After Japan’s 2011 Tsunami a City Is Rebuilt—Now It Needs People to Survive


RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan—Ten years after one of the world’s largest earthquakes triggered a tsunami that wiped out much of this city, major reconstruction is nearly complete. A 40-foot-high concrete wall guards the coast, a seven-floor city hall is set to open, and only a few dirt-carrying trucks still rumble down the main street.

Yet the future remains precarious for this remote community, where more than 1,700 people, or 7% of the population, were killed in the disaster.

With state-led financial support receding, Rikuzentakata struggles to stave off the decline seen in other rural parts of Japan. Many survivors have settled elsewhere, and large expanses of downtown land lie unused.

Ten years after the tsunami, Rikuzentakata has become a town of vast open spaces.

Rikuzentaka in March 2011, days after the city’s commercial and residential heart was almost entirely swept away.



Photo:

NICOLAS ASFOURI/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

A woman sought to recover belongings in Rikuzentakata in March 2011.



Photo:

Ko Sasaki for The Wall Street Journal

Major reconstruction is nearly complete, but many former residents haven’t returned to Rikuzentakata.

Momiko Kinno pushed her elderly mother along in a cart to escape the wave that carried away their home and thousands of others in Rikuzentakata on March 11, 2011. After eight years in a temporary shelter, Ms. Kinno, now 75 years old, moved into a new two-story house in the downtown area surrounded by empty lots and “for sale” signs. Her son and daughter moved to other cities to work.

“I don’t think many people will return around here,” she said.

Recovery work from the 2011 disasters on Japan’s northeastern coast, including the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, has been one of the world’s most expensive revival projects. Public spending so far is almost $300 billion. The U.S. government spent about $110 billion on recovery after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The commercial and residential heart of Rikuzentakata, which sits on a low-lying coastal plain, was almost entirely swept away, and the city alone accounted for about a tenth of the deaths from Japan’s worst postwar natural disaster. In 2014, a project began to use soil and rock from a mountain top to raise the central area by more than 20 feet. The final sections are due to be completed this year as part of land redevelopment work costing over $1.4 billion.

In 2017, a 40-foot-high concrete wall stretching more than a mile along the bay next to the city was completed, part of 270 miles of new sea walls built in the region since the disaster.

Reconstruction created a “disaster bubble,” said Masayuki Kimura, whose home and family-run bakery were both destroyed by the tsunami. Mr. Kimura restarted his business out of an old train car and quickly doubled his pre-tsunami sales as an influx of workers, volunteers and disaster tourists snapped up his German-style baumkuchen layer cakes and other treats.

Masayuki Kimura’s family bakery was destroyed by the tsunami. He reopened, moving to a succession of larger premises.

He reopened, first in an old train car, pictured in November 2011.



Photo:

Hisashi Murayama for The Wall Street Journal

The bakery is now located in a mock-European brick building at the edge of town.

The government of the prefecture, or state, temporarily took over his debts of $300,000, and he was able to borrow more, moving his business to larger premises twice, most recently in 2015 to a mock-European brick building on a hill at the edge of the town.

With the recovery work almost finished and short-term visitors reduced, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Kimura’s sales are down by 20% from their peak. The 63-year-old still has $900,000 in bank debt. He is working on developing cakes for vegans and people with allergies as a way to boost online sales.

“I’ve realized that to survive I have to compete with shops in other towns,” he said.

The government offered subsidies and debt relief for businesses in the disaster region as part of its 10-year recovery plan. It says a new five-year, $15 billion package will be primarily targeted at support for individuals, including mental healthcare.

Rikuzentakata Mayor Futoshi Toba wants more assistance to revive the local economy now that reconstruction is over. Less than half of the city’s redeveloped land is in use.

As part of reconstruction, the central area of Rikuzentakata has been raised by more than 20 feet.

The new sea wall stretches more than a mile along the bay.

“We’ve finally created the conditions to try to attract businesses back here, just as government support programs are winding down,” he said.

Mr. Toba, who began the job two months before the disaster and lost his wife to the tsunami, said the decision to raise large areas of the city was intended to encourage people to stay, but the prolonged project contributed to population loss.

“People can put up with living in temporary accommodation for a year or two, but when it’s seven or eight years they’re going to consider options elsewhere,” he said.

Thousands were forced into temporary housing or moved away from Rikuzentakata after the disaster. The city’s population was 18,601 at the end of February, down almost 25% from a decade earlier.

In an unusual twist, the birthrate in Rikuzentakata briefly rose to become one of the highest in Japan after the disaster, a phenomenon sometimes seen after major earthquakes. It is now in line with the national average, far below the level needed to keep the population stable.

At the current rate of decline, Rikuzentakata’s population will more than halve by 2060. More than 50% of residents are forecast to be over 65 by 2040.

Oyster farmer Sakae Yoshida used to have 30 staff but now has eight because most have retired. The bay near Rikuzentakata is known for its plump, fist-sized oysters, supplied to luxury hotels in Tokyo. The tsunami created better growing conditions for oysters by dredging the sea bed, but it is hard to take full advantage of the opportunity, Mr. Yoshida said.

Sakae Yoshida with oyster shells. His staff has dwindled as most have retired. ‘There is no one to take over the work,’ he says.

“Everyone has gotten older, and there is no one to take over the work,” the 73-year-old said as he and his wife finished sorting the day’s harvest at a small plant next to the tsunami wall.

A few younger people have returned. Twenty-four-year-old Rinnosuke Yoshida moved back to Rikuzentakata last summer to work on his grandparents’ vegetable farm after attending college near Tokyo and a brief period working in advertising sales. Most of his high-school friends have moved to other cities.

Rinnosuke Yoshida, who isn’t related to the oyster farmer, said he preferred the clean air of the countryside and living by the sea. He also said he was motivated by the wishes of his father, Toshiyuki, who wanted to work on the family farm after retirement but was killed in the tsunami.

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His grandfather, who is 87 years old, and grandmother, who is 82, sometimes tell him how he looks and talks just like Toshiyuki, who was their son. Toshiyuki was a baseball coach at Rinnosuke’s high school. Both Rinnosuke and his elder brother, who lives in the prefectural capital, were keen baseball players. Rinnosuke recently started playing again with a local club team.

On March 11, he expects he will drive his mother and grandparents to the family gravesite to pay their respects to his father. “I’m not torn by his death, but of course at times I want to see him,” he said.

He hopes to get married this year to his high-school sweetheart, who is training to become a nurse. She will find out in March if she passed her exams to become qualified. They plan to stay in Rikuzentakata and start a family.

A replica of a lone pine tree that survived the tsunami, before succumbing to salination in the soil. Behind it is the collapsed Rikuzentakata youth hostel.

Write to Alastair Gale at alastair.gale@wsj.com and Miho Inada at miho.inada@wsj.com

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