Revisiting 3/11: Five years after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake

An aerial shot of Onagawacho, Miyagi Prefecture, taken in June 2006. | © TADAO YOSHIMURA
An aerial shot of Onagawacho, taken on March 25, 2011, shows the extensive damage from the massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami. | © KYODO
The progress from reconstruction efforts can be seen in an aerial shot of Onagawacho, taken on Feb. 15, 2016. | KYODO

Survivors fall between
cracks of reconstruction system


Staff writer

The port of Ishinomaki is seen from Hiyoriyama Park, located in the center of the city in Miyagi Prefecture, on Feb. 12. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

On March 11, 2011, at 2:46 p.m., a magnitude-9.0 earthquake shook the foundations of the Tohoku region, triggering a massive tsunami and nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. It was tragedy that transfixed the world and still reverberates through Japan. Five years later,we look back on a day that changed the nation, at lessons learned and at the obstacles that lie ahead.

ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi Pref. — On a chilly weekend morning last month, Yasukatsu Miura, 74, is bundled in a down jacket and wool beanie as he watches TV in his old two-story wooden house in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, cold air entering through gaps in the front door.

Nearly five years have passed since towering tsunami ravaged the first floor of his house, but broken outer walls and torn wallpaper remain as reminders of the devastation.

Following the March 11, 2011, disasters, pensioner Miura repaired the house as much as possible with the ¥1.3 million in subsidies he received from the municipal government under an emergency support program to mend damaged homes.

But the amount was far from enough to fix everything, so damage remains five years since the waves hit.

"If I had money, I would repair the wall first. . . . But I'm living off a pension and it's just about enough to feed myself," the small-statured Miura said.

The former carpenter said that with a pension of less than ¥80,000 per month, he is also providing financial support to a disabled son who moved in when he lost his job after 3/11. After paying utility bills and medical fees, he can barely make ends meet, he said.

Given his age, Miura was not able to borrow money from a bank to patch up his sliding entrance doors, so he could only afford to repair half.

Even if he wanted to move into temporary housing, Miura does not qualify as a tenant because of the subsidies he received to repair his badly damaged house.

Miura is a prime example of the bleak reality faced by many disaster survivors still struggling five years after a magnitude-9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami took the lives of more than 19,000 people.

Since the disaster struck, the Tohoku coast has seen drastic changes. A massive injection of public money has led to the construction of roads and ports, and a controversial project comprising a total 400 km of seawalls being built along the shores of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. Many survivors who lost homes have also left prefabricated temporary housing and moved into private or public permanent houses.

But there are many others who fall through the cracks of the system, including Miura.

Although there are no official figures available, the Ishinomaki-based volunteer group Team Ohkan estimates that about 12,000 households in the city live in severely damaged dwellings.

"The reality is there are still so many issues remaining even after five years," said Kenya Ito, head of Team Ohkan who has been supporting people living in damaged homes in Ishinomaki since March 2011.

On Jan. 22, during a keynote policy speech in the Diet, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he could "now see bright sunlight," referring to the state of Tohoku's reconstructionand claimed the recovery of livelihoods was "fully underway and this recovery will enter a new stage."

But the reality is far from bright.

Even those who were fortunate enough to fully renovate or build a new house in their hometowns are facing disappearing communities as the catastrophe led many survivors to move away.

Like many remote towns and villages across Japan, those coastal communities were already experiencing graying, shrinking populations even before 3/11. The catastrophe only moved the clock forward.

A census conducted last October showed the population had shrunk 3.8 percent in Iwate, 0.6 percent in Miyagi and 5.7 percent in Fukushima over the past five years.

The decline was much higher in tsunami-ravaged coastal areas. Ishinomaki, one of the hardest-hit cities in Miyagi, saw its population shrink by 8.45 percent to 147,236, from 160,826 in 2010.

When examined further, declines were far more acute in coastal parts of the city, such as a 74.5 percent drop in the Ogatsu district and a 43.3 percent fall on the Oshika Peninsula.

On a recent weekend afternoon in the fishing town of Ogatsu, the streets were deserted and the only people visiting the district's temporary shopping area were government officials.

Masahiko Ueyama, 46, who runs an eatery in the temporary shopping area, said he rarely received visitors these days.

