The mention of “tsunami” still gives rice farmer Fumihiko Yamaki the shakes.
“I was on my way to my greenhouses about 250m from my house when it struck,” the 42-year-old recalls, the scene still fresh in his mind.Giant waves set off by a 9-magnitude earthquake on March 11 last year cut a path of devastation as they rolled inland along Japan’s north-east coast.
As the waters approached Iwanuma city, Miyagi prefecture, where Mr Yamaki lives, the father of two quickly bundled his family into his car and sped off, fleeing ahead of the wave that engulfed their two-storey house, situated a good 1.7km from the coast.
A year on, Mr Yamaki has started planting again. But he is one of only three farmers among some 300 in his area able to do so.Rebuilding lives and industry along Japan’s north-eastern Tohoku region, especially the three hardest-hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, has been painfully slow. More than three million people were affected.
The earthquake and tsunami laid waste to almost the entire stretch of the Pacific coastline of the Tohoku region. They took away at least 16,000 lives and uprooted about 430,000 people who had to move elsewhere. In all, 360,000 houses, together with its occupants’ possessions, were destroyed.
Economic losses are estimated at 17 trillion yen (S$261.4 billion), and this is not even counting the financial fallout from the meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which has yet to be toted up.
On the first anniversary of the triple disaster tomorrow, the Tohoku landscape is not pretty and its economic future grim. Coastal areas remain dotted with the foundations and empty shells of buildings and neat stacks of debris awaiting disposal.
Communities within a 20km radius of the nuclear plant have become ghost towns, fears of radiation having driven thousands of residents out of their homes. Huge fishing boats tossed ashore by the waves remain exactly where they landed. Rusty vehicles, many turned on their sides and crushed, are everywhere.
There are inevitable comparisons between the situation in Tohoku and that in the western city of Kobe, which was flattened by a huge quake in 1995.
Kobe city, with 1.5 million people, took more than 10 years to recover.
By all calculations, the affected Tohoku region, which is spread over a far greater area than Kobe, will need decades to rebuild – and to heal.
The government has an 18 trillion yen budget that can help the region’s devastated communities and jobless residents get back on their feet, provided it and local officials can get their act together.
Still, there are a few bright spots.
US billionaire investor Warren Buffett gave the area a much-needed vote of confidence during a visit to Iwaki city in Fukushima prefecture last November. The city lies just 40km from the crippled nuclear power plant.
March 11 had not changed his view on investing in Japan, which has “lots of opportunities”, declared the tycoon. He was visiting the country for the first time to attend a ceremony marking the completion of a new plant for cutting tool maker Tungaloy, in which he has an investment.
In June, Central Motor, a Toyota subsidiary, moved its headquarters from Kanagawa prefecture, south of Tokyo, to Miyagi as planned. The move had been delayed by three months due to the quake.
Central Motor’s new headquarters shares a site with a plant that produces Toyota vehicles. Although the tsunami destroyed export-ready new cars parked at Sendai port, the plant suffered only minimal damage and was able to resume operations just over a month later.
Fortunately, too, Tohoku’s main manufacturing centres were not so badly hit. Auto and electronics plants owned by major companies resumed production while dislocated supply chains were restored a few months later.
By December last year, 95.1 per cent of all major industrial companies located in Tohoku had resumed normal operations, according to data compiled by the Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry. They included companies that make electronic devices, transport machinery, steel and paper pulp.
But all this is cold comfort for Tohoku residents hoping to see more companies move into the area to create jobs. Nearly 110,000 people lost their jobs as a result of March 11. As of December last year, about half still have not found employment.
The exodus of Japanese companies to other countries continues for a number of reasons, chief among which are the high yen, which makes their products more expensive, and flagging domestic consumption, which means the companies cannot sell as much of their products at home as before.
“The hollowing-out of Japanese industry was triggered by the 2008 Lehman shock. March 11 has only given it an extra impetus,” says chief economist Hideo Kumano of Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.
In Tohoku, it is the small local businesses that suffer the most. Many remain shuttered, their owners unable to get new loans to rebuild their businesses.
Reconstruction is also hampered by local authorities undecided about what to do with disaster-hit localities.
Some residents, fed up of waiting for officials to make up their minds, took matters into their own hands.
