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Fukushima Anniversary

Japan marks 10th quake anniversary as northeast faces hazy future

Pouring funds into rebuilding proves easier than tempting back residents

A woman prays on a Fukushima beach to commemorate victims of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that occurred 10 years ago on March 11. (Photo by Kai Fujii)

TOKYO -- Japan on Thursday marked the tenth anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster on its northeastern coast, mourning the more than 22,000 people who died or remain missing.

The magnitude 9.0 quake struck at 2:46 p.m., sending a massive wall of water hurtling toward the shore -- and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The government held a memorial ceremony starting at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, with Emperor Naruhito and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in attendance.

The ceremony included a minute of silence starting at the precise time of the earthquake.

"It is very important that we do not forget the lessons learned at the expense of the huge loss from the disaster, pass on them to the next generation and be prepared at all times," said Emperor Naruhito.

"Reconstruction in the disaster hit areas is showing progress," Suga said, but he also suggested that the same areas have repeatedly suffered from new troubles -- from a massive typhoon in 2019, COVID-19 since last year, and a magnitude-7 earthquake in February.

Suga said: "The government will take all possible measures against the novel coronavirus, and will provide continuous support for the disaster victims to rebuild their livelihoods," adding, "It is our responsibility to make use of Japan's disaster-prevention knowledge and technology to take measures in different countries and regions."

Other memorials were held across Japan, including in the tsunami-hit prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima.

The anniversary has turned the global spotlight back on the three worst-hit prefectures prompting assessments of how far they have come and how far they still have to go.

Not long after the triple catastrophe, Japan's government began pouring huge sums of money into the region for reconstruction. But even before March 11, 2011, the area had been struggling with a shrinking and aging population. Now some critics say the government moved too quickly and did not carefully consider the population factor.

Masakatsu Okamoto, a former vice minister of the Reconstruction Agency, told Nikkei that he and his colleagues embarked on the rebuilding drive with a philosophy of "immediately restoring infrastructure if it was destroyed."

"But if we rush to restore infrastructure amid a declining population, it will result in making excessive infrastructure," he said. "We needed to change our philosophy."

The government spent significant amounts to restore destroyed fishing ports and agricultural land that had been flooded by the tsunami. It spent vast sums to clear rubble, raise the ground level, construct roads and build tsunami defenses along the coast as well.

This was despite an outflow of residents, resulting in an even smaller population as a gap opened up between what the government thought was needed and what local people wanted. Okamoto said, "If there is another disaster in the future, cost-effectiveness and a priority list have to be considered in the reconstruction."

Over the ensuing decade, Tokyo continued to attract people to come and live, work and study. Japan's economy is concentrated in the capital. In the rural areas, the opposite was happening. The population continued to decline steadily.

Onagawa's population has shrunk by 40% to 6,258 from about 10,000 before the 2011 disaster. (Photo by Masayuki Kozono)

Those living in the northeast showed a better grasp on how to rebuild and regenerate than those in the central government. "I thought that I must make it a town that can maintain its vigor even if its population declines," said Yoshiaki Suda, mayor of Onagawa, a town in Miyagi Prefecture where 827 people died in the tsunami.

The town scaled back its initial plan for redevelopment. In its central shopping district, it invested in mostly one-story buildings that took less time to build. The local government also does not count on coastal defenses to protect against tsunamis. It simply and repeatedly warns residents to evacuate in the event of an earthquake.

Onagawa's population has now shrunk by 40% to 6,258 from about 10,000 before the 2011 disaster. But the quake and tsunami only accelerated the trend -- they did not trigger it. A local bank had forecast in June 2010 that the town's population would decline to 6,299 by 2025. The writing was already on the wall.

A disaster prevention office building in 2011: The Miyagi Prefecture town of Minamisanriku was hit by a tidal wave more than 20 meters high 10 years ago. (Photo by Konosuke Urata)

While the central government arguably moved too quickly to rebuild and missed the mark, in some crucial respects Tokyo also dragged its feet.

The Miyagi town of Minamisanriku was swamped by a wave more than 20 meters high. Over 60% of its buildings were damaged and the area filled up with staggering amounts of rubble.

Minamisanriku wanted to remove the rubble as soon as possible to conduct search-and-rescue operations and to restore roads, but Article 29 of the constitution, which guarantees property rights, stood in the way. Even in the event of an unprecedented catastrophe, it was impossible to move privately owned property without owners' consent.

Minamisanriku Mayor Jin Sato, who was swept away by the tsunami but miraculously survived, said, "We looked for the landowners to develop the land and get rid of rubble. It took time to gain their consent." In fact, it took the town three years to clear more than 720,000 tons of debris.

To this day, members of parliament have yet to take the lead by introducing legislation to deal with such issues in case of another disaster of this scale.

"We cannot be well-prepared if we do not try to anticipate every situation in the event of a crisis," said Kazuto Suzuki, professor at the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Public Policy.

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