where another temporary town hall for Futaba has been set up.
With so many communities splintered, the question for U.S.-based Japanese architect Emi Kiyota was how to create areas to bring people back together.
She set up a project called iBasho Cafe, a reference to the Japanese word for place, and built a center for retirees that they run themselves in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture.
The center operates as a cafe as well as an organic farm. Kiyota said it reflects the ideas of the elderly she spoke with, who said they wanted to contribute and not be a burden.
Centers like iBasho show another social model. They motivate the elderly to go out and interact with other sections of society that might need support, Kiyota said.
“Having a social infrastructure is more important than physical infrastructure and buildings,” she said.
Yutaka Ono, a doctor who heads the National Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Research, has been attempting similar community-forging exercises in Tohoku to combat the rise in depression, suicide, alcohol abuse and other ills that affect post-disaster areas.
“You need a hub, a place where people can get together and do activities,” Ono said. “If you can get people together and talk, that lightens the load.”
All the disaster-hit regions of northern Japan need help to regain self-belief and a sense of pride, said Tomohiro Takei, a venture capitalist who put his career on hold to create a network called Makoto for entrepreneurs in the region.
Tohoku has all the land and human resources it needs to succeed, Takei said on the sidelines of the Sendai for Start-Ups! forum he helped organize last month.
“The biggest thing we have to change is confidence,” Takei said, noting that in the second year of running the forum the number of attendees doubled to about 700.
The ever-smiling Kaneko Takahara from Naraha recognized that. After the evacuation, she threw herself into making craft items, such as traditional hanging mobiles used in interior decoration.
She’s organized three craft exhibitions produced by her and other ladies from the town, raising more than $4,000. More important than the money, the activity has given women from Naraha who lost loved ones in the tsunami a physical task to ease the mental suffering, Takahara said.
She’s also maintained the town’s traditional annual Taiko drum performance, pulling together members of the Naraha troupe from all over the country to rehearse and perform.
That idea came partly because a distraught mother of a young Taiko team member called her months after the evacuation to say the boy was crying in the bath because he was afraid he’d forget how to drum.
As emotional as the reunions have been, she knows that most of the younger Naraha residents will not return. She also knows that as long as she is physically able to, she will.
“If I couldn’t go back at all, if there was no choice, that would be easier,” said Takahara, who is a widow with three children. “I’d feel a burden eased. But I must return.”
The grandmother said she, along with her generation, bears part of the responsibility for accepting the construction of the Fukushima nuclear power plant and must now live with its consequences.
Back in Naraha, the community will be able to enjoy hobbies such as sewing and making crafts in their large gardens, instead of being cooped up in temporary homes, she said.
“That’s fun for older folk,” she said. “But, it will be sad not to have the grandkids around.” She just hopes they can visit.
“We’re old, but come join us if you want and let’s have a good time together.”
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