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Editorial: 9 years after Japan triple disaster, time to rethink community

  • March 11, 2020
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

March 11, 2020 marks nine years since the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami, and the ongoing nuclear disaster. The children who entered elementary school that year will be graduating from junior high school this spring.


Infrastructural work is now in its final stages. The planned development of residential land for approximately 18,000 homes is 99% finished. Obviously, however, this does not mean that reconstruction has been completed.


What is being sought in the disaster areas today?


The majority of the Fukushima Prefecture town of Naraha was designated an “evacuation directive lift prepared area” due to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. Its evacuation directive was lifted 4 1/2 years ago, and the town’s population has grown to some 3,900. Compared to the number of people registered as residents of the town, the actual proportion of people who have returned is close to 60%.


Schools and business facilities have been built one after another, bringing back scenes of everyday life to the town.


However, Naraha is facing new challenges.


Workers dedicated to helping the reconstruction effort as well as many new residents live in the town. Industrial complexes have been built, where new companies have set up camp, and many workers from out of town commute there. There has been little interaction between those people and residents who have lived in the town from before.


Interpersonal ties that existed before the triple disasters have weakened after residents returned to the town. Neighborly interactions had been maintained while residents were still living in temporary housing where they had evacuated. But quite a number of people also relocated to disaster recovery public housing where residents from various areas were brought together. Returnees to Naraha, many of whom have been elderly, tended to become isolated.


Naraha Mirai, an organization that lends a hand to reconstruction, has organized tours of the town for evacuated residents to prepare for their return there. Masashi Hirayama, 45, of Naraha Mirai’s operation department says, “What’s most painful is when an elderly person who has returned from disaster recovery public housing tells us, ‘It was better when I was in temporary housing than now.'”


It’s obvious that unless Naraha is able to integrate its new residents into community activities, it will eventually become unable to maintain a collective unit.


This fiscal year a forum was established, with Naraha Mirai as its secretariat, to discuss new community-building by residents and companies.


When one looks around at the various disaster areas from March 11, 2011, the gaps in reconstruction progress are staggering.


In Fukushima, the return of residents has not been taking place in some local municipalities as had been hoped. In the town of Futaba, one of two towns which the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant straddles, an evacuation order for one portion of the town that is not residential was just lifted in March.


Reconstruction from tsunami damage may appear to be moving forward in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures. But they both face the common challenge of community-building. The populations of both prefectures had been decreasing to begin with, but in addition, city-building plans through collective relocation and land reallocation were drawn out. This has led to residents giving up on rebuilding on original sites, and interpersonal relationships from before the disasters becoming lost.


The Yuriage district of the Miyagi Prefecture city of Natori, where at least 700 lives were lost to the tsunami, once flourished as a fishing town. After large-scale land elevation work, it was reborn as a newly developed residential area.


Due to conflicts between the city government, which went forth with rebuilding on the same site as before the disasters, and residents who wanted to be relocated further inland, the reconstruction plans changed several times. It was only in May of 2019 that the district was able to “reopen,” having set up 463 disaster recovery housing units.


But in the interim, many decided not to return, and the Natori Municipal Government readjusted its initial planned population of 5,500 down to 2,100. When the Natori government began to sell plots of its land, however, there was a large influx of the child-rearing generation who appreciated its proximity to Sendai, the Miyagi prefectural capital.


Naomitsu Kakui, 61, a native of the Yuriage district who lost both of his parents to the tsunami, serves as the head of a local community-building organization.


He has done a range of things for residents who have become scattered all over the place from hosting potato stew events to publishing residents’ status updates in a zine-like publication. He has also been active in passing down his experience of the tsunami to visitors who come to Yuriage.


In December 2019, Kakui was invited by a newly established integrated elementary and junior high school to speak about the local history of the area. Many of the children who live there now were not born there. After they heard him speak, the students told them that they came to like Yuriage.


Kakui had always thought that for old and new residents of Yuriage to become one, there needed to be something that would unify them. He has come to think that speaking about and passing down the history of the district could be that “something.”


The mere building of new homes and the gathering of people do not indicate true reconstruction. Community-building that connects new residents who have come from elsewhere with old residents is crucial. Moreover, even if one does not live there, by visiting the place and interacting with the people there, the community becomes alive.


This is our ninth 3.11. Let us look anew at how we commit ourselves to reconstruction.


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