"We had only one customer yesterday," Ueyama said.

"Many tourists and volunteer staff came here in the first year after the disaster. I hoped that trend would continue. But what happened was people stopped coming, and we've been losing money."

Along the Tohoku coast, the 400 km of seawalls are being built to protect residents in case monster tsunami strike again.

But the project, which is reportedly costing about ¥1 trillion in public money, is universally unpopular among local residents, who say the wall will only block the view of the ocean. With or without a seawall, the most important way to escape tsunami is to get to higher ground, they say.

In Ogatsu, the construction of a 9.7-meter-tall seawall is scheduled to start this month in areas designated as a zone where officials have banned the building of new homes.

"Why do we need such gigantic walls in areas where people can't live? Who are they going to protect?" Ueyama said. "Those seawalls will cover the view of the ocean necessary for our daily lives, because we make many fishing decisions by looking at the condition of the sea."

On Ishinomaki's Oshika Peninsula, Tsuyoshi Koya, 87, the leader of a small fishing community in the Momonoura district, said the hamlet was on the verge of disappearing.

"I thought people would come back to Momonoura, so I renovated my house and returned here in August 2011," said Koya, who now lives alone in one of the three houses that survived the tsunami. "But in the end, nobody came back."

After heated debate, residents of Momonoura decided to relocate to higher ground under the government's reconstruction program. But as it took much longer than expected, most left the town for good and migrated to larger cities, including Sendai.

Out of the 65 households, or about 150 residents, only five households, or six people, moved to higher ground. Among them, five residents are aged over 65, Koya said.

"If things . . . continue like this, the community will be shuttered 10 years from now. There will be no one left here, and I certainly won't be alive," Koya said.

In a bid to revive the deserted village, local oystermen who left the community set up a company in Momonoura in October 2012 with Sendai-based wholesaler Sendai Suisan and about ¥400 million in state subsidies.

The enterprise started with 15 local oystermen but now employs 44 people, including young fishermen in their 20s and 30s who hail from other prefectures, including Tokyo and Chiba, leader Katsuyuki Oyama, 69, said.

Oyama hopes the young employees eventually move to Momonoura, get married and have children. But things are not that easy.

The newcomers do not qualify to build houses on higher ground as the area is reserved for disaster survivors only. The former residential areas in Momonoura are now designated no-housing zones, as they are likely to be flooded if killer tsunami hit the region again.

"Even if young folk come to work in Momonoura, they can't place down roots in the village. Because of that, I think we have yet to make a true step toward revitalization," Oyama said.

"This is our hometown, so we want to bring the village back to its former state. But reconstruction of the fishing village will be difficult unless existing regulations are relaxed."

Toranomon Hills, developed by Mori Building Co., towers over the capital’s Shimbashi and Toranomon districts in this photo taken last summer. | BLOOMBERG

3/11 lesson: Prepare, at all costs, for the worst

Staff writer

Should a devastating earthquake hit central Tokyo tomorrow, Mori Building Co. would be able to provide temporary shelters for about 10,000 people who can’t return home immediately in the company’s high-rises.

About 270,000 rations – enough to serve 10,000 people three meals a day for three days – and other emergency supplies, including blankets, portable toilets and diapers, have been stocked at Mori building’s shopping and business complexes, including Roppongi Hills and Toranomon Hills, both in Minato Ward.

Mori Building is among the Japanese companies that overhauled their anti-disaster measures after the events of March 11, 2011.

As a real estate company that has been involved deeply in urban development in Tokyo, “our consciousness (to protect ourselves from disasters) has become even stronger after the Great East Japan Earthquake,” said Takashi Terada, a senior manager for Mori Building’s disaster emergency office.

When the magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami devastated coastal parts of Tohoku in 2011, Tokyo and its surrounding areas were also rocked by tremors measuring a maximum upper-6 on the Japanese seismic scale.

The shaking caused significant disruption to infrastructure in the metropolis and its transportation network. About 5.15 million people spent that night in the city rather than making their way home on foot, and many of them took places in temporary shelters.

At that time, Mori Building accommodated about 200 people in Roppongi Hills at Minato Ward’s request. But Terada regretted that the building was unable to offer variety of supplies needed by those it took in. It could not even help out with information about the disaster.

