Hitting a Wall

By John Hayashi:

The first tremor came as Toshiko Kobayashi walked into the kitchen of her Tokyo apartment. Earthquakes are a fact of life in Japan, but this one was unusually strong. She clutched a table edge as pictures fell off the wall. Her nine-floor apartment building swayed, and sirens whined in the distance.

“We were very lucky,” said Kobayashi. Thanks to Japan’s earthquake warning system, her six family members living in the northeastern seaside town of Kitaibaraki had time to escape to higher ground. They were safe there but now face a lengthy rebuilding process: Their house and ryokan, or inn, suffered significant damage. “Repairs, and everything that goes along with them—finding people, money, tools—have taken longer than we expected, so we’ve had to push back reopening to November.” Her family has taken out millions of dollars in loans to rebuild and refurnish the ryokan, so even after it reopens they will face an uncertain future. Coastal inns rely on fresh, local fish to attract customers, but the fishing industry has been devastated by the tsunami. Many predict that catches will not return to previous levels for at least five years.

Wreckage from last March’s earthquake still litters Tohoku’s shores. (Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons)

Kobayashi’s hometown was not among the hardest hit, but the tsunami was still strong enough to destroy the concrete breakwater built to shield the town from the ocean. This barrier provided some modicum of comfort and safety for those living on the coast, but now all that remains is an earthen slope peppered with debris. Although the federal government quickly repaired the national highway running through Kitaibaraki, rebuilding the breakwater is the responsibility of the city—a city bankrupt from the loss of so much of its tax base. Most of Kobayashi’s upper-middle-class neighbors in Tokyo have both money to spare and little direct connection to the disaster, so she did fairly well collecting donations. She then drove several hours to Kitaibaraki city hall to donate the proceeds directly. Still the city struggles to provide basic services, let alone rebuild defenses around the ocean.

Most affected by the disaster were less fortunate and have relied on makeshift shelters in gymnasiums or trailers, with little prospect of starting work soon. Donations have poured into charity organizations ever since the earthquake struck, but the allocation process is lengthy and convoluted, so a vast majority of donated funds accumulates in bank accounts. This severe lag exacerbates the poverty in the Northeast, which has long been one of Japan’s poorer regions. Much of the burden to rebuild infrastructure and clear debris, that is often toxic, falls on tiny city governments like that of Kitaibaraki. Before it could begin such projects, however, Kitaibaraki’s municipal government had to recover decades of vital census, residence, and tax data stored in computers and file cabinets damaged by the tsunami. Volunteers provide more direct help than donations, but progress is slow while the entire coast remains vulnerable to earthquakes and typhoons.

Still, recovery is progressing, although not evenly and not for all. “At the ryokan, we have four generations living together, a whole family to pitch in. But many houses in the neighborhood have elderly people living alone, people with no way to rebuild on their own,” Kobayashi said. Nearly 40 percent of Kitaibaraki’s population is over 60 years old. Kobayashi and her relatives still have the resources to support her 90-year-old father, but many children living far away do not. The stress of displacement, combined with still-lacking medical service in some areas, means that many may never live to see their hometowns free of wreckage.

Kobayashi’s family and thousands like it face harrowing emotional and financial challenges, but they continue to show resilience and determination. Kobayashi drew a line on a map, tracing the path from her hometown to the irradiated ruin of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, only 50 miles away, and sighed heavily. She said, “I can’t speak for those who lost their families, but for us there’s no question of whether or not to rebuild.” She gazed from the parking lot, strewn with mud and debris, out towards the calm Pacific. “It will be hard and take time, but what else does it make sense to do?”

John Hayashi ’14 is in Branford College. Contact him at john.hayashi@yale.edu.