This is the fourth in a series examining how the northeast and the nation are progressing with efforts to deal with the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.
ISHINOMAKI, MIYAGI PREF. – The town of Rifu on the outskirts of Sendai is set to host 10 soccer matches during the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in line with the organizers’ plan to tout the games as the “Recovery Olympics.”
For Rifu, expectations are high the 2020 Games will draw international attention and lure more tourists, as Tohoku’s tourism sector struggles to recover from the Great East Japan Earthquake and ensuing tsunami on March 11, 2011. As part of the plan, an arena in Miyagi Prefecture is set to get a face-lift for the games.
“It’s an honor for us to host such a large-scale event,” said Fumitsugu Komatsu, who manages the facilities selected to host soccer matches in 2020.
The central government hopes the quadrennial sports event will serve as a platform to show that the nation has recovered from the disasters.
But recovery wasn’t one of the original themes for the Tokyo Games. The concept was added when it became apparent Tokyo wouldn’t be able to secure all the venues needed in the capital or its vicinity. When organizers thus turned to the disaster-hit prefectures of Miyagi and Fukushima, which will host the softball and baseball games, the recovery spin was born, with officials saying the event would contribute to reconstruction.
Moreover, the reconstruction plan for the Tohoku region is expected to end when fiscal 2020 closes in March 2021, putting an end to various central government subsidies that helped both victims and municipalities.
“The Tokyo 2020 Games have become a goal for us to show the region has recovered,” said Yasuki Sato, a Miyagi Prefecture official tasked with coordinating the preparations.
But residents in the area view the preparations as something happening in the background. In fact, some believe they are actually hindering the region’s recovery.
Setsuo Takahashi, a resident of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, whose house was swept away by tsunami eight years ago, is among the skeptics.
“Cheering the victims through sports is a good idea,” he said. “But the Olympics have nothing to do with the people who live here. It’s a different world, unreachable for us.”
What most concerns Takahashi, who is now living in a new house he built in a residential area for the evacuees, is that preparations are taking priority over reconstruction, slowing the process.
Masahiko Fujimoto, a professor at Tohoku University’s Graduate School of Economics and Management, said the affected areas may be losing workers to businesses in Tokyo, including for construction projects related to the games.
“The Olympics are, in part, negatively affecting the local economy. The event won’t have any impact on the coastal towns,” he said.
Indeed, the coast of Ishinomaki, dotted with trucks and cranes, remains largely under construction to restore damaged areas.
“Eight years on, this is still where we are,” Akinari Abe, a member of Tohoku University’s Volunteer Support Center, said last month as he looked out over the city from Hiyoriyama Park.
“We don’t want anybody to tell lies that Tohoku has recovered,” said Abe, 30. “People need to realize that the reality isn’t so rosy.”
Many people here worry that after the Olympics, the Tohoku region, with all its struggles, will be forgotten.”
The calamity killed at least 15,897, injured 6,157 and left over 2,500 unaccounted for, according to police figures. In addition, of the 470,000 forced to evacuate in the immediate aftermath, 51,778 remained unable to return to their homes as of Feb. 27, according to Reconstruction Agency data.
Nearly all of the 30,000 homes planned for relocation are ready to go in the hardest-hit prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima, plus five neighboring prefectures, including Aomori, Ibaraki and Chiba.
With the infrastructure nearly finished, the focus has shifted to the mental and physical well being of the victims, especially the elderly, many of whom are having difficulty adjusting to new environments after their community bonds were severed.
Former fisherman Koetsu Kondo, 76, moved into a residential complex in Ishinomaki near the Oppa River in October 2017.
“This is my second home now,” Kondo said as he covered himself with a quilt from his kotatsu (heated table) at his home in late February. His wife, Yoko, opted not to discuss her experience with the calamity.
Before March 2011, the family had lived in a tiny hamlet on the coast. Although their home survived the tsunami, which in some places exceeded 30 meters, the liquefaction damage made returning to the area too risky.
Kondo said he has learned to accept his fate and that he’s trying to pick up the pieces of his life. He says he’s lucky he has someone to lean on as most of the other evacuees have no one to turn to.
