National / Social Issues | Regional Voices: Tohoku

Iwate 3/11 survivors face isolation as wait to leave makeshift houses drags on

Kahoku Shimpo

About 40 households who survived the March 2011 earthquakes and tsunami in the coastal areas of Iwate Prefecture are still stuck in makeshift housing, waiting to move into new homes.

As more temporary housing units become vacant in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, some of the elderly residents are feeling lonely, missing the former neighbors they have lived with for the past few years.

“Wow, am I the only one here today?” 86-year-old Yotsuko Nakayama, asked with a bitter laugh.

Nakayama had gone to a community meeting room to do her daily exercises one mid-February morning, only to find that she was the only one there.

Nakayama, who lost her home in the massive tsunami, moved to the complex in the Takinosato area with her eldest son and his family almost nine years ago. Although they are planning to move to a new house in Rikuzentakata, delays in the city’s land project pushed back the date to later this year.

It was only in the spring of last year that the government handed over the land for the new home. As contractors and construction companies were flooded with orders, it was only days ago that the Nakayamas were able to conduct a ceremony to pray for the safety of the construction, which typically takes place before contractors start building the home.

At present, they are slated to move into the new home in the summer, when Japan was initially scheduled to host the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

Many residents have already left the Takinosato housing complex, which at one point accommodated 86 households.

Dozens of units have been left vacant and the community meeting room is barely used now. Nakayama had often gathered there with about a dozen friends for a morning exercise, but many of them have moved out in the past year.

A woman in her 60s who puts on the music on a radio cassette player for the morning exercise — Nakayama has a hard time figuring out how to play it on her own — was moving out in March for a new home.

Nakayama’s other friend, a 95-year-old woman who lives there, has been busy packing her things to move out.

“It’s a good thing that they’re moving out but I’m always the one who waves goodbye, being left here on my own,” Nakayama lamented.

In April, 38 people from 17 households still living in makeshift housing in other areas will temporarily move into the Takinosato units until they move on to a new home.

Some of the survivors, however, are finding it difficult to move on due to financial hardships.

A 39-year-old barber who lives with his family in one of the city’s makeshift housing units in Rikuzentakata runs a barber shop in a rented building nearby, catering to the dwindled number of local customers. With the city devastated by the 2011 massive tsunami causing people to flee, there are not enough customers for him to make a living.

Although he has land in the Takata area in the city center on elevated ground, he has been struggling with funding the construction of a building that would accommodate his home and a new store.

For the past nine years, the man and his family have been tossed left and right having to relocate due to the government’s reconstruction project.

A year after the triple meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant following the tsunami, he opened a barber shop close to the place where he used to operate. But he was forced to relocate after the government came up with a plan to elevate the entire area.

“I had never imagined that I would spend so much time in a temporary housing,” he said. “But I hope we’ll be able to settle on a plan for the future and rebuild our house soon.”

This section features topics and issues from the Tohoku region covered by the Kahoku Shimpo, the largest newspaper in Tohoku. The original article was published March 6.

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