The government appears eager to declare progress in recovery efforts along Japan's devastated northeastern coast, but anyone visiting the tsunami-hit region must wonder what constitutes progress in officials' eyes.

Yes, debris has been cleared and less-damaged areas have regained some semblance of normalcy, but long swaths of the coast also remain ghost towns, with empty landscapes stretching to the horizon where close-knit communities used to exist. It is saddening to see the lingering effects of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami and to consider how many towns, villages and fishing ports are receding into the fog of history.

True, some of the larger towns seem to be on the rebound, but in between, the visitor is confronted by many "missing teeth" along Tohoku's saw-tooth seaboard. A number of these towns were already dying, with the tsunami providing the coup de grace. We can better appreciate what Tohoku's shoreline villages represented now that they have been washed away and former residents are marooned in soulless temporary-housing ghettoes where the greatest risks are isolation and boredom. Are we ready to write off the charming hamlets that used to be such a key feature of this coastal culture? I guess so, but recalling my initial visit there in 1982, I can't help but feel nostalgia for this disappearing Japan.