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Why Japan's Tsunami Refugees Are Still Shut Out

Kamaishi in the aftermath
Kamaishi in the aftermath
Christoph Neidhart

KAMAISHITsukayo Ito lost everything in the tsunami three years ago.

Since the 2011 disaster, the 88-year-old geisha has been living in a settlement of containers in Kamaishi. On the walls of her tiny living room are the few photos that could be salvaged from the rubble. She has almost no possessions, but still the room is cramped.

“I’m small and I’m alone,” she says. “I manage.” For those with families, living in a tiny container is much more difficult.

Ito knows how important community spirit is in these settlements. The elderly people living alone are becoming increasingly isolated, and there are frequent reports of suicide. Geisha Ito puts on performances for the other refugees and teaches traditional dance. “I had dark thoughts at first, but now they’re getting brighter.”

It’s been three years since the disaster and still the refugees are no closer to moving into new homes. Until the local authorities decide how to protect the town from future tsunamis, new houses can’t even be planned.

Six months before the catastrophe, the city of Kamaishi unveiled the world’s largest tsunami wall. Seven meters (almost 23 feet) high and 1,960 meters (6,430 feet) long, the wall took 31 years to build and cost $1.5 billion. When the tsunami hit on March 11, 2011, many Kumaishi residents thought they were safe behind their Guinness World Record-breaking wall. But the wave just swept it aside.

Frustration builds

A few miles north of Kamaishi is the fishing village of Kirikiri. Shortly after the tsunami hit, retired mechanic Matsuhika Haga volunteered to organize the cleanup there. “We’re still not even close to finishing,” he says. The harbor looks the same as it did a year ago, with a boat fishing car tires, refrigerators and other household objects out of the water.

Haga’s house was only partly destroyed, and he was able to repair it with his savings and a grant from the state. He was allowed to do that, but not to build a new house. His friend Takayuki Kimura was not so lucky. The tsunami left no part of his house standing — only his substantial construction debts remained untouched.

As a 53-year-old without a job, Kimura has no chance of securing a new mortgage, so he has moved into a container with his elderly mother. “At least she has her friends. They have tea together every day,” he says. It is not just Kimura’s debts that may keep him living with his mother for a long time. The local authorities have not even begun to develop plans for new housing.

Like almost everywhere else along the coast, the controversial question here is the construction of a new tsunami wall, which has been approved in principle. Authorities in Tokyo are now planning to build a 12.8-meter (nearly 42 feet) wall at Kirikiri, with a 50-meter-wide (164 feet) base.

“In the first few months after the tsunami, almost everyone was in favor of it,” says Matsuhika Haga. “But now most people are against the idea.” No houses can be built in areas where tsunami walls are planned, which means that the refugees are at the mercy of the planners. It has been estimated that the wall at Kirikiri will take three years to build, but everyone here knows that’s wishful thinking.

Iron triangle

According to a survey by the Yomiuri newspaper, only 40% of tsunami refugees want to return to where they used to live. This is in part because there is no work there. Though the new walls will be financed by Tokyo, many people complain that the local economy won’t benefit from the construction work. Haga complains that “30% of the money will go to the big construction company, which will only make a few calls. Local builders will only get 20%.”

In Japan, the relationship between bureaucracy, the construction industry and politics is known as the “iron triangle.” Local authorities in Iwate will be responsible for financing any maintenance on the walls. “But they don’t have any money,” Haga says. “Fishermen live from the sea. You can’t just shut it out.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has shown a taste for grand solutions, has decided to raise the ground level in most of the bays behind the new walls by up to 5 meters. This means houses that survived the tsunami will have to be torn down and rebuilt.

Japan is full of ambitious projects that never reach completion. There is a string of 40 large construction projects running simultaneously on the Sanriku coast, and construction has begun for the Tokyo Olympics. “Shoganai,” the locals say. In other words, “There’s nothing you can do.”

The construction sites along the Sanriku coast are stopping communities from helping themselves, and destroying what is left of the social structure there. Many young people are moving away, unwilling to wait for decades in the containers.

Above all, whether the walls are useful is still debatable. “People should consider themselves lucky if the walls even stay up,” says Tohoku University’s Professor Takao Suzuki. “The last earthquake severely weakened the ground in many places.” The heavy walls could fall down, damaging plants and wildlife and destroying mussel and sea snail fishing industries. The foundations would also have an impact on the ground water, he says. “If you separate the land so completely from the water, you damage both.”

The last tsunami was the fourth that Tsukayo Ito has survived. She still remembers the first, in 1933, when she was only eight years old. It came in the middle of the night. “Just like three years ago, someone pulled me out of the chaos,” she recalls.

And then the state began building higher walls between land and sea. Three years ago, these walls only made the disaster worse.

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