Based on the lessons learned from 3/11 and the aftermath, Mori Building has increased its emergency stocks. It has stocked various meals, including seasoned instant rice that only needs water after learning that the dry, tasteless biscuits provided at the time of the disaster proved unpopular and some people even discarded them, Terada said.

Although disaster preparation efforts can be costly, including renewing outdated stocks, “we believe it’s a part of our social responsibility to improve the community’s safety,” Terada said of Mori Building's efforts.

But such measures cannot be sustained unless society rewards organizations and regions with financial and reputational incentives for their efforts, an expert said.

Kimiro Meguro, a professor of disaster management at the University of Tokyo, said people’s awareness of disaster countermeasures is not high enough to offer such incentives, even after the 2011 catastrophe.

“It’s difficult for private companies and communities … to continue to deal seriously with disaster reduction efforts if all they are doing is paying for them,” he said, adding that the sense of social responsibility only goes so far.

The key is to convince people that they need to ensure their own safety and that of others in times of disaster, Meguro said, noting two massive earthquakes are predicted to hit Japan in the near future.

The government estimates that a magnitude-9 quake may occur in the Nankai Trough off central and western Japan and could trigger massive tsunami. This could kill up to 323,000 people and cause ¥220 trillion in damage.

The 2011 earthquake claimed 19,335 lives, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency.

The government predicted in 2013 there is 70 percent probability that a magnitude-7 temblor would directly hit Tokyo within 30 years, resulting in a many as 23,000 deaths and a ¥95 trillion hit to the economy.

“At the time of disaster, it’s unrealistic to expect public officers of national and local governments to guide each individual; you are the only one who can protect yourself, your family and friends,” Meguro said.

In the wake of the devastation in the Tohoku region in 2011, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government established numerous disaster mitigation measures under the comprehensive Tokyo Disaster Prevention Plan released in 2014.

The plan covers various problems that could accompany a mega-quake in the capital and included ways for residents to protect themselves and the people around them in order to ensure that Tokyo becomes “the safest and most secure city in the world.”

The aim is to raise Tokyo residents’ awareness about disaster mitigation and help foreign visitors feel safe before and during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, said Masataka Tsuji, a metropolitan government official in charge of metro earthquake disaster response measures.

“To become the safest city, Tokyo needs to reinforce its ability to deal with the aftermath,” he said. “It’s impossible to stop natural disasters, even with today’s science. … The important thing is to minimize the damage caused by a disaster after it happens.”

But Meguro of the University of Tokyo warns that the scale of damage the forecast earthquakes are expected to bring to the capital and the Western part of Japan would far exceed the capacity of public efforts to mitigate such devastation.

“Considering that public money will eventually decline as a result of depopulation, public assistance in a disaster will never be strengthened,” he said.

Today’s disaster countermeasures focus too much on dealing with the aftermath of disasters, such as quick and effective rebuilding efforts, when more preventive action is needed, such as reinforcing the quake resistance of structures and moving people away from high-risk areas, he said.

Meguro said this is a consequence of failed urban planning that assumed it is inevitable that metropolitan areas would have heavy population concentrations and people have been encouraged to live in areas vulnerable to disasters.

It's just a waste of money to keep recovering from damage that could be avoided in the first place, he said.

“I can’t tell when, but earthquakes will inevitably hit,” Meguro said. “What we should do is to take measures to mitigate damage, rather than planning on how to deal with the aftermath.”

A high school student from Miyagi Prefecture thanks U.S. service personnel in Pasadena, California, on Dec. 31, 2014, for their participation in the Operation Tomodachi relief effort. | KYODO

Joint disaster training a legacy of U.S. military’s Operation Tomodachi

Staff writer

OSAKA — In the wake of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, a range of U.S. troops and civilian rescue workers joined the relief effort. The scale of the disaster led to unprecedented logistical challenges on both sides and calls for more joint training specifically for disaster relief.

Now, five years later, the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military are involved in annual joint disaster response exercises. But although progress has been made, some experts have concerns about how quick and smooth a future joint disaster response would be, while politics creates its own barriers to doing more.

The central government has since 2013 been focused on planning for an earthquake and tsunami along the Nankai Trough, which runs from Suruga Bay in Shizuoka Prefecture and ends off the coast of Kyushu.

