Japan fights its own bureaucracy to rebuild

Nearly a year after a major earthquake and tsunami, battered communities now struggle to overcome man-made obstacles.

View from a cemetary in Rikuzentakata [D.Parvaz/Al Jazeera]
The town of Rikuzentakata was devastated by the tsunami, which swept 8km inland [D.Parvaz/Al Jazeera]

Rikuzentakata, Japan – But for the piles of rubble on its waterfront, the Rikuzentakata of March 2012 bears little resemblance to the city it was after a massive earthquake and tsunami bashed its shoreline a year ago.

What remains isn’t much better. It’s mostly an emptiness – flat, muddy lots sit gape-mouthed where houses and shops once stood. All that is heard through the silence is the sound of the occasional piece of industrial equipment sorting through the large piles of rubble that dot the barren landscape, a legacy of the magnitude 9.0 quake of March 11, 2011.

The disaster resulted in approximately 20,000 deaths and annihilated a swathe of the island nation’s northeast coast, devastating small towns that thrived on fishing and farming.

At 515km north of Tokyo, the capital that bears no physical scars from the disasters, Rikuzentakata, in Iwate prefecture, was hit especially hard – with eight of the eleven emergency meeting points in the city washed away and virtually nothing left standing when monster waves rushed 8km inland on that chilly Friday.

Among the few things that remains standing is the 250-year-old Jododera Buddhist temple.

“If there had not been a tsunami, the building would not have had any damage at all,” said Mizuhaki Sugawara, the monk overseeing repairs at the temple – that looked, to this reporter, like it was only fit to be demolished.

“It’s only water damage, and it will be open by the end of the month,” he said, noting that there was at least a metre of debris still left in the temple.

The temple and a solitary tree – now named Ippon Matsu [“One Tree”] – remain standing on a coastline that once held 70,000 trees; symbols of hope for an otherwise gutted city.

The tree is dying as salt water leeches into its roots. Even so, people leave messages around its base. One message for Ippon Matsu said the tree would be reborn – a hope that people here hold for Rikuzentakata itself.

The bureaucracy of rebuilding

Ippon Matsu stands next to a building awaiting demolition in Rikuzentakata [D. Parvaz/Al Jazeera]

All of the roughly 21,000 registered residents in the small city now live inland, as far up the hill as possible. Roughly a quarter of households still live in emergency housing and are likely to remain there until the government can procure land on high ground for the building of new homes.

When Al Jazeera visited the town in September, six months after the disaster, we were told that the plan was for the debris to be gone in three years and for rebuilding to be complete within eight.

Even then, city spokesman Tomohiro Owada told us the shortage of land on high ground would be an issue and that he wasn’t sure how the prefecture’s rebuilding plans would come to fruition, which, given a $250bn national rebuilding budget set by the government, might seem surprising.

But a mixture of political squabbles, indecision and bureaucracy have stymied recovery in key areas.

None of Iwate’s neighbouring prefectures are willing accept the bulk of the roughly one million tons of radioactive detritus that has been left in huge piles.

And since the Daiichi nuclear plant to the south of the city was damaged, leaking radiation into the air, water and soil, anything to do with radioactivity – at any level – is a touchy subject.

“The law says that anything relating to garbage is dealt with on a prefectural level, and there is no mandate to make them accept it,” said Mikiya Kanehame, group leader for environment and safety at the local ward office.

Ironically, debris from the tsunami-ravaged northeast coast has drifted as far as the shores of Hawaii before Rikuzentakata’s rubble has been allowed to travel to recycling plants just a few kilometres down the road.

Kanehame hastens to add that the level of radiation in the various piles – from 38 becquerel/kg for paper waste to 1,480 bq/kg for textiles – are well below the national safety limit of 8,000 bq/kg.

“But can we say absolutely it’s safe? No, we can’t,” he said. And there’s no way Rikuzentakata can process it all on its own.

“The rubble is equivalent to 170 years of regular trash that the city would generate,” said Kanehame. So while nearby Ofunato is helping with some of the concrete recycling, most of the debris is staying put.

Until that is gone, neither the waterfront, nor the 12.5 metre-high retaining wall can be rebuilt. The waves that hit Rikuzentakata’s shores were estimated to be as high as 23m.

