Suburban sprawl, downtown struggles challenge Tohoku’s tsunami recovery
By ERIK SLAVIN AND HANA KUSUMOTO | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 8, 2016
ISHINOMAKI, Japan — Any American from a city with a forgotten Main Street would recognize what is happening in Ishinomaki.
Several of the small businesses around the city’s main train station are open, but the sidewalks rarely have much foot traffic.
Just 20 minutes away in Hebita, near a regional expressway, big box stores have clustered near tracts of new publicly built apartments and townhomes — necessary housing in an area where the 2011 tsunami damaged or destroyed thousands of buildings.
The suburban flight in Ishinomaki, population 160,000, began before the disaster, but it accelerated in its aftermath.
Within an hour of the 9.0-magntitude earthquake, the tsunami rushed ashore, crushing nearshore homes. An estimated 3,500 people died or went missing, according to government figures. Downtown businesses and roads were flooded but remained standing.
There were plans for new downtown housing and shopping, but they never materialized, said Ryoichi Koganesawa, owner of Sakura Harikyu Seikotsuin, a massage and acupuncture business.
Many of the people who moved away aren’t coming back.
“They suffered emotional scars,” Koganesawa said. “They don’t want to see where they lived.”
Koganesawa’s business has done reasonably well during the past two years, but soon he will have to leave downtown. The city government needs his space to build an emergency command center, he said.
The economy isn’t much healthier along much of Tohoku, especially along the northeast coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu, said Satoru Masuda, professor and president of Tohoku University’s Research Center for Earthquake Restoration.
Retailers who want to move out of temporary locations and back to permanent structures on the region’s traditional shopping streets are trapped in a vicious cycle, Masuda said. They have trouble getting the moving money, and since they aren’t moving back, the government hasn’t funded reconstructing the old shopping areas so it would be harder to make a living even if they could move back.
It’s one of several examples where the trillions of yen the national government has pumped into the Tohoku economy hasn’t been distributed efficiently, Masuda said.
The government focused on funding large-scale construction projects, which drove up materials costs and created a manual labor shortage.
It also led to local governments accepting funds for infrastructure projects they didn’t need and may not be able to maintain in the long run.
Cities have made spending decisions “based on the thinking of doing something when they can, so that they won’t regret not building [later],” Masuda said.
Meanwhile, the construction jobs that have propped up Tohoku’s post-disaster economy could move south as Tokyo prepares for the 2020 Olympics, said Yasuo Akimoto, a senior consultant at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting.
Tohoku workers are getting paid inflated salaries by construction firms because of the labor shortage. And the seafood processing industry — the area’s largest sector and one which struggles to hire employees — is unlikely to match those salaries once the construction jobs go, Akimoto said.
The declining economic opportunity could lead to even more population flight, which brings up what Akimoto perceives as another systemic flaw: too much public housing.
It’s an odd notion, considering that about 177,000 people are still considered displaced due to the disaster.
For now, demand for the new structures going up remains high in Ishinomaki and some of the larger population centers. However, many of the displaced include people who are waiting to rebuild on land only recently deemed safe, and others may yet settle elsewhere.
“This happened after the Hanshin earthquake 20 years ago, and Kobe city currently has a lot of vacant public housing,” Akimoto said. “It’s following in the footsteps of [Kobe].”
The spending decisions are also likely to get much more difficult for the Japanese government as the reconstruction budget shrinks to 25 percent of its current levels in the next five years.
In downtown Ishinomaki, business owners would like to see a fraction of that money spent on urban renewal. Some said people are better off living further inland, but that shouldn’t preclude them from coming downtown, which even after the worst disaster of modern times, is still standing.
Suburbs like Hebita offer convenience, but they look a lot like everywhere else along Japan’s expressways. Gloss over the Japanese characters on the signs and they don’t look much different from many of the communities clustered around American highways.
What’s needed is a dose of “hometown culture,” said Hiroshi Shibata, a downtown flower shop owner. “Shopping malls aren’t the face of Ishinomaki.”