Reconstructing a town amid an uncertain future


By Sayaka Matsumoto in Rikuzentakata

An unusually long, hot summer has ended, and the mountains have started to turn red and yellow. As we near the coastline, long, scrubby grass encroaches on the roadsides as if this land had always been neglected. But the square outlines marking the foundations of houses, still visible among the grass reminds me that this area was claimed by the tsunami.

I’m visiting Mr. and Mrs. Kumagai who live in a prefabricated home in Rikuzentakata. I first met them in June 2011, three months after the tsunami, and this is the third time I have visited them. Their temporary home is located on the hill affording them a view of the flat land where a central part of the town used to be.

Staying Positive

Back in 2011 I asked them whether they were saddened to see the affected place every day, and they replied: “We have got used to it, since this is the reality - we have to accept it.” Those words helped me appreciate the strength of the people in the affected area and that I must also remain positive, despite being a Tokyo resident and relatively unaffected myself.

Yuuki and Teruko Kumagai warmly welcomed us into the small living room in which the television and hot water dispenser donated by Japanese Red Cross can be seen. The most dramatic change in their life is the fact that their current house is very small. “We used to live in a house on a 500 square maters section, but now the houses are separated only by a tin wall” says Yuuki. “On the other hand, it is good that I have started to talk to more people as a consequence of living so close together” says Teruko. “But,” she says, “I feel sorry for families with small children or pets.”

I ask about plans for rebuilding the town. “According to the local government it will take at least three more years to start building permanent homes, and it might take ten years to complete the reconstruction of the town. We were initially told that we would be living in this temporary house for three years, so we are worried about what might happen in one-and-a-half years’ time” says Yuuki. The vision of the local government is to excavate nearby hillsides in order to create flat land, and also bring in truck loads of soil to raise the level of the land which currently lies close to sea-level. Once these measures have been taken, construction of the city hall, shops and houses can begin.

Future Uncertain

However Yuuki notes ruefully: “They have not even started the negotiations with land owners let alone the earth works. It’s just a, bit like a cake drawn on paper”. “By the time land is ready, I will be over eighty. I won’t have enough money to build a new house. I don’t know what kind of support I will receive from the government. Even if I ask those questions no-one has any answers. Our future is very uncertain.”

Yuuki is already retired, but for those of working age, the situation is even worse. Many younger people have moved inland to look for work. The population of Rikuzentakata was 24,000 before the disaster. An estimated 2,000 people were killed by the tsunami, and according to the city’s official web site the population as of September 2012 was 20,772 and decreasing. “When the new town is completed, I wonder if there will be anybody to live there” says Yuuki.

Teruko serves us tea every ten minutes and despite treating us to mandarins, sweetly cooked figs and cookies, she tells us that she cannot buy the fresh vegetables and fish she was once able to. Fisherman operating large vessels have managed to re-start their livelihoods, but the fish they catch are sold in the markets in the larger cities, while the small-scale fisherman who once supplied the local markets have not ventured back to sea. Teruko laments that she is now forced to buy small fish that would formerly have been thrown back into the sea.

Continuing Hobby

Despite the ongoing inconvenience they are forced to suffer, and the anxiety they hold toward the future, Yuuki continues to enjoy his hobby of ten pin bowling, even though he has to drive further than before in order to play; and Teruko participates in every single social event happening in the common room shared by the members of this temporary community. They told us about a trip they took to the other side of Japan organized by a support group-something they never did before the disaster.

We cannot ignore the fact that reconstruction of those coastal towns will take at least ten years, or even longer. Japanese Red Cross is not in a position to speed up that process, but however long it takes, I would like to keep visiting this family until they are finally able to move into their new permanent house and are able to get used to their new town. As we drive down the hill from the Kumagai’s house we see an area destined for rebuilding, but partly covered by brightly coloured, daisy-like cosmos flowers. While the city fathers debate the future of this town, nature has clearly decided to move ahead.