Oyster farm worker Kiyonori Kudo, 73, used to live by the sea in Minami-sanriku, Miyagi, but lost his house to the tsunami. Without bothering to find out where the authorities intend to relocate him, Mr Kudo built a new house on unused farmland further inland for himself, his wife and his son’s family of four.
Like Mr Kudo, Mr Choichiro Abe, 63, who runs a fish shop in Ishinomaki city, also in Miyagi, is furious with government officials. He borrowed 20 million yen to fix up his fish shop and resumed business in July.
Five months later, he was told to move as the local government wanted to widen the road in front of his shop. Twenty other shops were similarly affected.
“I cannot forgive them for bullying those of us who are only trying to get back on our feet,” Mr Abe told the Mainichi Shimbun daily.While the world at large sees Japan as a nation that has shown itself capable of overcoming natural disasters successfully many times in the past, the aftermath of March 11 painted an embarrassing picture of an oftentimes bumbling and indecisive political leadership.
A recent report by an independent private-sector panel gave the administration of then prime minister Naoto Kan a failing grade for its handling of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima.
Japan’s nuclear energy establishment, the report said, was totally unprepared for the disaster. Confusion reigned in the government, preventing the prime minister from being kept up to date on developments as the crisis unfolded.
The head of the country’s nuclear watchdog panel had told Mr Kan that the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 plant would not explode, just hours before one of them blew its top.
These days, Tohoku’s restoration is increasingly taking a back seat to political tug-of-wars. Almost-daily threats by the opposition to force early general elections are preventing Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda from focusing on more pressing matters. In fact, his popularity has sunk below 30 per cent in most opinion surveys, only six months after he took office.
“I think the government is approaching the restoration of Tohoku in a positive manner. But it is not accompanied by the implementation of actual policies. Even when there is action, it lacks speed,” says Ms Katsura Komami, a 36-year-old company worker.
“The Kan administration held a lot of meetings on reconstruction, but did not come up with any concrete restoration plans for post-quake Tohoku,” says Mr Kumano, the economist.
“There was no vision for post-quake Tohoku. To be fair, nor is there any now under Mr Noda,” he adds.
Poor leadership from Tokyo and indecisive local officials aside, a major stumbling block to reconstruction is the mountains of debris, from pieces of wood and concrete to toxic and metallic substances, sitting at makeshift sites. They are awaiting final disposal but the quantities far exceed what local municipalities can handle.
Iwate prefecture has 4.8 million tonnes of debris, or 11 times the annual volume of garbage it produces. Miyagi has 15.7 million tonnes, also 11 times its annual garbage output.
The government hopes to get rid of all the debris by 2014 but that requires cities outside Tohoku to chip in. For now, only Tokyo has agreed to help.
The fishing industry, a crucial mainstay of many coastal communities in Tohoku, was sunk by the tsunami which wrecked fleets of fishing boats and devastated nearly 300 ports.
Thousands of Japanese whose livelihoods depend on the fishing industry have been left sitting idle in the months after March 11. Rebuilding Tohoku’s fisheries is critical to providing jobs again to the local people.
Fish hauls at key ports have been picking up slowly, but unless damaged ports are repaired and those destroyed rebuilt, it is a languishing industry.
In the city of Kesennuma, famous for its shark’s fin exports, fewer than 10 fishery processing firms have resumed business; another 40 had to call it quits.
In Ishinomaki, 80 per cent of fishery companies were knocked out by the disaster and most have not resumed operations. The rebuilding of its port has been delayed as the land has sunk by as much as 1.5m in places.
A fisheries expert, Professor Masayuki Komatsu of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, does not believe that Tohoku’s fishing industry can be revived just by restoring fishing ports to their pre-quake condition.
Port facilities need to be modernised if Japan’s fisheries are to compete successfully against foreign competitors, he says.
But the government’s aid budget for Tohoku is earmarked for only “rebuilding” and not for new projects.
Moreover, Prof Komatsu says, Tohoku fishermen, half of whom are over 60 years old, resist change and reject anything that might upset their traditional livelihood. In jealously guarding their age-old fishing rights, they shut out private-sector investments that can at least shore up, if not save, their industry. They also reject newcomers, who are needed to rejuvenate the ageing population.
“The leaders of the local fishermen’s groups are in their 70s and 80s, too old to think 20 to 30 years ahead,” says Prof Komatsu. He was part of a team of experts who made recommendations to modernise the fishing industry last June. These included integrating smaller ports and facilities into hubs for greater efficiency, and opening up fishing rights to allow in more entrants.
