This is the first of a four-part series looking at the lasting impact of the March 11, 2011, disasters.

It was a fateful moment. At 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake hit eastern Japan, impacting the 24,000-plus residents of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture.

Minutes later, tsunami more than 10 meters high — at one location 17.6 meters — hit the coastal town, devastating the city’s entire low-lying downtown area.

Hundreds of structures were wiped out instantly. Rikuzentakata, later to be known for its sole surviving “Miracle Pine” tree on the coast, was one of the areas hit hardest by the quake-tsunami disasters.

What does the city look like six years on?

“They are building stuff like pyramids,” a local taxi driver said late last month, summarizing what is going on during a drive around the city’s coastal area.

The former downtown area now appears bizarre.

On a vast, coastal flatland, trucks and bulldozers move about, building what could almost be mistaken for giant pyramids.

The city is carrying out a ¥118.2 billion project, financed mainly by the central government, to build earthen mounds more than 12 meters high by heaping thousands of tons of soil taken from higher ground.

When merged, the mounds will make up a gigantic, tsunami-safe hill to cover as much as 124.2 hectares of the city’s coastal area.

On top of that hill, Rikuzentakata plans to build a new downtown. The first shopping complex is scheduled to open April 27.

“This is a colossal experiment to create an artificial town,” the local newspaper, the Kahoku Shimpo, quoted a shop owner as saying in its March 6 edition.

While many coastal towns are now building tsunami-defense mounds, Rikuzentakata’s are by far the largest. But nobody is sure if the rebuilt towns will regain their vigor from before the tsunami, given their rapidly aging and shrinking populations.

In Rikuzentakata, many couldn’t wait six years to rebuild their homes at their original locations, choosing instead to move to higher ground nearby, in line with the central government’s collective migration policy, which led to the creation of separate residential districts in nearby mountain areas. Others simply left their hometown.

The population of Rikuzentakata had fallen 18.2 percent to 19,845 as of January from 24,246 in 2011.

Likewise, the population of the 31 tsunami-hit coastal towns in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures fell 5.47 percent to 1.32 million in 2016 from 1.4 million in 2010, according to figures compiled by The Japan Times.

“Now the disaster-hit areas are entering a critical phase,” Hiroo Inoue, a professor emeritus of fiscal science at Iwate University, said in a recent interview.

Six years after the disaster struck, many cities in the Tohoku region are finally getting key parts of their land preparation done, a step needed to rebuild. Whether such areas can become sustainable towns will be a big issue, Inoue said.

According to a November-January survey by the Rikuzentakata Municipal Government released last month, individual landowners holding more than 66 percent of the 31.8-hectare noncommercial area of the Takata district, the center of the former downtown area, said they have no plans to use their land.

This means many lots could be left vacant even after the city finishes its massive reconstruction work in fiscal 2018.

“How we can fill the land plots, including those that might remain vacant, will be a big issue for us,” Rikuzentakata Mayor Futoshi Toda told reporters Feb. 22.

“This was expected for some extent, so I wasn’t particularly surprised” by the survey results, he added.

Inoue of Iwate University pointed out that the population is declining nationwide, and the 2011 disaster is not the only reason for the recent decline in Tohoku. But it is also true the disaster accelerated the population decline in Tohoku, posing serious challenges to the disaster-hit areas, he said.

Rikuzentakata is among a number of tsunami-hit towns facing redevelopment problems.

For example, Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, north of Rikuzentakata, had planned to create a new town of 2,100 people by creating a raised area near the coast, just like in Rikuzentakata.

But in December, the town office found just 1,135 residents plan to move to the newly created area, only about half of the initially envisioned figure.

The town now is trying to attract new residents to the newly prepared land by offering subsidies to help them build houses.

Meanwhile, current local economic conditions, in particular employment, aren’t too bad for residents — at least for now.

Thanks to the massive public works projects, the ratio of job openings to applications was 1.33 for Iwate, 1.55 for Miyagi and 1.45 for Fukushima in December, meaning there were more offers than seekers.

But much of the construction-tied employment could soon disappear, as the central government has begun reducing its special budget for post-disaster reconstruction.

From fiscal 2011 through 2015, the government injected a whopping ¥25.5 trillion to help the disaster-hit areas, including ¥10 trillion for construction work.

But for the 2016-2020 period, the Tohoku disaster budget will be reduced to ¥6.5 trillion, only ¥3.4 trillion of which will go to public works.

The massive construction work in Rikuzentakata will continue until the end of fiscal 2018.

By around that time, whether the gigantic new town project is a success or a failure will be clearer.

Tsutomu Nakai, director-general of the chamber of commerce in Rikuzentakata, said he worries whether consumers will come to the elevated downtown area.

But for now he is “very happy” to see the land preparation work because Rikuzentakata has finally gotten a step closer to redeveloping the downtown area.

“Yes, we have some worries, and we are wondering if customers will come to the new town,” Nakai said. “But we have finally managed to reach the scratch line” to start reconstruction of the town.

Osamu Ogasawara, the 55-year-old owner of a female clothing and accessories shop and a community leader in Rikuzentakata, said he is also worried about whether consumers will return.

But the situation now looks much better than the despair they felt right after the 3/11 disaster, he said, adding he believes the town’s redevelopment is “going in the right direction.”

“Now we are discussing how lively the new town will be. But in the past, our survival itself was at stake,” Ogasawara said. “We are just at the beginning of the beginning” of reconstruction efforts.

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