After the 2011 tsunami in Japan, a city is rebuilt; now it takes people to survive

RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan – Ten years after one of the world’s largest earthquakes triggered a tsunami that washed away much of this city, major reconstruction is almost complete. A 40-foot-high concrete wall protects the shoreline, a seven-story city hall is scheduled to open, and only a few dirt trucks still rumble down Main Street.

However, the future remains precarious for this remote community, where more than 1,700 people, or 7% of the population, died in the disaster.

With the decline in state financial support, Rikuzentakata struggles to avoid the decline seen in other rural parts of Japan. Many survivors have settled elsewhere and there are large tracts of land in the center of the city unused.

Ten years after the tsunami, Rikuzentakata has become a city of wide open spaces.

Rikuzentaka in March 2011, days after the commercial and residential heart of the city almost completely disappeared.


NICOLAS ASFOURI / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

A woman tried to recover her belongings in Rikuzentakata in March 2011.


Ko Sasaki for The Wall Street Journal

Major reconstruction is almost complete, but many former residents have not returned to Rikuzentakata.

Momiko Kinno pushed her elderly mother in a cart to escape the wave that washed away her home and thousands of others in Rikuzentakata on March 11, 2011. After eight years in temporary shelter, Ms. Kinno, now from 75 years old, he moved into a new two-story house in the center of town surrounded by vacant lots and “for sale” signs. His son and daughter moved to other cities to work.

“I don’t think a lot of people come back here,” he said.

Recovery work from the 2011 disasters on Japan’s northeast coast, including the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, has been one of the most costly reactivation projects in the world. Public spending so far is nearly $ 300 billion. The United States government spent about $ 110 billion on recovery after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The commercial and residential heart of Rikuzentakata, which sits on a low coastal plain, was almost completely razed, with the city alone accounting for roughly one-tenth of deaths from Japan’s worst postwar natural disaster. In 2014, a project began using soil and rock from the top of a mountain to raise the central area by more than 20 feet. The final sections are due to be completed this year as part of the redevelopment work that costs more than $ 1.4 billion.

In 2017, a 40-foot-high concrete wall stretching more than a mile across the bay next to the city was completed, part of 270 miles of new levees built in the region since the disaster.

The rebuilding created a “bubble of disaster,” said Masayuki Kimura, whose home and family bakery were destroyed by the tsunami. Mr. Kimura restarted his business from an old train car and quickly doubled his sales before the tsunami as an influx of disaster workers, volunteers and tourists bought his German-style baumkuchen layer cakes and other goodies.

Masayuki Kimura’s family bakery was destroyed by the tsunami. It reopened, moving to a succession of larger premises.

It reopened, first in an old train car, photographed in November 2011.


Hisashi Murayama for The Wall Street Journal

The bakery is now located in a European simulated brick building on the outskirts of the city.

The prefectural, or state, government temporarily took over his $ 300,000 debts and was able to borrow more, moving his business to larger premises twice, most recently in 2015 to a simulated European brick building on a hill on the edge. . from town.

With recovery work nearly complete and short-term visitors reduced, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, Kimura’s sales were down 20% from its peak. The 63-year-old still has $ 900,000 in bank debt. He is working on developing cakes for vegans and people with allergies as a way to boost online sales.

“I realized that to survive I have to compete with stores in other cities,” he said.

The government offered subsidies and debt relief for businesses in the disaster region as part of its 10-year recovery plan. It says a new five-year, $ 15 billion package will go primarily to supporting people, including mental health.

Rikuzentakata Mayor Futoshi Toba wants more help to jumpstart the local economy now that reconstruction is over. Less than half of the city’s rebuilt land is in use.

As part of the reconstruction, the central area of ​​Rikuzentakata has been elevated more than 20 feet.

The new boardwalk stretches more than a mile along the bay.

“We have finally created the conditions to try to attract companies back here, just as the government support programs are ending,” he said.

Toba, who started the work two months before the disaster and lost his wife to the tsunami, said the decision to lift large areas of the city was intended to encourage people to stay, but the protracted project contributed to the loss. of population.

“People can handle living in temporary housing for one or two years, but when they are seven or eight years old, they are going to consider options elsewhere,” he said.

Thousands of people were forced to live in temporary housing or moved from Rikuzentakata after the disaster. The city’s population was 18,601 at the end of February, nearly 25% less than a decade earlier.

In an unusual twist, Rikuzentakata’s birth rate briefly rose to one of the highest in Japan after the disaster, a phenomenon sometimes seen after major earthquakes. It is now in line with the national average, well below the level necessary to keep the population stable.

At the current rate of decline, Rikuzentakata’s population will more than halve by 2060. More than 50% of residents are projected to be over 65 by 2040.

Oyster farmer Sakae Yoshida used to have 30 employees, but now has eight because most of them have retired. The bay near Rikuzentakata is known for its plump, fist-sized oysters supplied to luxury hotels in Tokyo. The tsunami created better growing conditions for oysters by dredging the seabed, but it is difficult to make the most of the opportunity, Yoshida said.

Sakae Yoshida with oyster shells. Their staff has decreased as most have retired. “There is no one to take over the work,” he says.

“Everyone has aged and there is no one to take over the work,” the 73-year-old said as he and his wife finished sorting the day’s harvest in a small plant by the tsunami wall.

Some younger people have returned. Twenty-four-year-old Rinnosuke Yoshida moved back to Rikuzentakata last summer to work on his grandparents’ vegetable farm after attending college near Tokyo and a brief stint working in advertising sales. Most of his friends from high school have moved to other cities.

Rinnosuke Yoshida, who is not related to the oyster farmer, said he preferred the clean air of the countryside and living by the sea. He also said he was motivated by the wishes of his father, Toshiyuki, who wanted to work on the family farm after he retired, but was killed in the tsunami.


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His grandfather, who is 87 years old, and his grandmother, who is 82, sometimes tell him how he looks and speaks like Toshiyuki, who was their son. Toshiyuki was a baseball coach at Rinnosuke’s high school. Both Rinnosuke and his older brother, who lives in the prefectural capital, were enthusiastic baseball players. Rinnosuke recently started playing for a local club team again.

On March 11, he hopes that he will take his mother and grandparents to the family grave to pay his respects to his father. “I’m not heartbroken by his death, but of course I want to see him sometimes,” he said.

He hopes to marry his high school sweetheart this year, who is preparing to become a nurse. In March you will know if you passed your exams to qualify. They plan to stay in Rikuzentakata and start a family.

A replica of a solitary pine that survived the tsunami, before succumbing to salinization of the soil. Behind it is the collapsed Rikuzentakata youth hostel.

Write to Alastair Gale at [email protected] and Miho Inada at [email protected]

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