A year after Japan’s triple disaster, an uncertain recovery

ISHINOMAKI, Japan — One year later, nothing is resolved.

The rubble and ocean muck of last March 11 have been scrubbed from every wall, pulled from every basement and picked from every crevasse. Now the debris is piled in terraced mountains at the edge of this town along Japan’s tsunami-devastated northeastern coastline.

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But even after months of cleanup, the reconstruction remains at a starting point, equally capable of taking off or faltering, depending on whether people stick around.

A full recovery, if it’s possible, will take at least a decade, authorities say. Residents along the battered coast must be willing to endure trying conditions — prefab houses that don’t stay warm; communities that don’t provide jobs; grief that doesn’t abate — all because they hope that, eventually, they will regain normal lives in functional towns.

It’s a bargain that Takahiro Chiba struggles with every day. He says his city, one of the region’s largest and hardest hit, feels just livable enough to tolerate, but not yet livable enough to commit to.

“I don’t want to stay in Ishinomaki anymore,” Chiba says on a Tuesday.

“I’m really thinking we should stay in Ishinomaki,” Chiba says on a Thursday.

Chiba sees more hope than he did a year ago. It’s not just all the debris that has been cleared away. Workers at the city hall are trying to attract clean-energy projects and offering tax incentives for businesses that relocate here. Lifelines have returned. A department store reopened this week.

The progress of the last year, though, doesn’t begin to offset the damage of Japan’s greatest crisis since World War II. The triple disaster — an earthquake, a tsunami, a resulting triple meltdown at a nuclear plant — left 19,000 dead and displaced some 342,000 from their homes. Because of public opposition to nuclear power, only two of Japan’s 54 reactors are now in operation, prompting energy companies to fire up old thermal plants and import more coal and gas.

In the aftermath of the disaster, Ishinomaki all but stopped. Gas stations had no fuel and stores had no food. Neighborhoods had been shredded.

But people here say that cleanup was the easy part — all strategy, no planning. The city only now is “at a crossroads,” said Toru Asano, the chamber of commerce chairman.

The hard part begins here, coordinating an economic recovery when thousands are in debt and have no permanent place to live. Some 6,000 have fled and 7,000 live in temporary housing, units built so hastily and with so little insulation that one town official likened them to “huts.” Tens of thousands of others have seen their lives overturned by the disaster. In a town of 153,000, one of every three homes was damaged or destroyed by the wave. Many of those people have crowded into relatives’ homes or remained in damaged houses to avoid the temporary housing.

The tsunami surged head-on at the food and paper factories on the waterfront, then charged up the Kitakami River and spilled into the main shopping areas downtown. A city that once depended on the water, primarily for its fishing industry and ports, had been deluged by it.

The wave itself drew a new line between haves and have-nots, and those who lived a few miles inland, close to the four-lane roads and suburban megamalls, actually saw their land prices skyrocket. Disaster survivors rushed to rebuild in the spots that hadn’t been leveled in the first place — a “land war,” one resident called it. The many who couldn’t afford to build new homes, or couldn’t find land, felt stuck.

“Ishinomaki has been divided into two parts — heaven and hell,” said community center worker Toshihiko Fujita, who lives in a condemned and unheated home where feral cats roam the first floor. “The city is being swallowed by feelings of jealousy.”

‘We have to reset our lives’

The Chibas lived and worked on the have-not side of town. The family — Chiba, 39; his wife, Noriko, 36; their three children, ages 6 to 11, and Chiba’s father, Takashi, 68 — lives together on the second floor of a partially damaged home, where on March 11 Chiba’s mother, in the garage at the time, was killed by the tsunami wave.

The family sushi restaurant, Sukeroku, is still standing, but it was ransacked by the wave and faces several major problems if it ever reopens. The 9.0-magnitude earthquake caused the land to sink, meaning that Sukeroku — like other downtown businesses — is suddenly prone to flooding. Amid the suburban migration, few customers come downtown anyway; a year later, 40 percent of citywide business activity is knocked out, but the low-lying areas remain almost entirely empty.

Chiba, once a sushi chef, printed new business cards that read, above his name, “UNEMPLOYED (by Tsunami).”

His father, who was once head chef at the restaurant, now spends eight hours most days at a horse racing track 30 minutes inland, gambling on 3-year-olds like Blue Note and American Saloon with hopes of earning some spending money for the family.

