100 days after the tsunami – an article published in Svenska Dagbladet on June 19th 2011

Ishinomaki, 100 days after the tsunami.

Photo: Yoshi Fukuda

100 Days after the tsunami

–          By Elin Lindqvist

In March, silence laid thick over the shattered areas of North-eastern Japan. Today, 100 days after the devastating earthquake and tsunami on March 11th 2011, the sound of crushing and rumbling is heard. The cleaning up process is well under way.

Along the motorways, on the digital signage that normally sends traffic messages out, one can read “Keep fighting!” and “Thank you!” Similar messages have been put up in shop windows and on ad signs in rice fields. In the shops, the shelves are full of food again and evacuees receive governmental support.

From Tokyo, volunteers are streaming into Tohoku and military personnel, police and firemen are working in shifts with the cleaning up process that also creates local jobs. Before the tsunami, the region was emptying of young people but now every man can earn 13500Yen a day picking up trash left by the powerful wave.

However, new challenges have risen. Evacuees from the coast are moving further in land where the unemployment rate is high. Although the rebuilding process boosts the economy, Toru Sakawa is wondering about Tohoku’s long-term future.

Sakawa is a leading organic farmer in Hanamaki and he also runs a company that produces solar power. He has been asked by the mayor of the port town of Rikuzen-Takata to help and create new coastal towns according to a more sustainable model. The nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima has led to a wide debate about environmentally friendly solutions.

– More and more people want to grow their own vegetables in order not to be so dependent on the supermarkets. The catastrophe made many realize that we cannot keep living like before.

When we meet Sakawa, he is sitting down drinking tea on the tatami mats in his farm together with his friend Machiko Kikeigawa.

–          I would like to ask the children in Rikuzen-Takata to draw a picture of what they would want their city to look like, says Kikeigawa with tears in her eyes.

She is hoping that the government will raise a monument to the memory of the 24000 Tohoku inhabitants who have lost their lives in the catastrophe.

–          Instead of building higher and higher walls against the force of nature, the time may have come to start thinking differently, explains Sakawa.

He has already received an order for 1000kw solar energy and the Japanese government is planning to reduce the nuclear dependency and buy more solar and wind powered energy. We hear similar thoughts all over the area.

–          The most important thing is to make sure that we create a real opportunity to start again, says Shinichi Mizutani, CEO for LIFE311, an organisation that uses local wood types such as pine and larch to build beautiful temporary houses in the mountain town of Sumita.

In total, 72000 temporary homes have to be built for the 125000 people who are still homeless after the tsunami and the vast majority of those are quickly being put up as long, attached, simple houses. The rent is free and the evacuees only pay for electricity, water and gas. Those in need apply for temporary housing in the municipality where they wish to live and the houses are then allocated on a lottery basis.

But many of the houses are being criticized by the local population. The houses are small, the isolation is poor and neighbours live close to each other. People don’t want to live far away from the sea and their former jobs even if their working places have been completely destroyed. Those who are able to, chose to move back to their own homes even if their houses need substantial repairs. In some cases, the ground floor has been destroyed but families still move back into the upper floors. Apart from sanitation issues, some buildings are dangerously unstable in the aftershocks. Many people also remain in the evacuation centres.

We visit the primary school Hirota Shoogakko in Rikuzen-Takata that after the earthquake was turned into a home for 300 evacuees. In the end of May, the last 64 families moved into the temporary houses that have been rapidly put up on the schoolyard.

–          I had no say in this decision, sighs Takuro Kumagai, sub head master, and looks out over the simple houses that the government has set up where children used to play.

He is clearly dissatisfied with the arrangement but he also understands that the family needs somewhere to live. The wounds are still wide open after the catastrophe. But he explains that they don’t talk about the tsunami with the children during class time.

–          However, there is a social worker available that the children can talk to if they want to, he says.

A lot is also organized for the children to have the opportunity to celebrate life. For instance, famous personalities are invited to spread joy. At the same time, there are a lot of practical matters to attend to.

–              I have long lists of things that teachers have lost and require for the classes! Exclaims Kumagai. We have also welcomed a few classes from the junior high school that was destroyed in the tsunami.

Kumagai further explains that the typhoon season and the arrival of summer will increase the risk of diseases spreading. Water seeps in to houses where a lot of effort has been put in shuffling, spraying and wiping which may lead to worsened hygienic conditions.

Yoshinori Nakanishi represents the Red Cross at a temporary hospital in the primary school Watanoha Shoogakko and he also worries about the summer and the humidity.

–              It increases the risk for infections and influenza, he explains.

Nakanishi has worked for the Red Cross for 14 years and he was present after the earthquake in Kobe. But he has never experienced anything this big.

– I have never seen so many people being affected! Nakanishi explains.

We talk in the hallway outside the medical room. Donated clothes are hanging and lying around us for the evacuees to freely pick from. A message board is full of notes from mourning people who are still missing relatives. Outside the classroom that have become home to one or a few families, there are shoes and boots lined up. Warm food is being prepared in the courtyard and people cue up for free food, blankets and household goods around the corner from where we are. During the night, 280 people share the narrow spaces and Nakanishi mentions problems that have arisen amongst the evacuees.

–          People are not used to sharing these narrow spaces for extended periods of time and many are suffering psychologically. But most people visit us to obtain medicine. Other evacuees suffer from infections in eyes and throats because of all the dust and dirt, explains Nakanishi.

Hiroko Miura lives close by in a newly built house on the seafront in Nagaru. She has worked hard to clean up but most people in the neighbourhood are not in a similarly fortunate situation and she agrees with Nakanishi.