Pushing forward nonetheless

On a frigid Thursday morning in Ofunato, 16km north of Rikuzentakata, the employees of food wholesaler Taisan Shoji sit in a tent as a Shinto priest performs a blessing.

A Shinto priest blesses a construction site where a fish market will be built in Ofunato [D. Parvaz/Al Jazeera]

The site was home to a fish market catering to restaurants, but, like everything else on Ofunato’s waterfront, it was washed away.

Construction on a new market and an ice factory are due to start at the end of March, even though the city has not yet started construction on its retaining wall, leaving the new facilities vulnerable, should another tsunami hit.

But he said there’s no way his company can wait years for a retaining wall to finally be built.

“Of course we’re worried about it, but we have to start rebuilding and providing product to our customers,” said Manabu Torisawa, general manager of the company.

“With this ceremony, we are letting the gods know that we will start rebuilding, hopefully without incident.”

His is not the only business anxious to rebuild. Small businesses have sprung up in clusters along the waterfront in pre-fabricated bungalows with names such as the Dream Shopping Centre, where florist Sato (who declined to give her first name) said she wasn’t concerned with working on the lowlands, so close to the coast.

“The emergency evacuation system has been established, and we know where to go and even where to guide our customers,” said 30-year-old Sato, seeming quite confident – even though the flower shop she was now working in was a replacement for the one that was destroyed in the tsunami.

Akio Niiyama, whose ceramics workshop was lost in the earthquake, seemed far more resigned – though not entirely fatalistic – to the possibility of another tsunami.

“Whatever will be will be,” said the 65-year-old, as he prepared okonomiyaki, a Japanese rice and egg omelette, for the lunch crowd in his tiny restaurant, Naniwaya.

“I plan on being here for three years and then re-opening my ceramics shop while I’m still in my 60s.’

‘Face and resolve’

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Up the hill from Niiyama’s restaurant, Ofunato’s mayor, Kimiaki Toda, is hatching more pragmatic plans at the ward office.

Immediately after the disaster, Toda started strategising how to get his community not only back on its feet, but in better shape than before.

He put in place a detailed ten-year-plan six months ago, and so, when the government finally released its budget for reconstruction, Toda said Ofunato was in the prime position to receive that funding and to get the ball rolling.

“Everything is urgent,” he said, when asked about priorities. Securing land on high ground for new housing, tending to the needs of those in temporary housing, building a new retaining wall, coming up with the best use for the waterfront’s “risky land”, overseeing 233 rebuilding projects – while coming up with a plan to keep young people, whose “minds are in Tokyo,” he said, all jockey for his attention.

“However, our human resource to carry out all these projects is limited … that’s why we’re requesting manpower from other towns, cities and villages,” said the mayor, who added that he was aware that rebuilding the waterfront before building the retaining wall was somewhat risky.

“But big tsunami like that…comes once every 100 years,” said Toda. He’s also aware that the retaining wall – which will be 11.5m at its highest – still would not protect the lowlands from flooding should another huge wave wash in.

Still, Ofunato is in better shape than most.

It is among 11 districts to get a certificate from the government promising financial incentives to new businesses in the area.

Toda’s plan is to attract the solar energy industry to Ofunato, thereby addressing several issues – dependency on nuclear energy, a shortage of jobs, an ageing population and a decreasing salary base (the average annual salary here is $24,000).

The mayor said there had not been any issue with radioactive debris in the city. And while the hardest-hit prefectures have only been able to dispose of some five per cent of their debris (the target is to be debris-free by March 2014), ward records show that Ofunato has already disposed of 27 per cent of its 837,000 tons of debris, in addition to helping Rikuzentakata with some of its burden.

He hopes media pressure will compel neighbouring prefectures to help handle the tsunami debris, radioactive or not.

“Even mayors of other cities are saying: ‘[We] would like to help, but due to opposition from residents, we can’t,'” said Toda.

“We are the same as them, human beings, living in the same area – we are also afraid of radiation, but we continue to stay … to rebuild.”

Of course, it hasn’t been easy.

“Three months, we lost,” he said, referring to how long quibbling between parties in congress delayed the release of the rebuilding budget.

“They pass the bucket,” said Toda, using a Japanese idiom for avoiding problems.

“They must face the problems and resolve them – face and resolve – because right now, Japanese society, we are on the edge of a cliff.”

Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @DParvaz

Source: Al Jazeera