POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 9, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 2:30 a.m. HST, Mar 9, 2012
Tokyo » Chikako Abe's desk is decorated with flowers and candy at her school in Minamisoma, a reminder of a 17-year-old life cut short a year ago. Instead of attending a graduation ceremony this month, her family will pray Sunday at the ruins of a house where the sea snatched away the lives of Chikako, her father and two grandparents.
"She was always the center of our family," said Chikako's mother, Yukari Abe, 43, fighting back tears next to the concrete foundations where the house stood. "The year has gone by so fast, even now I feel that she will come back."
Her mother and two sisters, who survived because they were visiting a doctor's clinic beyond the reach of the tsunami, will offer flowers, chocolates and incense. Scores of similar memorials will be held along Japan's Pacific coastline to mark a disaster that left 15,854 dead and 3,272 missing.
The magnitude-9 earthquake that struck at 2:46 p.m. triggered a tsunami that in just 60 minutes laid waste to entire towns, engulfed four-story hospitals, left hundreds of thousands homeless and crippled a nuclear plant.
Many memorials will be private and distinctly personal — prayers and incense on the thousands of scarred, empty plots where houses lined the previously picturesque coastline. Others will be larger attempts to acknowledge the scale of a national disaster. For a day, families, communities, companies and politicians will be united in grief.
That unity belies the conflicts hampering Japan's recovery from the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster as local and central governments fight over budgets, cities and towns over consolidation and rival companies over new regulations.
There are also widening social divisions as the legacy of 3/11 takes its toll. Grief for friends and loved ones is tainted with guilt at having survived. The relief of not losing everything is tinged by envy of those who did and are now showered with handouts. Gratitude toward the army, which in many areas arrived before tsunami waters receded, is offset by resentment at the government's bungling of recovery efforts.
About 90 miles north of Chikako's house, Koichi Tanimura stands on a hilltop near his home overlooking the fishing port of Kesennuma.
Tanimura can see the rooftop from where a military helicopter rescued his son the morning after the tsunami. Below is the city where oil from damaged fuel tankers washed ashore, creating an inferno that millions watched on their televisions on the morning of March 12.
About a half-mile inland, a fishing trawler is surrounded by the empty plots scraped clean of buildings that are still the dominant feature of tsunami towns.
"They're talking about keeping it there as a memorial to the disaster," said Tanimura, 59, who had a stroke earlier this year that he blames on stress from the disaster. "That means we'll have to remember the tsunami every day."
In the damaged business district next to Kesennuma's port, the city has set up a temporary "shotengai," or shopping street, for displaced restaurants. Customers aren't coming, though, because the community's economy no longer functions, said Mikie Onodera, whose sushi restaurant, Isshin, is up the street.
"Even those who can afford to eat out are staying home because they don't want to be seen spending money," she said.
AID IS ALSO being distributed in a way that prevents recovery, Onodera said. Food, clothes and other goods are handed out, so residents no longer need to shop locally. That strangles the economies of towns where businesses relied on mutual trade for decades.
"Money isn't circulating," she said.
About a 30-minute drive down the coast, the town of Rikuzentakata faced the full fury of the tsunami, as it sits on a wide bay facing the earthquake's epicenter. Most of Rikuzentakata was obliterated, and more than 1,700 people out of a population of 24,000 were killed.
"We're really only reaching the starting point for rebuilding," said Mayor Futoshi Toba. "Reconstruction money hasn't been available."
The central government is holding up progress, he said. The initial decision to put the disaster recovery office in the prefectural capital of Morioka, a three-hour drive away, delays problem-solving, while the Reconstruction Agency only began operations Feb. 10, he said.
Toba has approached foreign governments and charities for funds, including the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and the United Nations. The Singapore Red Cross Society is building an $8.7 million community center in Rikuzentakata.
That's an initiative that for some residents of damaged towns along the Tohoku coast only highlights the central government's failure to properly distribute aid to its own citizens.
"The tsunami happened to all of us on the east coast," Onodera said. "Everyone should receive the same assistance."
REBUILDING AFTER the tsunami has exposed the economic fragility of Japan's rural areas, which have been plagued by aging, shrinking populations and faltering farms and fisheries for decades.
While places such as Rikuzentakata try to build new industries, most towns plan to revive what was already failing. Some have little choice.
"When it's all you've done your whole life, it's difficult to just find something else to do," said fisherman Kiyoshi Kanno, 50. "I've had to contemplate a life on government benefits," he said on the dock in Kesennuma.
About 50 miles farther up the coast from Kesennuma in Miyako, which was battered by the biggest tsunami wave at 128 feet, shop owner Junichi Kawabe runs his general store in a temporary building, even though sales are 30 percent of pre-quake levels.
"If you stop to think about whether it makes sense, you'll be overcome by depression. All you can do is deal with what's in front of you, then drink sake and sleep," he said.
The fracturing of communities into temporary housing villages in other locations will have a lasting social impact, said Daniel Aldrich, an associate professor of political science at Purdue University and author of "Site Fights: Divisive Facilities and Civil Society in Japan and the West."
"These people have their own space now rather than the less private shelters, but they are isolated and physically farther away from health care, stores and their friends," said Aldrich, who's in Japan studying how people cope with disasters. "Isolation and a breakdown of social networks can be a disaster themselves."
Communities will be fractured even longer in Fukushima, where the nuclear disasters occurred. The meltdown of three reactors in Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi station spread radiation as far away as the U.S. and prompted Japan's government to consider evacuating the 30 million people in metropolitan Tokyo.
WHAT THE government later called its "worst-case scenario" never happened. Still, about 160,000 people were evacuated from homes near the plant, where an area half the size of New York City is likely to be uninhabitable for decades.
Critics including Greenpeace International argued that based on international norms since the Chernobyl accident in 1986, the 1 million people living in Fukushima city should also have been evacuated due to high levels of radiation.
Interviews with Fukushima residents show widespread mistrust of the government on issues including radiation readings and the safety of fruit and vegetables from the prefecture. For many the decision is boiling down to whether to stay or find new homes.
"Trust in the authorities is completely lost," said Shuji Shimizu, vice president at Fukushima University. "Skepticism may be making citizens more proactive, but they are also fragmented and confused."
Examples of residents and civic groups ignoring the government and doing things themselves are all over the Tohoku region.
Minamisoma residents set up a decontamination service to accelerate the radiation cleanup with the help of academics and companies. Their work so far includes homes, buildings and a nursery school.
For the 160-year-old Hisiya sake brewery in Miyako, private investment stepped into the funding void after the tsunami washed away its giant metal drums for fermenting rice. The fifth-generation owners couldn't afford to rebuild without assistance, said manager Tetsuo Saito.
IN MINAMISOMA, Chikako Abe's surviving family is finding it difficult to move on, said her maternal grandparents, Imiko and Kazushige Hayashi. The 67-year-old grandfather leads a farmers group trying to recover land lost to the tsunami.
It's the loss of life that hurts the most, he said.
"I've been consumed by anger over what I've lost," he said. "But the anniversary will make us more determined to keep the family together. We have to rebuild and take every opportunity to be with our other granddaughters."