The difficult task of rebuilding a town amid an uncertain future

Published: 14 November 2012 12:30 CET
  • Yuuki and Teruko Kumagai are concerned about the pace on redevelopment in their town.
  • Families used to living in relatively large homes must get used to living in small prefab buildings while the town is rebuilt.
Yuuki and Teruko Kumagai are concerned about the pace on redevelopment in their town.

By Sayaka Matsumoto in Rikuzentakata

An unusually long, hot summer has ended. The wooded mountains have started to turn red and yellow. As we near the coastline, long, scrubby grass encroaches on the roadsides as if this land had always been neglected. But the square outlines marking the foundations of houses – still visible among the grass remind me that this area was overwhelmed by the tsunami.

I’m here visiting Mr and Mrs Kumagai, who live in a prefabricated home in Rikuzentakata. I first met them in June 2011, three months after the disaster and this is the third time I have visited them. Their temporary home is located on the hill overlooking the land where a central part of the town used to be.

Yuuki and Teruko Kumagai warmly welcome us into the small living room in which the television and hot water dispenser provided by Japanese Red Cross Society can be seen. The most dramatic change in their life is the fact that their current house is very small. “We used to live in a house on a 500 square meter plot of land, but now the houses are separated only by a thin wall,” Yuuki says.

“On the other hand, it is good that I have started to talk to more people as a consequence of living so close together,” says Teruko. “But I feel sorry for families with small children or pets.”

I ask about plans for rebuilding the town. “According to the local government it will take at least three more years to start building permanent homes, and it might take ten years to complete the reconstruction of the town,” Yuuki says. “We were initially told that we would be living in this temporary house for three years, so we are worried about what might happen in 18 months time.”

The intention of the local government is to excavate nearby hillsides in order to create a flat space, and also bring in tonnes of soil to raise up the land which currently lies close to sea-level. Once these measures have been taken, construction of the city hall, shops and houses can begin.

However Yuuki says ruefully: “They have not even started the negotiations with landowners, let alone laying the foundations. It’s just a bit like a cake drawn on paper. By the time land is ready, I will be over eighty. I won’t have enough money to build a new house. I don’t know what kind of support I will receive from the government. Even if I ask those questions no-one has any answers.

“Our future is very uncertain.”

Yuuki is already retired, but for those of working age, the situation is even worse. Many younger people have moved inland to look for work. The population of Rikuzentakata was 24,000 before the disaster. An estimated 2,000 people were killed by the tsunami, and according to the city’s official web site the population as of September 2012 was 20,772 and decreasing. “When the new town is completed, I wonder if there will be anybody to live there,” says Yuuki.

Teruko serves us tea every ten minutes and despite treating us to mandarines, sweetly cooked figs and cookies, she tells us that she cannot buy the fresh vegetables and fish she was once able to. Fisherman operating large vessels have managed to restart their livelihoods, but the fish they catch are sold in the markets in the larger cities, while the small-scale fisherman who once supplied the local markets have not ventured back to sea. Teruko laments that she is now forced to buy small fish that would formerly have been thrown back into the sea.

Despite the inconvenience they suffer, and the anxiety for the future, Yuuki continues to enjoy his hobby of ten-pin bowling, even though he has to drive further than before in order to play. And Teruko participates in every single social event happening in the common-room shared by the members of this temporary community.

We cannot ignore the fact that reconstruction of those coastal towns will take many years. The Japanese Red Cross Society is not in a position to speed up that process, but however long it takes, I would like to keep visiting this family until they are finally able to move into a permanent house and are able to get used to their new town.

As we drive down the hill from the Kumagais’ house we see an area destined for rebuilding, but partly covered by brightly coloured, daisy-like cosmos flowers. While the city fathers debate the future of this town, nature has clearly decided to move ahead.

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