Takahashi, the Ishinomaki man who lost his house and now lives across the street from Kondo, is helping him cope with the grief of losing relatives. The grief runs so deep that Kondo said he chose to rent an apartment near Takahashi so he wouldn’t have to cross paths with his cousin, who lost his eldest son and wife in the tsunami.
“I can’t look him in the eyes — it’s too painful,” he said. “They say time’s a healer but that’s a lie. Wounds only deepen with time. Before I go to sleep I still see their faces.”
Kondo knows that for elderly men coping with traumatic events, starting anew in unfamiliar surroundings can be too much to bear. Yet he feels he has no choice.
So far, Ishinomaki has built 65 public housing complexes for disaster victims, and 4,456 new apartments are expected to be finished by the end of the month.
“But the construction of public housing is just a step forward toward recovery. The recovery process requires a support network to ensure a sense of security,” said Hiroaki Maruya, a professor at Tohoku University’s International Research Institute of Disaster Science who specializes in social systems for disaster mitigation. “The real recovery process starts after the survivors settle down.”
The municipalities in the region are well aware of the challenge.
“We’re concerned that such turmoil in their lives will exacerbate stress-related health problems; we worry this may lead to the rise in solitary deaths and suicides,” said Hiroshi Oka, manager of Ishinomaki’s recovery planning section, adding that stress-related problems are prevalent in seniors.
The Ishinomaki Municipal Government has launched a campaign to prevent suicides through medical consultations, including relaxation classes and other forms of support. The city also periodically conducts checkups on evacuees in the designated recovery districts.
According to Oka, data shows that the health of an evacuee begins to deteriorate after spending a year in a new neighborhood. Oka said some 80 percent of the evacuees in the recovery districts live alone or with only one family member.
Financial problems add to their struggles by preventing them from moving out of temporary housing.
Ishinomaki’s plan calls for having everyone in temporary housing moved to so-called recovery housing — apartment complexes instead of makeshift shelters — by the end of March. But as of the end of February, 807 Miyagi residents, including 203 in Ishinomaki, had yet to do so, their governments say. Subsidized rent for the new facilities will be terminated at the end of March 2021.
The authorities say they are now seeking ways to assist the evacuees from that point on.
“The 10-year period we had thought would suffice doesn’t seem enough” to help communities recover, said Tomoharu Terashima, who manages one of the recovery task forces from Miyagi Prefecture.
“Reconstruction has taken too much time, so we’re asking ourselves if after 10 years we can pull the plug,” he said.
The Reconstruction Agency, which was set up to coordinate reconstruction efforts after 3/11, will also soon be dissolved. The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry and the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry are expected to absorb its projects.
Experts warn of more challenges ahead.
Maruya, the Tohoku International Research professor, said the biggest problem is that many people fled areas that were already struggling with shrinking and rapidly graying populations. Most have no plans to return.
“Those who have left and settled down, found new jobs and sent their children to new schools won’t come back just like that” despite the new housing facilities, elevated ground and restored infrastructure, he said. “Because people are not coming back, it may all be in vain.”
The entire community, in fact, will likely disappear, Maruya said.
“For a region already struggling with rapid graying and depopulation before March 2011, it won’t be possible to bring back the population or restore industrial prosperity.”
Michio Ubaura, a Tohoku University professor with expertise in regional and urban reconstruction, says the disaster-hit areas are home to an aging population and a growing number of vacant homes — the same challenges other towns in Japan face.
The quake and tsunami, however, accelerated these demographic woes, forcing small towns in the region to deal with them decades earlier.
“Projections from before the disaster are becoming reality 10 or 20 years earlier than predicted,” he said. “What we’ll see in a decade is what we had expected to see in 30 years.”
When night falls in Ishinomaki, lights can be seen dotting the area around some of the aging temporary housing units where those who can’t afford to leave still live.
In contrast, a huge cauldron that was kept alight throughout the 1964 Tokyo Olympics has been put on display nearby as a symbol of recovery ahead of the 2020 Games.
“The previous Olympics gave us hope for a better life,” said Takahashi. “But the 2020 Games we can’t afford to take part in will only benefit Tokyo.”
This is a series examining how the northeast and the nation are progressing with efforts to deal with the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.