Natural disaster recovery - parallels with Japan

03:33, Apr 22 2014

Three years after his wife was swept away by the huge tsunami that washed across the Tohoku region of eastern Japan, Hiroyuki Tomono still feels responsible for her death.

His pregnant wife, Michiyo, and then 4-year-old son, Haruki, were evacuated to a local gymnasium after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit off Japan's east coast on March 13, 2011, while Hiroyuki was called on as a volunteer firefighter to direct people to evacuation points.

The three-metre tsunami that hit their small town of Higashimatsushima, in Miyagi Prefecture, engulfed the gym. People in the second floor spectator gallery could only watch as his wife tried to cling to the curtains as the water flooded the building before she was washed away by the powerful wave. His son was saved from the black water by other evacuees.

"I was useless. I couldn't do anything. I feel angry at myself because if I had done something to prevent this, my wife wouldn't have been killed," Tomono said. "I need to heal my heart," he said.

And while he still suffers from the pain of the loss, his business is also struggling as the rebuild up and down the coast stalls. Apart from his son, Tomono's barber shop is quiet when the Sunday Star-Times visits. Many of his regular customers have moved away: their homes and lives in the area destroyed by the tsunami, any rebuild taking too long to convince them to stay.

After the disaster that killed 15,884, with another 2633 still missing, international media ran timelapse photos of the apparent speed of Japan's recovery. The images showed the tsunami's huge destruction, estimated to have cost NZ$350 billion, where cars, ships and debris up to 20 metres high littered towns. The photos of the same spots less than a year later showed the debris cleared, roads rebuilt and ports operational.


Cantabrians battling through traffic on quake-shaken streets, fighting insurance companies and the endless noise of diggers seemed unsurprised that the Japanese earthquake recovery was so much further advanced. Cliches of Japanese efficiency were thrown about with muted jealousy.

But three years on from the February 2011 Canterbury earthquake and the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, both recoveries suffer from similar difficulties as communities and governments battle over their vision for the future.

While Japan was quick to clean up, the redevelopment of areas already battered by economic decline and ageing populations has been too slow for people trying to restart their lives in Tohoku. Locals are tired and frustrated with the lack of progress and community engagement in the rebuild.

The small town of Kesennuma became famous after the tsunami left a fishing boat perched upright after it was swept 500 metres inland into a residential area. It became a symbol of the disaster, but it was removed two years after the tsunami after an opinion poll of residents found 70 per cent of locals wanted the boat gone.

The 700 people still living in the small settlement of temporary housing in the hills above the fishing village see the effects of the earthquake every day. Nearly 100,000 people forced from their homes by the tsunami still live in temporary housing throughout the Tohoku region.

In Kesennuma, the houses are lined row after row, 106 in just one small settlement. Some homes are just 20 square metres. Formerly tight-knit rural communities were splintered and people thrown together randomly in temporary housing units. There is little sense of belonging.

"We try to get along together but . . . the stress has mounted. Small things become very frustrating," said Sadashi Takahashi, 63, the head of the community's council.

In Christchurch, the lack of progress with the rebuild and insurance claims have for some become more traumatic than the earthquakes themselves.

"People say the earthquakes and the aftershocks we could manage. It is the other stuff that is killing us," says Christchurch city councillor Ali Jones. The dysfunctional infrastructure, where roads are still under constant repair, and ongoing battles with the EQC and insurance companies have left Christchurch residents exhausted.

"What it has become now is incredible frustration, stress, tiredness. A real issue around trust and confidence around organisations involved in the recovery," she says.

In Tohoku, the prefabricated homes were designed to accommodate refugees from the 1995 Kobe earthquake in southern Japan. Now in their fourth mission and put to use much further north the ageing homes are not designed for the Tohoku winters and the residents complain of the cold and condensation.

The Japanese Government had said public housing would be available to refugees within two years, but so far only a fraction of the planned accommodation has been built. The government has blamed a shortage of labourers and materials for the delay. But local residents believe the rebuild is a low priority and are concerned that the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo will take more materials and builders away from Tohoku.

But while government support is lacking, the people of Tohoku have started to take the area's rejuvenation into their own hands. In a region that relied on fishing as its primary economic driver, perceptions of nuclear contamination of fish and the physical devastation of so much of the industry has seen the locals look to new areas to bring people and money back to the region.

It was Takakazu Kameyama's dream to open a restaurant with his wife. But after she was killed in the tsunami, he carried out their dream in her memory. In the tiny village of Hamaguri, on the Oshika peninsula where he was born, Kameyama has opened a cafe that he hopes will bring people to the region.

