Far from the Fukushima spotlight, disaster recovery in Japan’s Tohoku continues

A city worker moves heaps of bikes and other scrap metal into a truck at one of two temporary tsunami-related trash dump sites in Ishinomaki, Japan, on April 7, 2011.



YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Tetsuo Chiba says he is one of the lucky ones.

When an earthquake and tsunami struck the coastal city of Ishinomaki four years ago today, Chiba was among hundreds of thousands of Japanese left homeless.

His family spent a month on a high school gymnasium floor before being bounced to a smaller shelter that was largely forgotten by the big charity agencies.

He now lives there with his family in a new home in while 200,000 others remain in public housing as a result of the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant disasters, according to Japan Cabinet Office figures.

RELATED: More Stars and Stripes coverage of the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami

Of those, 82,985 people live in temporary, prefabricated housing that wasn’t built for long-term use.

Even as the world and much of Japan has moved on from the disaster that ravaged Japan’s northeastern region, its survivors continue to endure in a place that, despite all efforts to help, faces many years of recovery.

They are the people Chiba said he has resolved not to forget.

He volunteers with Helping Hands for Tohoku, a group of U.S. military spouses that formed in Japan but has since spread around the world.

Chiba, a retired commercial sailor, spends many of his days delivering household goods donated by the group to dozens of families still recovering from the loss of their homes, livelihoods and loved ones.

“No matter how small the amount of supplies are, everyone is very grateful because they are in need, and also, they can feel that they are not forgotten,” Chiba said by phone.

Since the disaster, Japan has elected a new government and moved on to other national priorities. Large media outlets are far more likely to report on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Abenomics” plan or the costly 2020 Tokyo Olympics than an ongoing struggle that feels like yesterday’s news.

The nuclear disaster still gets some attention whenever Tokyo Electric and Power Co. announces a new problem at the Fukushima plant. However, 73 percent of Japanese said their attention to the nuclear disaster has faded, according to a February poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

The aftermath of the tsunami, which killed or left missing more than 18,000 people, gets even less attention.

“After a few years, the focus and attention does shift away again, particularly in an area like Tohoku, which has always been at the margins,” said Jeff Kingston, Asian studies professor with Temple University Japan. “In Tohoku, there’s a lot of resentment about the fact that they are forgotten.”

The national government has tried to address some of the problems in the Tohoku region with about $250 billion in spending,  including a current proposal to add $50 billion beginning in 2016. However, only 40 percent of the allocated funding has been spent. Many towns don’t have the personnel to navigate through the bureaucratic requirements of obtaining the funds, Kingston said.

Challenges to recovery

Even before 2011, Tohoku faced an exodus of young workers while its remaining population grayed. The disaster exacerbated that trend, while stripping the region of its traditional farming and fishing economic base.

Meanwhile, the Fukushima nuclear plant continues to leak tons of radioactive water daily into the ocean. The 12-mile radius of the plant is expected to be uninhabitable for decades.

Japan’s nuclear power plants remain shuttered, which has led to deficit spending on imported energy. The government favors restarting many of the plants but faces opposition from civic groups fearful of another meltdown.

Japan’s radiation standards for food are among the world’s most stringent, but 23 percent of Japanese said they would not buy food certified safe if they knew it was from Fukushima, according to the February Asahi poll.

The construction boom has helped make up for many of the lost fishing and farming jobs, not to mention the jobs lost at nuclear power plants. However, those jobs aren’t options for many of the elderly and others unable to perform physically demanding labor.

The resilience narrative

Images of crumbling cities and neighborhoods washed away by waves more than 100 feet high were broadcast around the world in March 2011.

Days after the tsunami, aid came in by helicopter and by sea. The U.S. military’s widely lauded Operation Tomodachi mobilized 20,000 servicemembers, who integrated with Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to support the hardest-hit regions.

Unlike in many parts of the world hit by disaster, there were few reports of looting, crime or disorder. There weren’t any mobs at food drops — it just isn’t the Japanese way.

The people of Tohoku were portrayed by media and their own government as plucky, resilient and self-reliant. This narrative persisted long after disaster.

For many in Tohoku, this amounted to being damned with praise.

“In their belief, it was a way for Tokyo people to excuse themselves, for not doing much to help them,” Kingston said.

That said, among those who did manage to find help from outside, there are inspiring stories of recovery.

Last year, Stars and Stripes visited Hoikuen Aihara, an Ishinomaki day care center facing an uncertain future.  

The original building was destroyed by the tsunami, one of 50,000 buildings in the city damaged by the disaster. Hoikuen Aihara moved to an industrial area, only to find out in December 2012 that the city had freshly declared their new location a tsunami danger zone.

In Ishinomaki, where so many couldn’t look after their children while working to rebuild their lives, high-quality day care became more essential than ever.

Children who had attended the day care since it opened in 1995 returned to lend a hand. Local volunteers then took notice of the day care center’s plight. So did Masako Sullivan and Helping Hands for Tohoku, a global military spouse organization that has grown from humble origins to support more than 100 families today.

Every month, the children receive American games and supplies. The help allowed day care director Kayomi Aihara to focus on the children, and on keeping the center financially viable.

On April 1, Hoikuen Aihara will have its grand opening in its new location as a city-registered day care center.

Aihara says she once considered closing, due to the hardship and stress. She now hopes the center will become an important part of the community.

“To know that there are people who are thinking of us, it’s what gives us the power to move on,” Aihara said.

The ongoing need

Before Tohoku, there was Kobe.

The 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake devastated Kobe and the nearby area, killing more than 6,000 and displacing many more.

Sullivan, now a Navy spouse living in San Diego, grew up in Kobe. She saw firsthand the struggles of families that continued long after the spotlight faded.

It is what drives her never to forget Tohoku, and what has spurred her organizational efforts among Helping Hands for Tohoku’s 275 members.

“Four years passed and many relief organizations and volunteers have left Tohoku,” Sullivan said by phone. “So it is important that we continue our efforts as long as there are needs, and as long as we can.”

After talking with many of the beneficiaries of the group’s support over the past four years, a theme emerges: The food and games and household goods have helped, but the emotional support gained from knowing that someone cared has been just as valuable, if not more so.

Beneficiaries of that support include Terumi Fujimura, a single mother of two.

Stars and Stripes spoke with Fujimura by phone from Ishinomaki, soon after she had returned from a 275-mile trek to a Tokyo hospital with her daughter Ichika, 7.

On the day of the disaster, Fujimura had been at the hospital in anticipation of the birth of her second child. Her husband, Yoichi, went to work at a building near the ocean.

After the earthquake came, Yoichi and his colleagues fled to higher ground. But no one anticipated the tsunami to roll several miles inland.

“He was last seen hanging onto a treetop before he was caught,” Fujimura said of her dead husband.

Five days after the tsunami, she gave birth to her son Manato, the name  Yoichi had suggested.

With help from her family, she has spent much of her time looking after her son and Ichika, who was born without kidneys. She donated one of her own kidneys to her daughter two years ago, and so far, Ichika has shown no symptoms of organ rejection.

When Fujimura looks around her city, she sees more new homes and construction. If the interest in Tohoku has waned in other parts of Japan, she has been far too busy to notice.

“Without realizing it, four years have gone by,” she said. “I surely didn’t have time to grieve.”

Twitter: @eslavin_stripes


Yumi Nakajima, right, whose home was destroyed in the March 11 tsunami, sits with her sister and niece at the Kadonowaki Middle School shelter in Ishinomaki, Japan, on April 4, 2011. Shelter officials have told its residents to clear out of the classrooms where they live, by the beginning of the new school year April 21.

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