Japan Disaster Annivesary: Broken families, towns still struggling

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TOKYO — Chikako Abe’s desk is decorated with flowers and candy at her school in Minamisoma, reminders of a 17-year-old life cut short a year ago.

Instead of attending a graduation ceremony this month, her family is praying on March 11 at the ruins of a house where the sea snatched away the lives of Chikako, her father and two grandparents.

“She was always the center of our family,” said Chikako’s mother Yukari Abe, 43, fighting back tears next to the concrete foundations where the house once stood. “The year has gone by so fast, even now I feel that she will come back.”

Chikako’s mother and two sisters, who survived because they were visiting a doctor’s clinic beyond the tsunami’s reach, will offer flowers, chocolates and incense.

Scores of similar memorials are taking place along hundreds of miles of Japan’s Pacific coastline to mark the disaster that left 15,854 dead and 3,272 missing.

The magnitude-9 earthquake that struck at 2:46 p.m. triggered a tsunami that in just 60 minutes laid waste to entire towns, engulfed four-story hospitals, left hundreds of thousands of homeless and crippled a nuclear plant.

Many memorials are private and distinctly personal — prayers and incense on the thousands of scarred, empty plots where houses lined the previously picturesque coastline. Others are larger attempts to acknowledge the scale of a national disaster. For a day, families, communities, companies and politicians will be united in grief.

That unity belies the conflicts hampering Japan’s recovery from the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster as local and central governments fight over budgets, cities and towns over consolidation, and rival companies over new regulations.

There are also widening social divisions. Grief for friends and loved ones is tainted with guilt at having survived. The relief of not losing everything is tinged by envy of those who did and are now showered with handouts. Gratitude toward the army, which in many areas arrived before tsunami waters receded, is offset by resentment at the government’s bungling of recovery efforts.

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About 90 miles north of Chikako’s house, Koichi Tanimura stands on a hilltop near his home overlooking the fishing port of Kesennuma.

About a mile inland, a fishing trawler is surrounded by the empty plots scraped clean of buildings that are still the dominant feature of tsunami towns.

“They’re talking about keeping it there as a memorial to the disaster,” said Tanimura, 59.

In the damaged business district, the city has set up a temporary “shotengai,” or shopping street, for displaced restaurants. Customers aren’t coming, though, because the community’s economy no longer functions, said Mikie Onodera, who owns a sushi restaurant.

“Even those who can afford to eat out are staying home because they don’t want to be seen spending money,” she said.

Aid is being distributed in a way that prevents recovery, Onodera said. Food items, clothes and other goods are handed out so residents no longer need to shop locally. That strangles the economies of small towns where businesses have relied on mutual trade for decades.

“Money isn’t circulating,” she said.

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About 30 minutes’ drive down the coast, Rikuzentakata, which sits on a wide bay facing the earthquake’s epicenter 80 miles offshore, faced the tsunami’s full fury. Most of the town was obliterated and more than 1,700 people out of a population of 24,000 were killed.

“We’re really only reaching the starting point for rebuilding,” Mayor Futoshi Toba said. “Reconstruction money hasn’t been available.”

The central government is holding up progress, he said. The initial decision to put the disaster recovery office in the prefectural capital of Morioka three hours’ drive away delays problem-solving, while the Reconstruction Agency only began operations on Feb. 10, he said.

“If I can’t get companies here within one or two years to provide jobs, they will go elsewhere,” said Toba, who lost his wife in the tsunami.

Toba convinced Tokyo-based restaurant operator Watami Co. to set up a call center, creating 100 jobs, yet the town’s own fisheries cooperative opposes his plan to attract private companies to the industry because of competition fears, he said.

Toba has also approached foreign governments and charities for funds, including the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and the United Nations. The Singapore Red Cross Society is building an $8.7 million community center in Rikuzentakata.

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For some residents of damaged towns along the Tohoku coast, that initiative only highlights the central government’s failure to properly distribute aid.

“The tsunami happened to all of us on the east coast,” said Onodera in Kesennuma. “Everyone should receive the same assistance.”

Rebuilding has exposed the economic fragility of Japan’s rural areas, which for decades have been plagued by aging, shrinking populations, and faltering farms and fisheries.

While places such as Rikuzentakata try to build new industries, most towns plan to revive what was already failing.

“When it’s all you’ve done your whole life, it’s difficult to just find something else to do,” said fisherman Kiyoshi Kanno, on the dock in Kesennuma next to his 10-meter vessel. “I’ve had to contemplate a life on government benefits.”

“People in Tohoku have very good reason to feel abandoned,” Jeff Kingston, editor of “Natural Disaster and Nuclear Crisis in Japan: Response and Recovery after Japan’s 3/11,” said. “While all the arguments just continue, the people are left to their own devices.”