I was sure that the shock experienced the first time I visited the towns destroyed by the tsunami, would not be the same the second time. Yet, it still felt like a dream (or nightmare) driving by piles of cars, boats, houses and personal items. In some areas visible clean-up is obvious. In other areas it looks as if the tsunami hit yesterday. While at first glance, not much seems to have changed, I found some order, a tentative plan and a whole lot of acceptance. Much more than the unaffected, like myself can comprehend.
The unavoidable sight that checkered the landscape were massive mountains of somewhat organized trash. Clean-up measures include separation of salvageable, recyclable and dangerous items, the movement of these items to designated areas, the upkeep of these areas until final destination is found and decided. Authorities have been concerned with pest control and safety issues as an increase in mites, maggots and other pests have been found in addition to noxious fumes. In some places along
the Tohoku coast, trash removal and recycling companies have been employed as well as thousands of volunteers. On the bright side, if there can be one, Japan is known for their respect and honesty and the discovery and return of billions in yen (click link to fascinating article) found in personal and business safes among the rubble, is unimaginable in other parts of the world.
The “big picture” of recovery in the Tohoku region is that there is no “one size fits all” solution. Each town must
deal with the procedures, laws and capacity of many not-so-integrated institutions. While most of the complaining is that the federal government isn’t moving fast enough to decide how and where to disperse funds, many towns with more organized and intact local governments have seen more movement. The help towns and individuals receive often depends on the degree of damage. Some towns are so completely destroyed with few citizens left to give reason to re-build have just been left “as is.” Areas where private business, like convenience stores, can benefit, are re-built right away. And of course, the patchwork of NPO’s, churches, international organizations and individuals have been doing their best to find a niche or an area lacking help, roll up their sleeves and do whatever is needed.
Relief seems to be layered in three levels. The first is the emergency level that is aided with ‘all global hands on deck.’ This was seen in the first days and weeks of search and rescue missions, the distribution of food, water and shelter and safety measures. While not all bodies have been found yet (over 4000 nation-wide and nearly 300 in Yamada), most of this first phase has been completed.
The second phase is getting over 300,000 lives out of cardboard-walled-spaces in gymnasiums into some kind of respectable , safe living condition. Kasetsu’s (temporary housing) are being built as quickly as possible and family by family are being moved into what would be considered a one room studio in the west (approximately a 6 mat divided room and a 4 mat kitchen). They are allowed to live here, rent-free, for 2 years, however, the general feeling is an extension to 3 maybe 4 years is on the horizon. this is the phase Japan is in now. As a representative from Peace-boat echoed at a gathering of NPO’s at the US embassy last month, “Japan is not in the reconstruction phase yet!” This third reconstruction phase involving where and how to re-build is collectively agreed to be years away.
In Yamada, there are nearly 3000 people who have lost their homes. To date, 32 locations for temporary housing have been completed, each housing 50-100 people. As of last week, there were still 244 people living in evacuee centers awaiting the last two or three camps to be built. According to a representative from the Yamada Welfare department, these should be completed by the end of September. Prime Minister, Kan, often criticized for not moving fast enough, had promised 30,000 of these camps built nation-wide by the end of August. The count at the end of June was an impressive 27,200, consideringTamil Nadu, India, seven years after the 2004 tsunami has only managed to build 7,800 of these temporary housing camps, according to Jeff Kingston, in Tsunami:Japan’s Post-Fukushima Future.
Obaachan and I visited her sister Miya (mother of Takehiko and Ruriko, who lost t
heir lives in the tsunami), as she recounted the story of taking off up the steep stairway to the hill-side temple, all the while assuming her adult son was behind her. They later found a backpack of items t
hat he must have thought were important. Every time the topic of Takehiko came up
over the course of my recent Yamada trip the resolve was ‘nothing’ is more important then our lives. Many of the elderly commented that the younger generation didn’t remember the tsunami brought to their shores in the 60’s as a result of the Chile earthquake and that no matter what, ‘run to high ground’ was the take away. We sat in her one-room temporary housing discussing her new appliances and household items.
Miya will stay in this place as long as she can. No one mentioned re-building her home at age 80 plus, and with no children to care for her, some non-traditional arrangement may have to be made.
One of Toshiaki’s classmates, Masashi and his family were fortunate that no one was home when their home and everything they owned was ‘swept away.’ They, being younger than Miya, have decided to start a new life in Nagoya (an industrial city, south of Tokyo). Masashi was able to get work there, as well as an apartment with all the necessities for free, for a year (provided by the government). Masashi did tell us that their remaining $100,000 loan he had on his home has received a year extension from the bank before he will have to resume payments. He seemed to be grateful for that extension.
Before I left Yamada, I made a trip by myself to Miya’s place. I brought cookies (so lame, I know) and tried to tell her as best I could how heart-felt sorry myself, my family, my friends and everyone I knew were to hear of her tragedy. As the tears filled my eyes, she said softly almost consoling me, “It’s nature” and did the Japanese thing to do at that time, busy herself trying to find some gift she could give back to ME (okaeshi). Like I needed a gift beyond her demonstration of strength. I gratefully accepted the home-grown tomatoes that a previous visitor had given her and walked away in awe of this mother.