By Martin Fackler
September 12, 2011
MINAMISANRIKU, Japan — Six months after Japan’s deadly earthquake and tsunami, the naked steel frame of the former Disaster Management Center stands like a tombstone over the flattened field of weed-covered debris that was once this town’s center. People come from near and far to pray before the three-story structure, turning it into a shrine of sorts for the town officials who died here.
Amid the white flowers, smoldering incense and bottles of beer and whiskey left to comfort the dead, there are also signs of rancor. A long handwritten letter, laminated to shed the rain, criticizes the failure to tear down the structure as callous disregard for the families of those who perished.
“This thing should be destroyed right away,” demands the letter, which is signed by the father of a victim.
The people of northeastern Japan won global admiration for their stoic dignity and communal spirit after the disaster on March 11, which ravaged hundreds of miles of coast and left more than 20,000 people dead or missing and hundreds of thousands homeless. But these days, that unity is fraying amid frustration in remote towns, like this one, that feel left behind.
In some of the tsunami-stricken areas, particularly the more prosperous regions closer to the city of Sendai, the removal of millions of tons of debris is progressing rapidly. Large improvised disposal facilities are grinding up broken concrete and wood into landfill material for reconstruction. But in the poorer fishing regions farther north along the mountainous coastline, many towns have barely finished the first basic tasks of survival.
Minamisanriku (pronounced mee-NAH-mee-san-ree-koo) has finally finished relocating the last of its homeless residents into the 2,200 prefabricated houses it built in empty fields. Most of the town was without running water or sewage service until a month ago.
The flattened downtown is still littered with mangled cars, the splintered wood of wrecked homes and the gutted shells of a few surviving concrete buildings, looking eerily unchanged from the immediate aftermath of the tsunami.
“People want to keep living in this town, but look at this mess,” sighed Minoru Sato, 65, who was hired by the town to pick up debris after the tsunami washed away the sawmill where he had worked.
Indeed, residents in Minamisanriku say they feel as if they are in limbo, waiting for some signal to put the same concerted effort into rebuilding that they showed pulling one another from the rubble. That signal has yet to come.
One reason for the civic paralysis is that the tsunami literally swept away the local government, destroying not just the disaster center but also the firehouse, the police station, the main hospital and the town hall, with all its records. The mayor and other surviving town officials struggled to set up new offices in trailers parked on tennis courts, and the town government is only now getting back on its feet.
It has not yet even found anywhere to put the 500,000 tons of debris left by the tsunami. Work crews have temporarily stacked some of it along the devastated waterfront, separated into tidy, towering piles of twisted metal, broken concrete and tires, but it cannot stay there permanently.
Still, people here direct most of their anger at the national government. They feel neglected by Tokyo, which they say is too preoccupied with the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant 70 miles to the south, or with the political maneuvering last month over the election of a new prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, Japan’s seventh in five years.
Town officials say they cannot even settle on how to rebuild, much less get started, without financing from Tokyo.
“We have been trying to draw up our own plans, but what can we do until the national government makes up its mind?” said Kenji Endo, the vice mayor of Minamisanriku. “Frustrations are rising because we can’t see any movement toward rebuilding.”
The town says that with a budget last year of just $40 million, it has no choice but to turn to the central government to underwrite the huge costs of rebuilding. Some in Tokyo have called for relocating vulnerable towns like this one up onto the sheared-off tops of nearby mountains. But others say Japan can no longer afford to throw money at such projects, which would cost $3 billion just for Minamisanriku, local officials say.
Until Tokyo sorts that out, residents here feel that they cannot move forward.
In their frustration, they are starting to turn on one another. There are bitter complaints now about local officials who kept roads from being cleared without permission, or town hall’s decision to forbid any building in the tsunami-destroyed areas until a townwide reconstruction plan is in place.
The community is also being strained by the unevenness of the disaster’s toll. Some homes were wrecked; others were untouched.
Resentments have come to a head over the future of the Disaster Management Center, whose red skeleton has become a nationally known symbol of the disaster. Some want to preserve it as a monument, but others see it as a too-painful reminder of loved ones lost.
“We cannot let something like this divide the town, or we’ll never recover,” said Ikuko Takahashi, 60, whose house was destroyed, along with her husband’s medical clinic, a block from the center.
Minamisanriku was an obscure fishing community that few Japanese had heard of before the 50-foot surge of seawater made it not only a scene of devastation — killing 1,000 of its 17,000 residents — but also a scene of heroic early rescue efforts.
Today, the main roads have been reopened and there are temporary bridges over the rivers, but only a half-dozen businesses have reappeared. One is the gasoline station of Satoru Abe, who cleared away debris and got one gas pump working, by hand at first until electric power was restored in May. His office remained a tangle of crumpled metal and mud.
“They won’t let us rebuild, but we cannot just wait for them, either,” said Mr. Abe, 43. “We have to eat somehow.”
Dozens of residents, in fact, said that what worried them most was how to make a living here. The waves washed away the fishing boats and seafood-processing plants that were the backbone of the local economy. Town officials said that more than 1,000 people, mostly younger residents, had already moved away in search of employment.
“Most of the young people cannot wait around for jobs, so they left,” said Kiyohiko Goto, 36, a fisherman. After the tsunami, he found his boat on a hillside a mile inland, but could not afford the $200,000 cost of a new engine.
“The town will survive,” Mr. Goto said, “but I wonder how many people will still live here.”
Link to this article on nytimes.com is here.