x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Villagers in Japan decide whether to rebuild

In addition to losing his home and his community, there is a bigger issue facing Shigeo Suzuki and his village: whether to rebuild.

Shigeo Suzuki at the port of Takenoura village where he used to play with his granddaughter.
Shigeo Suzuki at the port of Takenoura village where he used to play with his granddaughter.

TAKENOURA, JAPAN // Standing before a small red shrine on a leafy hillside, Shigeo Suzuki looked down towards the expanse of grey, flat concrete that stretched monotonously to the sea.

"This was once my village," he said quietly. "We used to have 60 houses. I was standing on this very spot when the tsunami came and washed away 58 of them. Only two houses remain," he said.

For Mr Suzuki, 63, a retired government official, the emptiness of Takenoura village in Miyagi prefecture is heartbreaking. Not only was the 120-year-old family home in which he was born washed away, but the community was torn apart.

Seventeen were swept away. The remaining roughly 160 residents are scattered across the region, divided into temporary housing units that have sprung up inland over the past year.

But in addition to losing his home and his community, there is a bigger issue facing Mr Suzuki and his village: whether to rebuild.

As the first anniversary of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami is remembered in Japan at precisely 2.46pm local time today, the rebuilding debate is being repeatedly endlessly across the north-east.

More than 19,000 people were killed or went missing following the 9-magnitude Great Eastern Earthquake, which resulted in an epic-scale tsunami that struck vast swathes of the Pacific coastline.

Following widespread relief work across the region, many communities - Takenoura included - have succeeded in clearing away millions of tonnes of debris.

Broken houses, smashed cars, splintered trees and scatterings personal belongings have slowly been replaced with expanses of empty, grey concrete, the sketched lines of roads or building foundations the only signs of previous life.

In larger cities such as nearby Ishinomaki or Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture, officials are now at the starting point of reinventing their destroyed communities.

A construction boom is expected, with a surge in new housing and infrastructure work, revitalising regions such as Sendai city, a commercial and industrial north-east hub.

However, for coastal fishing villages such as Takenoura, it is a different story.

Even before the tsunami, rural communities in the region had long been suffering from the perennial Japanese problem of an ageing, shrinking population - raising questions about whether the villages should be rebuilt at all.

This may be an issue that confronts Takenoura, but Mr Suzuki is adamant that his birthplace will not disappear. So convinced is he in the future of his community that along with residents, he has formed a reconstruction committee and commissioned Tokyo architects to draw up plans for a new village.

"We have a very close-knit community," said Mr Suzuki, after presenting business cards displaying his new title - Building Recovery Committee Chairperson.

"We help each other and always have done. We all know each other. But at the moment, we are all split up in different temporary housing across the region.

"We want to go back to our original place and to rebuild this village. Some people might wonder why we are bothering, I know we are not young. But we want to build a new, safe place for future generations."

It was in front of the hillside shrine on March 11 last year that surviving villagers, Mr Suzuki included, watched in horror as waves peaking at 17 metres travelled steadily inland, destroying almost every home.

"We ran up this small hill which overlooked the town when the waves started coming in," he said. "It wasn't a sunny day like today - it was grey and dark.

"From here, we watched our homes floating past us. It was a terrible sight. I honestly thought this must be the end of the world."

Walking down from the shrine and across the flat expanse of concrete that leads to the sea - pretty much all that remains of Takenoura today - Mr Suzuki suddenly stopped in his tracks.

"My home was just here," he said. Walking across the empty space.

"This was the entrance, and here was the kitchen and the bathroom. The building went along the whole of this space up to his point," he said.

Clutched in his hand is a treasured document: a glossy brochure capturing the former beauty of his traditional wooden house, as photographed by a building company which undertook renovation in recent years.

Like many tsunami survivors, Mr Suzuki's current abode could not be more different. A 20-minute drive inland, he lives with his 63-year-old wife, Tomiko, in an anonymous row of white plastic cube-like structures tacked together.

More than 260,000 residents across Japan's three worst-hit regions - Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima - are still living in similarly cramped conditions in temporary housing.

Despite the limited space of Mr Suzuki's accommodation - one small space partitioned into living area, kitchen and sleeping on unrolled futons at night - his wife was as hospitable as in any Japanese home.

Shoes were slipped off at the door of the immaculately clean and tidy temporary house, before Mrs Suzuki brought cups of green tea and fresh oranges to a low table.

Here, Mr Suzuki unveiled the community's ambitious architect-drawn plans for a new Takenoura, to be paid for mostly by government compensation and private savings.

"The new village would be built inland, behind the shrine, where it will be safe from any tsunami of that size again," he said. "Safety is the most important factor.

"There would be an area of public housing and an area of private housing, along with a park right in the centre. We are hoping to make fast progress with this plan and be in our new homes in three years, if all goes well."

As the first anniversary of the disaster is remembered today, it is one plan likely to give hope to hundreds of thousands of people facing an uncertain future.

"A tsunami this size may come once ever 1,000 years," said Mr Suzuki. "But when I think about our future generations - our children and grandchildren and their children - I want to make sure everyone will be safe. That's how almost everyone here feels."