TOHOKU - The street that runs from the train station and Ishinomaki town hall to the broad river that bisects this town – one of the hardest hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in north-east Japan – is showing signs of recovery.
One year after the most devastating natural disaster to strike Japan in living memory, the silt, crushed cars, boats and debris of every description that was deposited here by the tidal wave have been cleared away and shop window glass has been replaced.
Some stores are back in business. A florist with colourful selections in the window stands next to a women’s wear boutique and a small electrical store. A little way further along the road are a cafe and a shoe shop.
The effort is brave, but there are still many stores that are boarded up and big gaps where buildings that were too badly damaged were simply pulled down.
Ishinomaki, in Miyagi prefecture, suffered no fewer than seven tsunami waves on that fateful day, several measuring 10m high and travelling 5km inland. About 46 per cent of the town was flooded and 29,000 homes destroyed. Of Ishinomaki’s 164,294 residents before March 11 last year, more than 3,000 were killed and some 2,000 are still listed as missing.
Pumps keep up a constant hum and discharge dirty water over the new sea wall and back into the river. That is going to be a constant task as the magnitude-9 quake caused the coastline here to fall as much as 1.2m.
Amid all the hardship, however, life must go on.
“I used to own the liquor store in town, but it was destroyed in the tsunami, along with my home,” says Mr Kote Sato, 52. “My father opened that shop in the late 1940s, but it’s all gone now. At least my family are safe.”
Mr Sato lived in the Minami-sanriku suburb of Utatsu-cho, also in Miyagi, and had been on a delivery run to a neighbouring town when the earthquake and tsunami struck. It took him three days to walk home and he was faced with a scene of utter devastation.
Like many people who lost their livelihoods and the possessions of a lifetime, Mr Sato says he had neither energy nor motivation to rebuild his business. It was not until he was invited to a party in the temporary housing units where he now lives that he was able to rediscover that motivation.
“One person said they wished we had a liquor store here so we could have parties more often,” he says. “I told them that I used to own a liquor store and they all encouraged me to start again.”
With the backing of his friends and the financial support of the Refugees In Japan NGO, Mr Sato has opened a liquor store in a large tent erected on high ground behind the village school. Open on weekends, it has effectively become a gathering place for the community.
“I wanted to start my business in the original place, but I’m doing another job as well now, driving a bus, so this place suits my schedule,” says Mr Sato.
Twelve months on from the triple disaster of quake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, the coastal towns of Tohoku – the north-eastern region of Japan which consists of six prefectures including Miyagi – look very different.
Where there were once piles of mangled, unrecognisable debris, there is now order of a sort. The remnants of these towns are being sorted – with typical Japanese thoroughness – into mounds of plastic, piles of wood that have come from buildings, lengths of lumber and metals. Cars are separated a stage further, between those that caught fire and are blackened and rusted, and those that are merely crushed.
All along the coast, diggers and trucks are in constant motion taking away the physical reminders of last March, but there is precious little progress yet on the reconstruction of these communities. Many of them still have no concrete reconstruction plans.
“The government is largely responsible. They did nothing,” declares landscape architect and urban planning expert Mikiko Ishikawa.
Soon after March 11, Professor Ishikawa had proposed a “pairing system” that calls for cities unaffected by the disaster to be paired with cities that were hit in order to provide more efficient help.
She borrowed that idea from China, which used such a “pairing system” to great effect in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in which millions of Chinese were made homeless.
An emergency meeting of the Science Council of Japan – an august body bringing together the nation’s top scientists – endorsed Prof Ishikawa’s proposal.
“But no one in the government listened to my idea when we announced it, as there was confusion all over,” recalls Prof Ishikawa.
So she decided to devote her energy to helping her hometown, Iwanuma city in Miyagi prefecture, where thousands of people had to flee when tsunami mowed down their homes close to the sea.
She proposed pairing her employer, Tokyo University, with Iwanuma. The university, Japan’s most prestigious, agreed to support her.
Wasting no time, she set up a restoration committee last April that included local officials, elders from each of the small communities that were destroyed by the tsunami, as well as representatives of both young and old residents. After intense discussions, the different groups reached a consensus, agreeing to jointly build a new town further inland for up to 6,000 people.
Prof Ishikawa drew on her experience as one of many foreign experts who helped Beijing with proposals to rebuild thousands of communities damaged in the Sichuan quake.
For Iwanuma city, she envisages the construction of an experimental town that will cater to Japan’s rapidly ageing society by providing easy access to medical care for elderly residents.
Doctors at Tokyo University, she says, are interested in helping to set up a high-tech medical cluster in Iwanuma that will feature research labs and pharmaceutical makers, providing jobs for locals.
Prof Ishikawa hopes the new town, which will be close to Sendai Airport, will be ready in three years’ time.
On Jan 31, a request was submitted to the government for 16 billion yen (S$250 million ) in aid. “We expect a reply by April,” she says.
If the recovery here is making visible headway, there are no such signs further south.
A 20km exclusion zone remains in place around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors and police roadblocks sit across all roads leading to the plant, dividing villages in two. One such village is Kawauchi.
A geiger counter sits on the table in the living room of Norio and Michiko Ide, its red light blinking and the read-out showing an hourly rate of 0.17 microsieverts – low by global standards.
Mr Ide, 64, had to retire from farming as a result of the nuclear accident.
“We evacuated on March 12 and live in Koriyama now, coming back once every 10 days or so to make sure everything is OK,” he says. “This house is about 1 km outside the exclusion zone and they say it’s safe here, but there’s no wall, no line where we can say for sure that’s where it becomes dangerous.”
They do not want their three children and three grandchildren to return to the village until they can be absolutely sure that it is safe.
And that might take generations.
On the third anniversary of the disaster, we look at how life has changed - or not - for the survivors and the country.
Other stories from our archives
A year after the devastating triple disaster, rebuilding lives and industry along Japan’s north-eastern Tohoku region, especially the three hardest-hit prefectures, has been painfully slow.
Mrs Takako Niinuma, 75, has vowed to return the Takata Matsubara forest devastated by the March 11 earthquake to its former glory for the sake of future generations.
Japan is scrambling to find alternative energy sources as the lights go out at its nuclear power plants this year.
Mrs Naomi Hiratsuka is now still searching for four children and a teacher whose bodies have not been recovered.
Mrs Masako Karino cannot bring herself to return to what is left of Okawa Elementary School. The battered shell of the school was where both her children died when the tsunami hit.
Singaporean Lai Ying Loong has been making weekend trips to the Tohoku region about once a month, joining other volunteers first in clearing debris and then in bringing cheer to survivors.
Ms Ruiko Sasahara, a mortician by profession, has been volunteering since disaster struck last year, repairing battered faces so that surviving relatives can say their final farewells.
Red tape and lack of skilled manpower are holding up the reconstruction of disaster-hit areas in Japan, even two years after it was slammed by giant tremors and tsunami waves.