In the weeks after the disaster, Chiba’s father drank sake starting in the afternoon. (“It was his way of dealing with the stress,” Chiba said.) Chiba subsisted chiefly on cigarettes and cleaned out the family garage where three cars had been destroyed. The family, with no running water, covered their toilets with plastic bags and threw the waste into the streets, already knee-high with debris. Half of Chiba’s friends quickly moved out of town. The situation, his wife said, “felt hopeless.”

About a month after the disaster, she was shopping at a big-box furniture store in the suburbs when she heard an ad on a local radio station. An American husband and Japanese wife in Rockland, Maine, were looking for a sushi chef for their restaurant. As a form of charity, they wanted someone from Japan’s northeastern region. The chef could come on a three-year contract. An empty house, owned by a local real estate manager, was already waiting for them.

“This opportunity was meant for our family,” she told her husband. “We have to reset our lives. I can’t even think about rebuilding here.”

Chiba agreed.

“It’s our fresh start,” he said.

Ishinomaki 2.0

Chiba’s knowledge of Maine was limited to just three things — lobster, L.L. Bean and Stephen King — but he didn’t care. He preferred to think about what Maine didn’t have.

It didn’t have a leaking nuclear plant 75 miles to the south, leading to worries about contamination of the local seafood catch. It didn’t have a coastline of tsunami-pulverized food processing plants, whose rotting remains of food stank the skies and attracted insects the size of your thumbnail. It didn’t have the despair caused by mourning and homelessness, with weekly reports of suicides.

Chiba pressed ahead with the Maine plan, calling it his “one ray of hope” in an essay last summer for his U.S. visa application.

But he has had trouble with the visa process, even though the Maine restaurant owners are willing to sponsor him. Meantime, the longer the Chibas stay, the more they second-guess the idea of moving.

Chiba’s dad, who first opened the restaurant in 1972, says he won’t go with the rest of the family. (“It’s not an option,” he said. “I’m too old, and moving is too painful.”) Nobody in the family speaks much English, and in rare moments when Chiba hears the language, it flows too quickly for him to pick up even the words he knows; only the Hellos and OKs are decipherable.

“I have a very ambivalent feeling,” Chiba said.

“I feel ambivalent, too,” his wife said. “Ishinomaki is being cleaned up.”

In the past year, Ishinomaki has been flooded with volunteers — some 240,000 in total — and some days, it almost feels like a boomtown. Men on ladders. Trucks hauling wood and steal beams. People fixing up damaged homes, repairing shutters, installing new garage doors, filling in cracked walls.

Bumper stickers read “Ishinomaki 2.0,” but the city can only recover so quickly. There’s a 10-year reconstruction plan, with the aim to restore old factories and ports while also attracting renewable energy projects. But the first three years of the plan focus mostly on infrastructure. That starts with importing mass amounts of soil and raising the coastal land. Any factory or business that reopens now, city officials say, will probably do so only temporarily, a frustration to business owners like Chiba who don’t want to halt operations and remodel again after the land is raised.

Looming decisions

Chiba has found purpose in the last months, both watching his town and helping it, assisting at a makeshift ramen stand. He has turned his old carpentry hobby into a part-time job, spending his days in a makeshift wood shop, where he creates and sells picnic tables, lazy Susans and bird cages.

He doesn’t really miss life as a chef, which required six workdays per week, staying behind the bar until 2 a.m. But Chiba knows he needs a proper job soon, because his family, for now, is depending on a mixture of savings, the furniture sales and the winnings at the horse track.

On a recent afternoon, Chiba left his woodshop and walked five blocks down the road to his old restaurant, just to have a look. He grabbed a few weeks’ worth of bills from the mailbox, then unlocked the door. The sushi bar was dusty, covered with tools for a complete renovation job that hasn’t started but still might. Mold caked the walls. Lines of sediment showed where the water had topped off last year.

“This used to be one of the best places for a business,” Chiba said of the downtown area. “I’m amazed how little is left.”

The sun was setting, and Chiba turned on the lights.

His wife and kids were at home. His dad was at the track. Outside the restaurant, the streets were clean but empty, and Chiba talked about the work it would take to rebuild his restaurant right where it’s always been.

“All these looming questions are in my mind,” Chiba said. “I just really have to think.”

Special correspondent Ayako Mie contributed to this report.

 
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