Thursday, September 15, 2011

from WSJ: 6 months later, rebuilding eludes town

By Gordon Fairclough and Patrick Barta
The Wall Street Journal : ASIA
September 14, 2011

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RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan—Efforts have largely stalled to rebuild cities and towns along Japan's northeast coast that were smashed six months ago by a cataclysmic tsunami, as renewal efforts are crippled by political wrangling and the task's sheer complexity.

In Rikuzenatakata, where rampaging waves on March 11 carried off nearly one-tenth of the population and obliterated the downtown, the city center remains a desolate plain. Studding the landscape are the gutted concrete shells of City Hall, a hospital and other buildings.

Workers have pushed most of the splintered wood, tangled steel and other debris into piles several stories high. But there has been no real rebuilding in the low-lying areas that were once the heart of the community. It is unclear when such work will begin.

"Without a plan, we can't do anything," said Eiko Kanno, a 56-year-old housewife whose home, near one of Rikuzentakata's main fishing ports, was obliterated by the tsunami. She now lives in a prefabricated temporary dwelling on a hill overlooking the wave-swept flat.

Up and down the tsunami-wrecked coast, residents and municipal officials blame politicians in Tokyo, who they say have failed to make critical decisions that would let them move forward. The biggest immediate issue is a lack of money, they say. Also impeding progress are diverging views about what to rebuild, and how. 

The central government says it is working as fast as it can, and is consulting with locals before making calls on projects such as replacement sea walls, new ports and other infrastructure.

National lawmakers, paralyzed by the internecine leadership struggle that unseated Prime Minister Naoto Kan late last month, still haven't decided how much the deeply indebted national government can afford.

To date, Tokyo has approved ¥6 trillion ($78 billion) in spending—a fraction of the ¥40 trillion some experts now believe it may take to restore damaged regions—with much of the money directed at emergency relief efforts that won the authorities high marks just after the disaster.

More funds will start flowing if Japan's new leader, former Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, can push through a new round of appropriations expected to total around ¥13 trillion later this year. But it could take months longer before that translates into any concrete reconstruction, potentially leaving residents and businesses in limbo until well into 2012.

"It would be a lot faster if we just came up with a plan" and imposed it on locals, said Shougo Tsugawa, a parliamentarian overseeing the Iwate restoration. "But we want to listen to people's voices."

Here in Rikuzentakata, one of the biggest debates surrounds the size and shape of a new sea wall locals want to have built to help protect them from future tsunamis. The old walls were largely destroyed by the March waves, which in some places surpassed 10 yards—far higher than anything anticipated by earlier generations of planners. Following the advice of prefecture officials, the city wants to adopt layered tsunami defenses with multiple barriers and build a new, more concentrated downtown on higher ground, further inland.

But the city—already more than $100 million in debt—doesn't have the funds to build new walls on its own. It is waiting on Tokyo to decide how much it will spend and how high the walls will be. The lower the walls, the more land near the shore will have to be left undeveloped, and until a final decision is reached, city leaders say they can't move ahead with the other parts of their plan. "We can't rebuild a shopping street until the city decides where the new downtown will be," said Daiki Suzuki, an official at the Rikuzentakata Chamber of Commerce.

The city's plans also depend on getting central government funding to tear down ruined public buildings—ranging from museums to the library to athletic facilities—and to help build replacements. Rikuzentakata also needs money to fix its fishing ports. Land at the ports dropped by about three feet in the March 11 quake that spurred the tsunami. Wharfs are now underwater at high tide.

Hiroshi Kumagai used to raise scallops in the cool waters off Rikuzentakata. The tsunami carried away all the equipment he used to cultivate the shellfish and seriously damaged his boat. "Unless the port is fixed, we won't be able to do large-scale business here," he said, surveying the wreckage at the port of Hirota, on Rikuzentakata's northeastern edge.

Some people, he said, are trying to restart their fishing operations here in the expectation that everything will be repaired. If it isn't, they stand to lose their investments in new boats, equipment and young oysters and scallops they have bought to raise.

More than 550 of the roughly 700 companies registered with the local Chamber of Commerce were destroyed. A handful of small businesses—from car dealerships and a laundry to a stationery shop—have come back. A local supermarket chain, whose main downtown branch was destroyed, opened an expansive temporary grocery in a prefab building on higher ground in early August.
But most others are waiting. One business owner who used to operate downtown, sake brewer Yasuhiko Konno, said he is taking steps to produce sake at a brewery in Ichinoseki, about 30 miles inland. Starting operations somewhere else "is pretty much the only option," he said, though he is hopeful he will someday be able to brew in the Rikuzentakata area again.

Mayor Futoshi Toba says that as residents, many of them jobless, weigh whether to stay or leave, every day that goes by without a clear road map threatens the city's long-term survival. "People are moving out," the mayor said. "It's already happening."

—Yoshiyuki Tomiyama contributed to this article.
Write to Gordon Fairclough at and Patrick Barta at

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