The peninsula was the closest land to the earthquake's epicentre and the tsunami was up to 10 metres high in the area. In Hamaguri, the nine-home community has been reduced to two, and the population is just five. The 28 harbours on the peninsula once revolved around fishing but now Kameyama hopes to attract people to the region for its natural beauty, history and produce.

The cafe is set in his beautiful family home which is more than 100 years old and looks out across the sea. Renovated after the quake by volunteers, it's naturally lit with warm wood panelling and guests sit on tatami mats. He serves locally sourced cuisine including native reindeer stew. He hopes the cafe will give people, especially young people, a new reason to come to the peninsula and help reinvigorate the village.

In a bay at the base of the Oshika peninsula is Ishinomaki, one of the worst hit cities where 3162 were killed and 50,000 buildings damaged. Even before the earthquake, Ishinomaki, a city built around fishing and Manga comics, was losing its young people to the big cities' universities and opportunity. Now, grassroots organisations are using the rebuild to attempt to persuade the youth to stay or come home to Ishinomaki.

In a cafe filled with handmade wooden tables and uniformed schoolchildren on laptops is the headquarters of Ishinomaki 2.0, an organisation of designers, architects, local shop owners, and planners who want "to renew Ishinomaki to become a new city, instead of rebuilding the city back to how it was".

What began as a magazine to celebrate the people and ideas in Ishinomaki post earthquake, grew into a bar, a furniture workshop, a hotel, a library and a real estate website helping displaced residents find homes. Out the back of the cafe, schoolkids eat potato chips with chopsticks so their fingers stay clean while they build smartphone apps on their laptops.

"The earthquake gives everyone an opportunity to participate in public space. The important thing is everyone can join this process of revitalisation," says Kuniyoshi Katsu, 30, an architect and one the group's founding members.

However, while many grassroots organisations like Ishinomaki 2.0 are presenting innovative community visions for the rebuild, the ideas often clash with the central government's plan. The local communities often feel their views are brushed over in the rebuild.

"Everything is decided by someone we don't know," says Katsu.

Christchurch grassroots organisations feel the same way: decisions are made top-down, paying lip service to the ideas and needs of the people living and working every day in the affected areas.

"The general impression is that the recovery is being done to communities not with communities. There are token efforts to engage communities in decision-making. A lot of the decision-making occurs behind closed doors," says community leader Evan Smith.

After the earthquake, the city fortified through the small village hubs while large suburban centres stayed closed for months. Community organisations popped up as the voice of the people on the ground. If Christchurch is to be rebuilt as a resilient, sustainable, modern city, it must be done with local wisdom, Smith says.

"It was the neighbours talking over the fence to each other, it is that neighbourhood level where resilience exists," he says.

Shintaro Suzuki's family has lived on the same piece of land in the historic fishing village of Shibitachi for hundreds of years. The current house was built more than 120 years ago and still has the fire-fed central heating system and a sake brewing house.

Suzuki is leading local residents in their fight to preserve their ancient way of life and livelihood. The government plans to put up 10 metre high and 30 metre long sea walls, in an attempt to stop a future tsunami. But residents argue the wall will obstruct their view of the sea destroying their connection with the ocean, it will interfere with the port's role as a shelter for fishing boats and could kill the local fishing industry.

"Our life is based on fishing. Tourism is based on fishing. If the government policy takes the fishing from the community there is no reason to live here," Suzuki says.

Suzuki believes the local government is trying to exploit the non- confrontational nature of the Japanese character as it forces the sea wall on the community. But now the community will not give up until its voice is heard.

"The official policy of the Miyagi Prefecture government is to gather residents' agreement. Their way of doing that policy is to force residents to agree. I am so angry about it. The Japanese personality is a hesitating personality. We can't hesitate here to say our opinions," he says.

The Shibitachi community is concerned that modern technology and a rapid push for economic growth will destroy their culture. The local government's slogan is "to make Miyagi rich," and has seen Toyota open a plant in the region. But Suzuki believes this comes at a cost to the community's heritage.

"We are rich because of so much more than money. To build a seawall will make the people poor," he says.

Christchurch has fought a very public battle with the Government. The push for swift redevelopment and progress has left behind piles of rubble and the fear the city's history has been lost with 235 heritage buildings demolished since the quake.

While some buildings like the Arts Centre have had thoughtful management plans created to preserve its historic presence, many historic buildings were quickly pulled down, often leaving empty lots where the past once stood.

"We have really lost in terms of the CBD the heart and soul of the city. The sense of the city's layers of history," says Ian Lochhead, Associate Professor at University of Canterbury.

Simon Day travelled to Japan with the support of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

Sunday Star Times