Takashi Ito’s family-owned book and stationery store is one of the 20 or so shops occupying a new mall that opened last year in Rikuzentakata, a tsunami-ravaged city in Iwate Prefecture once known for the towering pine trees that lined its scenic coast.

The mall is like any of the thousands of other shopping complexes dotting the nation’s suburbs and countrysides, offering a comforting sense of familiarity and complete with a supermarket, drugstore, budget clothing store and ¥100 shop.

On a recent afternoon young mothers with their children and elderly townsfolk were seen wandering along its aisles and chatting over bowls of steaming hot udon (wheat) noodles at the food court.

“So far we’re getting good feedback. The aim is to create a space where what’s left of our community can gather again,” said Ito, 64, who also heads the local business cooperative.

Take a step outside the premises, however, and a surreal view unfolds.

Trucks and power shovels crawl across a vast, empty field interrupted by mounds of dirt and newly constructed streets. It is reminiscent of an archaeological dig, except rather than excavating ancient artifacts, heavy equipment is being deployed to pave millions of tons of soil brought from higher ground to elevate the city’s coastal area by as much as 12 meters.

The solitary shopping mall standing in this bleak, dusty landscape serves as a stark reminder of the often frustratingly slow and complicated reconstruction efforts underway in coastal communities decimated seven years ago.

Ito’s younger brother and his family were among the nearly 19,000 who vanished when giant tsunami triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake crashed into hundreds of kilometers of Japan’s northeastern coast on March 11, 2011, destroying dozens of towns and villages.

Rikuzentakata was one of the hardest hit — 1,757 of its 24,246 residents perished and its downtown area was wiped out by waves more than 10 meters high, leaving an apocalyptic wasteland of mud and debris in its wake.

The calamity prompted the nation to embark on an unprecedented 10-year infrastructure drive involving the construction of tsunami-defense mounds and a massive seawall along Tohoku’s Pacific coast to prepare for future events of similar magnitude.

While most cities decided to elevate urban areas by several meters, Rikuzentakata aimed higher, and in late 2011 launched a ¥118.2 billion state-sponsored project — by far the largest of all the municipalities in the region — to create a tsunami-safe hill covering 124 hectares of what was once its town center.

With most of the ground heaping work done, the next step is to get people back on their land. But the protracted reconstruction work has already stretched some residents’ patience to the limit.

“I’m afraid some people couldn’t wait. There are folks who chose to move into residential areas built on nearby mountains or gave up and left our town for bigger cities,” Ito said.

The mall, called Abasse Takata, which roughly translates to “let’s go together” in the local dialect, is the first commercial establishment on the artificially raised area to open its doors to the community.

Over the next three years, another 100 or so businesses and public facilities are expected to begin operating in the area around the mall as well, creating an entirely new downtown district.

The plan envisions much of the elevated land surrounding the city’s new center being returned to owners in phases, but many lots could be left vacant.

According to a July-August survey of landowners by the Rikuzentakata Municipal Government, roughly 37 percent of the elevated ground in the central Takata district lacked plans for use. Only 19 percent did, and the rest either belonged to the city or answers were not obtained.

It’s not only Rikuzentakata. Similar stories can be heard from other coastal towns, like Otsuchi, which decided to offer subsidies to those willing to build new homes on raised land after it found that much of it could be left empty.

“It’s taking too much time. There’s too much red tape — I think work could have been shortened by two years if the government gave those of us on the ground more authority,” Futoshi Toba, the mayor of Rikuzentakata, said at his makeshift office.

The mayor, who lost his wife to the tsunami, said the city plans to set up a matchmaking system to resolve the issue. While he is optimistic the plots around the new downtown area will eventually find takers, he said the situation is also being exacerbated by the sweeping demographic shift impacting hundreds of rural municipalities across Japan.

Rikuzentakata’s population — which had already been shrinking and graying before 3/11 — fell to 19,534 in January.

Further north, in Kamaishi, where over 1,000 residents were killed or listed as missing, the population has slumped to 34,624 from its pre-disaster tally of around 39,500.

And in Kesennuma, which lost 1,356 residents in neighboring Miyagi Prefecture, the population fell to 64,821 in January from 74,247 in February 2011. Controversy over plans to build a seawall along its port has delayed redevelopment in the city, which like many coastal areas relies on fishery and seafood processing as a major source of income.

This poses a difficult question: “People may ask what’s the point of all this effort and investment if our population falls to, say, 3,000 in 10 to 20 years,” Toba said. “Unless we can create a city — albeit small — with a distinct raison d’etre, we could be calling into question the entire reconstruction process.”

Cities like Rikuzentakata need to plan for survival as the government’s reconstruction project approaches its final years. The budget is already being reduced significantly — compared to the ¥25.5 trillion injected between fiscal 2011 and 2015, ¥6.5 trillion is earmarked for the final phase from 2016 to 2020.

Commercial facilities like Abasse will play an increasingly important role in mending fractured communities and spurring business activity in the coming years.

In the port town of Ofunato, around 20 minutes away by car, a new mall opened last April on raised land.

Like Rikuzentakata, Ofunato suffered heavy losses, losing 419 residents and nearly 4,000 buildings to the tsunami that pummeled its coast.

Rather than making a conventional shopping center, the city sought out the expertise of Toru Hiji, a 38-year-old urban planner and construction consultant. Hiji dreamed up an award-winning outdoor mall composed of multiple, low-rise buildings linked by patios and pedestrian walkways.

Kyassen Ofunato, as the mall is called, is so far proving a success, thanks in part to events and promotional activities it hosts regularly. On a recent evening, eateries occupying the complex were full of both local customers and visitors dining on the area’s famed seafood.

In the six months since its grand opening, around 100,000 people have shopped at the mall, Hiji said. Sales at restaurants and stores have exceeded expectations by 30 percent and 8 percent, respectively, in the period.

“This could only be temporary. Our task in our second year is to continue attracting local clientele and devising new ways to lure outside customers,” he said.

The Sanriku Coast, which extends from Aomori Prefecture to Miyagi Prefecture, has historically been prone to tsunami.

Seitoku Iwai, a 12th-generation owner of an artisan goods and liquor store in Rikuzentakata, has experienced two so far, including one triggered by the 1960 great Chilean earthquake. His late father also witnessed two tsunami during his lifetime.

Iwai said local residents harbor mixed feelings toward the seemingly never-ending land elevation operation. Some argue that tsunami are an unavoidable part of life and that the town could have gotten back on its feet earlier had it toned down the scale of the project, which has transformed its once renowned coastline.

Near the symbolic “miracle pine tree” — the only one of 70,000 left standing along the shoreline after the 3/11 tsunami — is a 12.5-meter-high seawall stretching 2 km, blocking any view of the ocean.

“But there’s not much point in debating that now, and nothing is worth risking your life,” Iwai, 61, said.

Iwai lost his home and business seven years ago but managed to open a new store last year across the street from Abasse, along with several other shops run by local merchants. He chuckled recalling how a newspaper reporter called him “crazy” when he heard he was reopening in his hometown rather than moving to a larger city.

“I know there’s nothing much to see here now. But a new shop just opened today, and I know more will come,” he said.

“Things are far from rosy, but there’s a certain joy that’s hard to explain doing what you can to re-create your community, from scratch.”

This is the first in a series looking at how the Tohoku region is attempting to rebuild itself seven years after the March 11, 2011, disasters.

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