“I told them about the modernisation of fisheries in Europe and elsewhere but they are unwilling to do anything about it,” he says.
There are other problems.
In Miyagi, for example, the tsunami washed away 90 per cent of its 12,000 fishing boats. About 30 per cent of its elderly fishermen want to give up fishing altogether.
“There will be no more fisheries in Miyagi within the next few decades,” Mr Yoshihiro Murai, the prefecture’s governor, warns.His efforts to attract investments by setting up special zones where corporations and individuals can be allocated fishing rights have been rejected by local fishermen, who instead accuse him of trying to devastate their industry.
“The idea that companies can just back out if they can’t make a profit goes against the very philosophy of fishing,” says Mr Minoru Kimura, head of Miyagi’s prefectural fishing cooperative.
Not just fishermen, but many farmers in Tohoku too are out of work after the tsunami destroyed almost 24,000ha of farmland, much of it rice fields.
But the government probably has more luck introducing new ideas to the farming sector. For example, high-tech vegetable factories that use hydroponics for cultivation, thus avoiding the need for soil which may be contaminated by radiation or salt.
A popular Italian restaurant chain plans to grow tomatoes in a Sendai vegetable factory that can produce three times more tomatoes than a traditional outdoor farm. The enclosed environment also helps prevent vegetables from getting contaminated by radiation, which is still a problem in many parts of Fukushima.
In Minami-Soma, part of which is less than 20km from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, similar vegetable factories will grow flowers and fruit.
To Mr Yamaki, the rice farmer, things are finally looking up after he learnt how to grow salt-resistant tomatoes on salt- laden farmland.
“The project gave us hope. I was doubtful at first but when we actually harvested the tomatoes in August, my wife and I became upbeat about our future,” he says.
In May, he expects to start planting rice on 25ha of farmland. Nineteen of those hectares will be planted at the request of farmers who lost their farming machinery or their houses.
Asked how long he expects his farm business to take to return to pre-March 11 levels, Mr Yamaki replies after some thought: “Perhaps five years.”
Even as the government is still figuring out how to rebuild Tohoku, Mr Yutaka Okada, a senior economist with the Mizuho Research Institute, suggests that its role goes beyond rebuilding shattered cities; it has an equally important role of building even better communities for the future.
The central government now has the budget for reconstruction and is waiting for the local authorities to put up their requests so that it can compile an overall restoration programme by March 31.
But local officials are making a mess of things, says Mr Okada, who does research on the revitalisation of regional economies in Japan, because they have no clear idea about what should be done now and what should be done later.
That is not surprising, since the government itself has no clue about what the future of Tohoku should be, he adds.
“At the national level, neither the ruling party nor the opposition has come up with any long-term vision for Japan,” Mr Okada says. “Local governments do not have the expertise to draw up long-term visions for their own communities. Officials are only concerned about how to use up the budgets that they will get.”
The government expects to allocate more than 2 trillion yen initially to Tohoku municipalities to repair broken levees, bridges and roads and other social infrastructure.
But Mr Okada believes the policies to be simplistic, and detrimental to the future of Tohoku, whose population is not only ageing but also shrinking as more young people head to the big cities.
Concerned that the two-year-old Noda administration is not up to the task of turning things around in Tohoku, the largest-circulating Yomiuri Shimbun daily felt compelled to ask whether the Japanese have been able to apply the lessons of the Kobe quake.
Hyogo prefecture, in which Kobe is located, has produced a book that identifies 100 lessons to be learnt from the earthquake, based on its experience in post-disaster reconstruction. However, the fact is that most young Japanese, including many in the government, are too young to remember the events of 1995.
Mr Okada, who has studied Kobe’s post-quake reconstruction, points out that it was not without faults. The city’s mistake, he says, was in rebuilding totally and not throwing away anything.
“Kobe chose to retain its steelmakers and other heavy industries as they were seen as local industries. Because of this, Kobe is now behind other cities in industrial transformation,” he notes.
“Much of its business has been taken away by neighbouring Osaka. Kobe port has also lost out to South Korea’s Busan.”In Tohoku’s case, he lays the blame on the government for not spending enough time on planning and for not taking a long-term view. “We should think in terms of decades. We should also bring in ideas from abroad,” he says.
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:
One of the streets in Ishinomaki hardest hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in north-east Japan – is showing signs of recovery.
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.