x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Picking up the pieces in Japan

The Life: Kesennuma, a Japanese town badly damaged in the 2011 tsunami and earthquake, is trying to build back better and innovate its existing sectors.

The port of Kesennuma, a fishing town in Japan, is being rebuilt after the devastation of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. City of Kesennuma
The port of Kesennuma, a fishing town in Japan, is being rebuilt after the devastation of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. City of Kesennuma

In Japan, where tsunamis are as ubiquitous in historic paintings as Mount Fujiyama, the 2011 tsunami and earthquake that wrecked havoc on the country's east coast was a lesson in remembering the past.

Now a town's efforts to rebuild its economy is intended to make sure future generations pay heed.

The day the waves hit the hillside town of Kesennuma, in the hardest hit Miyagi prefecture, fires burnt all night long, reported The Guardian.

"Every 30 to 40 years they had a tsunami, but this one was the largest in history," says Masato Takamatsu, the chief research officer at Japan Tourism Marketing in Tokyo.

"People started to live in the highlands, and then they slowly came down," he says, referring to the local population that gradually crowded along the 1,000-metre coast.

But people need to learn from the past, he says.

"And the community has a responsibility to pass it down to the next generations."

Mr Takamatsu is also the chairman of Kesennuma recovery committee, and was in the capital for the 13th summit of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) last week. WTTC held its last annual summit in Tokyo and Sendai, a coastal town in north-eastern Japan that was also struck by the tsunami.

Major parts of Kesennuma, a town of about 74,000, were destroyed in the 2011 disaster. And it badly hit the city's two major revenue-generating sectors: fishing and tourism. The country was feared to have incurred US$300 billion (Dh1.1 trillion) in losses, according to the catastrophe modeller Risk Management Solutions.

Numbers for Japan as a whole indicate tourists are returning. Last year the country welcomed 8.4 million travellers, according to Ryoichi Matsuyama, the president of the Japan National Tourism Organization.

But recovery is different between coastal and inland areas.

In Kesennuma, reconstruction is expected to take at least five years.

"Around 1,040 were killed in the tsunami, 240 are still missing, and 4,215 relocated to out of town," Mr Takamatsu says.

The reconstruction efforts would need about ¥2 billion (Dh74.9 million) to rebuild Kesennuma's tourism infrastructure alone.

Live videos from Kesennuma two years ago show sea water washing away fishing trawlers, trucks, cars and vans like matchboxes down the main roads of the largely low-rise town. And pictures show fishing boats hurdled haphazardly along with debris far from their non-existent harbour.

The town's fish market, which sends ships to as far as the South Pacific, was submerged. Large chunks of the city caved in, and were left without hotels and roads.

Tourism officials point out that the radiation threat from the Fukushima nuclear power plant is not present in Kesennuma, which is about 160 kilometres away.

And tourists are coming back, although not in the same numbers before the disasters. Last year, the town received 780,000 tourists on day trips, down from 2,541,000 people in 2010 but higher than 432,000 in 2011.

As part of the reconstruction efforts, the town would restore the fisheries market and build a monument to the tsunami and a museum.

The fish market can receive 50 fishing boats at a time. These boats, some of which go as far as Africa, bring back shark fins, tuna, flounder, octopus, crab, bonito, seaweed and squid. The port accounted for 90 per cent of Japan's shark fin trade, according to a Guardian report a month before the tsunami.

The same report also highlighted a reluctance among local residents and the fish market to highlight the town's asset because of concerns about depleting species of shark.

Before the tsunami, the fish market was reluctant to allow tourists, Mr Takamatsu agrees. "Now, it can be a differentiating aspect of Kesennuma," he says.

The museum will have an important role to play, much like the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Rather than commemorating the tsunami and the earthquake, its message would be to reduce the damage of any future tsunamis.

"Because another tomorrow would come in 50 years or 100 years' time, and it is necessary to communicate the lesson of the past to the next generation," Mr Takamatsu says.