Japanese town haunted by loss a year after tsunami

By Malcolm Foster

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 9 2012 3:30 a.m. MST

In this photo taken Thursday, March 1, 2012, shipbuilder Yoji Abe, foreground, builds a ship in Minamisanriku, nearly a year after the March 11 tsunami hit the northeastern Japanese town. A year after the disaster, the pain of unthinkable loss - personal and communal - still runs deep in the coastal area. As Minamisanriku prepares to rebuild its houses in the surrounding hillsides - a big project that will take at least four or five years to complete - many residents believe that it will never return to the cozy seaside town it once was.

Shizuo Kambayashi, Associated Press

MINAMISANRIKU, Japan — The squat 71-year-old fisherman turns his ruddy, weathered face toward the top of the hillside cemetery. With a heavy heart, he climbs steadily past row after row of tall tombstones, a bucket of water in each hand.

Takayuki Sato is here to clean the family grave. He lost his wife and mother in the tsunami that obliterated most of this once-picturesque fishing town famous for its salmon, seaweed and octopus. The women's bodies were never found.

He also lost his best friend, an aunt and uncle, his house and three boats. Nearly everything from his old life is gone.

"I'm afraid to be alone," Sato says with an embarrassed smile, after reaching the grave site. "I start thinking about a lot of different things when I'm alone. Sometimes I wonder if I can keep living."

One year on, the pain of unthinkable loss runs deep in the town of Minamisanriku. The March 11, 2011, tsunami took away loved ones. It took away jobs and the means to make a living. And it took away the very heart of the physical town, where people lived, worked and shopped.

As Minamisanriku plans to rebuild, moving its remaining population up into the surrounding hillsides, one thing is clear: It will never return to the cozy seaside town it once was.

The valley beneath the cemetery, where houses and shops were once clustered, is now a wide expanse of flat emptiness dusted with snow. The vacant, cracked remains of a hospital and a few other concrete buildings jut up here and there.

It's a scene repeated to varying degrees along Japan's tsunami-hit northeast coast. The debris has been cleaned up, but hardly any reconstruction has begun, leaving barren landscapes. More than 19,000 people died. Coastal communities are wrestling with how to rebuild when so much has been lost.

Tsunamis are nothing new to this region. Minamisanriku has seen four in the last 120 years, including one in 1960 that destroyed Sato's house — he was 19 at the time — and killed 41 residents.

Sato's family rebuilt near the sea then, but he won't this time. The latest tsunami was so much larger, the devastation so extensive, that it could be a transformative event in the town's roughly 900-year history.

Under current plans, no one will live in the low-lying land that runs to the sea. Most survivors, Sato included, say they want to move to higher ground, even if it means losing their old neighborhoods and changes their way of life.

Sato is abandoning the home where, some 44 years ago, he was introduced to his 21-year-old bride-to-be. Today, all that is left is the concrete foundation. A rusted Japan Railways cargo container sits in the neighboring plot.

A decade from now, Minamisanriku "will be totally different," predicts Osamu Takahashi, the owner of an eatery that reopened late last month in a temporary shopping area of 30 stores in prefabricated units next to a muddy parking lot. "The old atmosphere and history of the town will all be gone. But this is also a chance to recreate our town, too."

The town plans to carve several flat areas into the nearby forested hills for housing, municipal offices and a hospital — a difficult project that will take at least four to five years. The lower part of town, which will be raised several feet (meters) and protected by a new 29-foot (8.7-meter) seawall, will be reserved for shops, parks and fishing-related business.

Experts warn that scattering the residential areas will isolate people and weaken communal connections, particularly among the elderly, which make up a large chunk of this town and many others along the coast. As Japan's population ages and contracts, rural towns are trying to become more compact, but Minamisanriku is aiming to do the opposite.

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