7 years after 3/11 / Residents still slow to return to rebuilt towns

The Yomiuri Shimbun

An aerial photo taken in February from a Yomiuri Shimbun airplane shows unused land plots in the Machikata district in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture.

The Yomiuri ShimbunSeven years after the Great East Japan Earthquake, new towns are almost complete in areas that were destroyed by the quake and tsunami. More lights are on in houses, as evacuees return to their home municipalities. Reconstruction of these disaster-hit areas is finally showing.

However, friction has appeared in these communities, where the passage of time weighs heavy. This series of articles reports on central parts of municipalities developed as key parts of the reconstruction effort, and also on public housing complexes for survivors. This is the first installment.

The town government of Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, has hammered out an unusual offer, saying that if people erect houses in its rebuilt towns, it will provide them with ¥1 million each. This indicates the critical state of the town’s reconstruction projects.

For example, about 4,500 people, or about 30 percent of the town’s residents, lived before the disaster in a 56-hectare-wide area in the Machikata district, where the Otsuchi government office is located. Of these people, 661 residents died or went missing.

The town government set a goal of rebuilding the Machikata district. Officials did not consider the plan to be reckless: Taking into account future population drops, it narrowed down the area for a land readjustment project, where land elevations were raised by about two meters on average, to 30 hectares.

The project cost about ¥17.6 billion and was almost completed at the end of last year.

However, according to a survey by the town government, there were no plans to utilize about 55 percent of 510 land lots owned by private-sector owners.

The Otsuchi government aimed to rebuild the central part of the town in a compact form, but the reality is that the area is full of empty land plots.

The plan for ¥1 million subsidies was announced last summer to pay for the central part, including the Machikata district. People who had rebuilt their houses in other places voiced discontent.

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Mayor Kozo Hirano, 61, pushed ahead with the plan nevertheless, saying, “I’ll demonstrate the town government’s determination that we want residents to come back.”

However, applications had been made for only 71 houses as of March 1.

Torakichi Kaga, 79, whose house was located in the Machikata district, built a new house in an inland area of the town three years ago. His family members, including his eldest son living in Tokyo, do not intend to return.

Looking at unused land plots, Kaga said: “Without residents, this place can’t be a town. It took too much time.”

During the long time taken by the reconstruction project, the bonds that held former communities together are being lost.

Kaga was also attached to the place where he had lived for so long, but he said he was unable to wait for the completion of the reconstruction project.

Now he has even come to feel that “my land is a heavy burden on my son.”

Reconstruction has also not progressed as the local government expected in the Shishiori district in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, which has long had an active fishery processing industry.

The city government set up 12 land plots to rebuild the Kamome-dori Shotengai shopping street in the central part of the district. All 32 stores in the shopping street were damaged by the disaster.

Nearly a year has passed since the opening of the rebuilt shopping street, but the owners of only six stores have come back.

In January, Kanichi Mogi, 52, rebuilt a building for his house-cum-liquor shop about three kilometers away from the shopping street and near another shopping street temporarily built for survivors.

“I’m anxious about the place. We don’t know whether people will come back to live here,” he said.

The struggles of disaster-hit areas also mean it will not be easy to realign towns facing declining populations, something that is also true in places not affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake.

There is a disaster-hit area that could lead the way in reconstruction: the town of Shinchi, Fukushima Prefecture, where 110 residents died or went missing, and one-fifth of the town was flooded.

The town government has been conducting reconstruction work in front of a JR station that was relocated to an inland site 300 meters from the previous location.

The town is in a good situation. Before the earthquake, the Shinchi government had brought in a base for importing liquefied natural gas (LNG). Construction of the LNG base was decided on, and it started operations at Soma Port in Fukushima Prefecture this spring.

This has led to hotels and hot spring facilities that use the LNG opening in the city. The town’s population had fallen to the 7,700 level, but has since recovered to the 8,200 level, the same as that before the disaster.

In spring last year, Nozomi Nagao, 27, a company employee who had lived in another place in the town, moved with her husband and two children to a new residential area developed near a train station.

“The number of young families is increasing. I like this place’s environment for raising my children,” she said.

The issue is how to restore people’s hopes about the places where they used to live in the disaster-hit areas, which were taken away both by the disaster and the prolonged post-disaster reconstruction projects.

The revitalization of town communities in the disaster-hit areas has only just begun.Speech

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