–              The atmosphere has gone sour here. At first, after the tsunami, people were showing signs of solidarity but now many are jealous of each other, Miura explains.

Japan’s coastline dropped up to 8 feet after the powerful earthquake on March 11th 2011 and the shoreline is therefore no longer protected against the tidal waters. In Ishinomaki where Nakanishi works, there is an announcement system in place that warns people of the high tide twice daily but there does not yet seem to be a long-term plan. Miura has taken things into her own hands and built her own wall against the water with sand bags but not everybody has had the same opportunity.

The offices of the municipality of Onagawa have moved into a building that slowly is turning back into the school that it was before the tsunami, high up on a hill. People come here to cue up for applications for temporary housing and governmental support. 14 out of the 21 evacuee centres that opened in Onagawa after the earthquake are still being used as living quarters. So far, 59% of the temporary houses that are needed in the destroyed town have been built.

– We don’t know how long the evacuee centres will have to stay open. Many people don’t want to move into temporary housing and they don’t have money to rent their own apartments. It is free here! Sighs Kazumasa Abe, Section Chief of the development section of Onagawa city.

But he is proud of his city and he expresses gratefulness over how quickly and effectively the military has helped cleaning up. In Onagawa, cars are however still hanging and balancing on roof tops of buildings  5 floors tall but in other cities where 100 days ago, cars were lying about upside down and houses had been pushed to the side, there now are new cars to buy. Celebratory flags are blowing in the wind and the sidewalks have been cleaned up.

The suit shop Satoo Clothing in Ishinomaki opened in May and ever since, Tomohiko Sato has been cleaning every day.

–          There is nothing else to do. I sell nice clothes and people cannot afford to buy them now. They buy food and tools instead.

Satoo has repaired a lot himself with materials found out in the street. And he has set up plastic covers to the street while waiting to install real windows.

– It is about doing one thing at a time. We take it slower now since the earthquake. It is not worth to stress, says Satoo and returns to the cleaning.

We meet many people on the shoreline who despite an overwhelming stench of dead fish and rotten trash keep fighting in a similar spirit.

In Ofunato, I notice that the forest has survived as opposed to trees further south and I think about what Sakawa Toru said to us in Hanamaki:

–          The trees remain when everything human has gone.

Barely bent by the water, thousands of trees have survived although a nearby cement factory was severely damaged.

Close by, 2500 cars destroyed by the tsunami have been lined up. All the spare parts are reused and the rest is flattened. What then will happen to the trash has not yet been decided.

A lot of the enormous trash piles that have formed on the coast can be recycled but a lot more will need to be burned up or buried. The trash that the tsunami left behind is about the same amount as a whole century’s worth of trash.

–              Every day, more and more cars arrive and it will go on for a long time, says Keisuke Kukita.

He works shifts at the car dump that is guarded 24hrs/24hrs because of the risk of theft. It is mostly tires that are stolen, which can also be noticed around town on the cars left where the water took them. The tsunami has badly damaged the car industry and will for example cost Toyota a total of around 7,6 billion Swedish crowns.

But the fishing industry has been worst affected. The earthquake damaged the seabed, the tsunami havocked fish and seafood farms, boats and equipment and still, the radioactive materials that are leaking from the Fukushima nuclear plant is threatening the fish.

Yoshiake Shida is the President of the local oyster association Shimotakonoura in the port of Takonoura and all his oysters were destroyed in the waves. The building used to sort the exclusive Akasaki oysters was completely destroyed. Out of the 150 boats they had, only 5 are left. All of the 24 oyster farmers members of the association survived but half of them do not have the motivation to rebuild again.

–          But what are we to do if we don’t farm oysters?

Yoshiake mumbles. Next to him stands Mizuo Shida, one of the 13 oyster farmers who have chosen to rebuild. He says with a lot of strength:

–          I want to show everybody who has offered us money and support that we can rebuild again.

It is going to take three years before the new oysters have matured enough to be sold and Mizuo and Yoshiake are afraid that the oysters might lose their quality because of all the trash in the sea.

But Takahiko Honda and Toshiyuki Shibuya, oyster farmers in Ishinomaki further south, look positively at the future. They mean that the tsunami may be good for Japan’s sea on the long-term.

– It renews the water and may raise the oyster quality! Honda claims enthusiastically.

Together they produce 36 000 oysters every year and their entire farm miraculously survived. But they don’t mention the radioactive materials.

It is still unsure how the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima will affect the sea. The currents take radioactive materials far outside the zone limit that the government has drawn. 20 wholesalers have had to close down at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo and the fish from Fukushima prefecture is prohibited to sell which of course has been a severe hit for the fishermen along the coast.

–          It will take at last 2 years before we can work again, exclaims Takeshi Abe who has worked as a fisherman for 40 years in the city of Soma, 35km from the nuclear plant. I miss my sea!

Abe invites us into the corner of a sports hall that is his temporary home. He has so far only received 30000Yen from the Japanese state to buy household goods but he still generously offer us tea and fish.

I think about what Sakawa Toru said up in the mountains of Hanamaki.

–          Since everything is destroyed, we have a real chance to start over again and create a more stable society.

I swallow the fish with some green tea and smile encouragingly to Abe.

The truth is that nobody knows what effect the radioactive substances will have on the region’s inhabitants and the crops in the earth. Just the amount of salt the tsunami left behind has destroyed farms for the next 3-5 years. Leek plants become rotten in the stem before they are ripe enough to be picked.

But according to Toru Sakawa it is the chemicals used in agriculture that reacts badly to seawater so perhaps there really is a hopeful, organic future for Tohoku.


– by Elin Lindqvist

2500 cars are awaiting further instructions.

Photo: Yoshi Fukuda

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