Since 2014, U.S. forces have joined the SDF in conducting disaster response training exercises for a Nankai quake. Exercises have taken place in Wakayama, Miyagi, and, last year, in Kochi Prefecture. Australian troops also participated in the Miyagi exercise.

Grant Newsham, a senior research fellow at Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, is a retired U.S. Marine colonel who headed the U.S. side of the bilateral coordination cell in Sendai after the 3/11 disaster. He said one of the most important lessons of Operation Tomodachi was the SDF's inability to land supplies on the coast.

"The lack of a JSDF amphibious capability was highlighted after the tsunami in the several thousand Japanese who died in the first 24 to 48 hours because of the JSDF's inability to get into the affected area, from the sea, and rescue them," he said. "The Maritime Self-Defense Force got there quickly but all they could do was really float offshore."

Since 2011, Newsham added, some progress has been made by the Ground Self-Defense Force and the MSDF toward an amphibious capability. But he also said both services could better coordinate their efforts.

"Without an amphibious capability, an island nation like Japan will lack an essential tool for protecting its citizens," he said.

At the local level, especially in prefectures closest to the Nankai Trough, there is a recognition that disaster response training with the SDF needs to increase.

However, Garren Mulloy, an associate professor at Daito Bunka University and an expert on the Self-Defense Forces, said there are questions about just how interested the U.S. is in humanitarian assistance and disaster response training.

"The U.S. armed forces have often attempted to distance themselves from this work, partly out of a sense of priorities in terms of training time and the likelihood of deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, etc., but also partly out of a different sense of mission and identity to the JSDF," he said.

In the U.S., he noted, the National Guard is the domestic military force for disaster relief work, and has a law enforcement role the U.S. military is forbidden to undertake. But in Japan, the SDF is the National Guard, said Mulloy, who is the author of an upcoming book on the SDF and its relationship to Japanese society.

Japanese governors also remain concerned about more extensive disaster training involving U.S. forces, partially due to fears over the safety of the Marines' MV-22 Osprey tilt rotor aircraft, and partially out of a desire, for whatever reasons, not to stir up opposition to the U.S. military.

At the same time, some residents, fearing local and national political dithering over the role of the U.S. in responding to a disaster, have taken the lead in offering specific ideas for integrated training.

While training for a Nankai Trough disaster involving Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu continues, Okinawa presents a special challenge. The prefecture consists of hundreds of islands, including the main island where the vast majority of Okinawans live and where the U.S. has a heavy military presence.

In April 2014, a group of residents at the Okinawa Peace Assistance Center submitted a proposal with 11 recommendations for strengthening U.S.-Japan joint disaster prevention and response.

Number one on the list, said executive director Reiji Fumoto, is overcoming the political issues surrounding the bases, especially the contentious decision to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Henoko, on the northern part of the main island.

"We need to separate disaster response cooperation from the political issues," he said.

One of the group's proposals is to designate Futenma as the regional hub in the event of a natural disaster. Relief supplies, including fuel and equipment necessary to respond to an emergency, could be prepositioned there.

And, even after Futenma is eventually returned to Japan, Fumoto argued it should remain a disaster response hub because it has a big advantage: "The port of Naha and Naha International Airport are on low-lying ground, as is much of the U.S. Air Force base at Kadena. But Futenma is on much higher ground," he said.

"If a large tsunami of 30 meters were to strike, our predictions are that Naha airport and Naha port would be heavily damaged, and that parts of Kadena would be affected, while it's predicted there would be no damage to Futenma."

So far, he said, there has been little interest among Okinawa politicians in enacting the proposals. In the meantime, there are plans to conduct more joint disaster exercises with U.S. forces under the scenario of an earthquake in the Nankai Trough, although the location of the drills has not been decided, the Defense Ministry said.

While emphasizing logistical issues at the national level, Newsham also notes that local leaders can expand joint disaster relief operations, even if, compared to U.S. state governors, Japanese prefectural governors have less autonomy.

"It's the JSDF that will be providing 99 percent of the relief effort. The U.S. can only augment here and there. But it just takes a governor to show an interest in disaster relief efforts and to speak clearly and forcefully on the need to fully integrate and use the resources of both the JSDF and U.S. forces," Newsham said.

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