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Aftermath: The destruction and despair of a Japanese fishing town

Rescue workers walk among destroyed houses and debris in the tsunami-damaged city of Rikuzen-Takata on March 24, 2011.

NICOLAS ASFOURI/NICOLAS ASFOURIAFP/Getty Images

This seaside fishing town, with its obliterated core and houses and boats carried kilometres inland, has become synonymous in Japan with the destruction wrought by the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck just over two weeks ago. But the truth is that Rikuzen-Takata was starting to disappear long before the angry waves of March 11.

The tsunami, which flattened perhaps 80 per cent of the city centre and left more than 10 per cent of the population dead or missing, may only have sped up the inevitable in a town that has been shrinking for decades as the young move away in search of education and employment unavailable in this isolated place. Left behind was a community dominated by retirees who confess they may have neither the ability nor the desire to start over again.

"After the tsunami, I'm very worried about the future of Rikuzen-Takata. Everybody says we have to rebuild the town and rebuild the country, but is it actually possible? How long will it take?" asked Haruko Hatakeyama, an 82-year-old retiree who since March 11 has been sleeping on a thin tatami mattress laid on the floor of the gymnasium in the town's middle school. She shares the sparse and chilly accommodations with 1,200 other survivors.

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The challenges Rikuzen-Takata faces are an amplification of those facing the country as a whole. Japan's population, like the town's, is old and getting older. The national and local leadership is in question, and there's the daunting question of whether the most indebted country in the world can afford to simultaneously rebuild its tsunami-shattered northeast coast while dealing with the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

The Japanese government intends to at least make an effort. The first 36 prefabricated homes set up in the tsunami-battered northeast have been deployed in Rikuzen-Takata, and on Saturday a draw will be held to decide who among the wider region's 430,000 suddenly homeless survivors will be the first to have four walls of their own again.

Life is improving for those who survived nature's onslaught. Most now have three meals a day, heat and electricity, even if there's no running water yet. There's a small library of donated books and board games near the entrance to the Rikuzen-Takata middle school gymnasium, and earlier this week residents were taken by the busload to portable baths so they could get clean for the first time since the disaster.

But as soldiers continue to pull bodies from the remnants of the town - adding to a nationwide toll that stood Friday at 10,000 dead and 17,400 missing, a number that will continue to rise - the scale of the task ahead remains enormous. Prime Minister Naoto Kan has tried to rally the nation by recalling the spirit of 1945, when the country set out to transform itself from the ruins of the Second World War into a global economic power. "We are going to create Japan once again from scratch," he vowed in televised remarks.

But those who remember the postwar era say the comparisons between then and now are unrealistic. "Back in 1945, there were lots of young people around and the economy in Rikuzen-Takata was okay," said Ms. Hatakeyama, who was 16 and launching her career as a school teacher when the war ended. Like many of the Japanese who helped power the country through its 20th-century rebuild, she can contribute little this time around, and will instead be a drain on the country's resources, one more elderly person who needs a place to sleep and perhaps someone to take care of them in the turmoil.

Japan experienced a baby boom after the war, and by 1950 more than 35 per cent of the country was under the age of 15, and just 5 per cent was 65 or older. Today the picture is almost completely reversed, with 23 per cent of Japanese in the oldest age bracket compared with 14 per cent under 15, making it the oldest society on the planet. Until two weeks ago, much of Japan was just looking for an affordable way to retire in comfort.

The demographics are even more badly tilted against places like Rikuzen-Takata, where more than a third of the predisaster population was older than 65. Even before the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, the fishing towns of Japan's northeast coast were struggling to retain young people, who often went away after high school to universities, colleges and jobs in Tokyo and elsewhere. After their hometowns were flattened, it will be harder than ever to convince them that there's a reason to remain.

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In the town of Otsuchi, north of Rikuzen-Takata, the middle school gymnasium has been converted into a morgue, with 83 bodies laid out on the floor beneath a Japanese flag and a burning candle in the hope that someone can identify them. Otsuchi, too, saw its young people leave in droves during the 1980s and 1990s. Those left behind - living and dead - are the elderly.

The body of 78-year-old Kizuo Komatsu, a construction worker who was driving to an out-of-town job when the tsunami washed over his truck, was claimed this week by his younger brother and sister and their spouses. He was the seventh dead relative they had collected. Two other family members are missing.

The four survivors are all in their 70s, and after their ordeal there's little left of the resolve Mr. Kan is trying to summon for the rebuilding of the country.

"It's going to be very hard to rebuild this city, especially with the lack of young people here" said Churou Miura, a 70-year-old retired construction worker and the dead man's brother-in-law, looking around at the field of mud and tossed cars around him. "I can't sleep at night, thinking about the situation. All the breadwinners are gone."

The reconstruction will inevitably provide an injection of cash and jobs into Japan's long-stagnant economy, which has seen sluggish growth in its gross domestic product over the past two decades and last year lost its prized status as No. 2 in the world to neighbouring China. But any stimulus gained from the rebuild is likely to be tempered, at least in part, by the anticipated blow to Japanese exports.

Signature Japanese corporations such as Honda, Toyota, Sony and Nikon have been forced to shut damaged factories and reduce production amid rolling power outages. And with radiation already detected in the milk and spinach and a dozen other vegetables produced in Fukushima prefecture, and the government warning that babies should not drink the tap water in Tokyo, who is going to buy Japanese food exports any time soon?

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Another unanswered question is who will pay for the reconstruction, a task the country's government has estimated will cost more than $300-billion? Japan already has the world's highest debt-to-GDP ratio, at 225 per cent (compared with 144 per cent in Greece, another chronically overdrawn state).

"Where is the money going to come from? That's a big problem," said Toshifumi Takada, a professor of management and accounting at Tohoku University in the badly damaged city of Sendai. "The money and the energy of the people is very, very limited."

As it looks for ways to pay the reconstruction bill, Japan may consider raising consumption taxes to double or triple the current 5 per cent, or levying a special disaster recovery tax. But while there's a national understanding that everyone will have to contribute to the rebuilding, Prof. Takada said, another tax will do little to spur the needed economic revival.

An international bailout is another option. But that would be an absolute last resort, seen as a national shame for a country proud of its status as a member of the G-7 and the most developed country in Asia.

Much will fall on Mr. Kan himself. While postwar Japan was guided by Douglas MacArthur, the U.S. general who effectively had unchallenged powers as the head of the occupying army, with Emperor Hirohito retained to lend stability to the process, no one is sure that Mr. Kan - the country's fifth prime minister in five years - will still be in office at the end of the year.

Mr. Kan has tried to reach out to his political opponents, who were just two weeks ago calling for him to resign over a funding scandal, to join him in a crisis coalition government. So far they've refused, signalling that politics as usual may resume very soon in a country that desperately needs stability at the top.

From the first hours after the tsunami the survivors in Rikuzen-Takata have said they want to stay and rebuild. But the scale of the destruction means it's unlikely the town will ever completely recover.

Norihiko Sugawara is one of those who left Rikuzen-Takata, moving at the age of 23 to the regional capital of Morioka to take a job in the civil service. On Thursday, he was back in the town digging at the muddy rubble of his childhood home with a white metal shovel.

Mr. Sugawara said he hasn't seen or heard from his septuagenarian parents since March 11. He knows they are likely gone, but had come back improbably hoping to find a CD of classical music that his father loved.

Standing amid the ruins of the place he grew up, watching his seven-year-old son shiver as a hard rain turned to snow, Mr. Sugawara was more practical than nostalgic. "People say they want to come back and rebuild here, but I don't know. I can't see our family ever coming back here."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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