Gazing down on the gray, rubble-strewn valley, as a backhoe lifts twisted metal into one of hundreds of piles, Takako Abe clutches her walker and points to where her house once stood.
From the same hill, she and scores of others watched a huge tsunami obliterate the Japanese fishing town of Minamisanriku on March 11. By June, she could see a few signs of rebirth. The main roads had been cleared, and cars pulled up to gasoline pumps powered by humming generators. Workers raised telephone poles, and about 1,200 temporary houses had gone up.
Still, the recovery is only inching along in the hardest-hit towns. Many survivors remain in limbo, gripped by deep fears and uncertainties that raise questions about Minamisanriku’s future. Nearly 1,200 of its 18,000 residents are dead or missing. Hundreds more have left to live with relatives or seek jobs elsewhere. Those who remain are conflicted.
“I don’t really want to live here, but I’ve spent so many years in this town,” says Abe, who came to Minamisanriku more than four decades ago as a 23-year-old bride.
Her former neighbor, 74-year-old Kiyoo Sato, comes over to chat. Together they look out at mountains of crumpled cars, concrete and wood.
“Can my grandchildren work and live here?” Sato wonders out loud.
Many speak of a deep bond with this town, where families have lived for generations, but what will the reconstruction plan will look like? How will they survive until the town is rebuilt? Will another tsunami hit?
“I’m not sure if we can return,” says Sato, who lost his wife in the tsunami. “We need to see what the authorities decide. It’s hard to know the future.”
While death and destruction was severe along much of Japan’s northeastern coast, a handful of communities face a particularly uncertain future. One is Minamisanriku; others include Rikuzentakata and Otsuchi, both farther to the north.
They stand out because more than half their residents died or were left homeless, their town centers were destroyed and government was paralyzed by the loss of so many officials and documents.
Already, these towns are falling behind. In the less damaged Ofunato, for example, the fish market reopened last month.
“The gap is widening and affecting the pace of the reconstruction process, and people in worse-off towns are really worried whether they can recover,” says Junichi Hirota, a professor at Iwate University and a member of a government reconstruction study group.
Up and down the coast, there is talk of rebuilding better than before — towns and cities less polluted, better protected from tsunamis and more easily navigable by aging populations.
Reconstruction also could be an opportunity to create jobs if the processing and sales of fish and farm products can be expanded, Hirota says.
However, the extent of the damage means it may be as long as three years before people can start building permanent homes again. Fishermen, their lives wedded to the sea, may wait it out, Hirota says. Others may despair and leave.
At the water’s edge, where seagulls sit on the skeleton of the destroyed fish market and warehouses, 52-year-old Choya Goto fixes a boom on his fishing boat, bent from lifting debris out of the harbor.
A third-generation fisherman, he represents the town’s chief source of income. He has lost friends, home, truck and just about everything else, but considers himself fortunate.