A closer look at the recovery of Japan's northeast

After the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami hit Japan's northeastern Tohoku region, The Nikkei began monitoring recovery efforts in specific places. Today, huge sea walls guard towns that were swallowed in the waves. Dwellings, shops and factories have been built, giving devastated communities a semblance of normal life. Yet the scars of the catastrophe are all too apparent. The cleanup process -- including the disposal of contaminated waste from the meltdown-hit Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant -- continues.

Photos and data reveal the progress that has been made over the last five years, as well as the challenges that remain.

Protection from the waves

14.7-meter sea wall

Construction of coastal defenses is underway to protect towns from tsunamis -- even massive ones that come along once in about 100 years. One of the tallest new barriers is in the Onappe district of Miyako, Iwate Prefecture. It measures 14.7 meters. The city's Taro district had been guarded by a 10-meter wall stretching 2.4km, but the killer tsunami flowed over it on March 11.

Total length:

400 km

Construction cost:

1 trillion yen

Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, all of which were hit hard by the 2011 disaster, are building sea walls with a combined length of 400km and a total cost of about 1 trillion yen ($8.81 billion). By length, however, only 14% of the walls are complete. Some residents also oppose the construction, arguing that the barriers will damage ecosystems and rob communities of the beauty of the sea.

Then and now

In the past five years, the landscapes of disaster-hit areas have changed a great deal. The Nikkei has kept track of the progress in several municipalities that sustained catastrophic damage: Rikuzentakata, in Iwate Prefecture; Kesennuma, in Miyagi Prefecture; and Shinchi, a town in Fukushima Prefecture.

  • Rikuzentakata
  • Kesennuma
  • Shinchi

Houses built for disaster victims:


The number of evacuees totaled 470,000 immediately after the disaster; the number has since fallen to 180,000. Construction of some 50,000 houses on higher ground is underway. As of the end of last year, 20,382, or 40%, had been completed. That is roughly the ratio in Rikuzentakata, where 900 houses are expected to be built for survivors.

Fish processing facilities rebuilt:


Ports and fisheries were wiped out in the disaster, with the damage coming to some 1.3 trillion yen. In Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, 690 were back in operation as of mid-2015. In all, 818 are to be rebuilt.

In Kesennuma, about 90% of the processing plants have resumed operations, with 30% achieving the scale they had prior to the disaster. Some have even expanded.

Railways reopened:


Apart from a bridge over the tracks, Shinchi Station was completely buried in mud. The disaster damaged 2,330km of railways, mainly along the coast, and crippled transport networks. Today, more than 90% of the routes are back in service. Reconstruction of roads and ports is also nearing completion.

Fukushima today

The prefecture is still grappling with the effects of the meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. Contaminated trees and plants have been uprooted and radioactive waste has accumulated. There are about 1,120 sites for such waste in Fukushima alone.

We used a drone to capture a 360-degree view of waste piles in the town of Tomioka.

Spin the camera using your mouse or touch panel

Some 70,000 to 80,000 bags of radioactive waste sit under snow, awaiting transport to interim storage facilities.

Radioactive waste:

million cu. meters

Temporary storage sites were intended to hold contaminated waste for three years, but quite a few have surpassed that time frame.

Some 5.47 million cu. meters of radioactive waste were under state control as of the end of December, while 4.83 million cu. meters were managed by municipalities. Although the piles are to be moved to "interim storage facilities" in the Fukushima towns of Okuma and Futaba, the transfers have yet to get fully underway.

The volume of nuclear waste is kept in check with incineration and other measures. Still, the Fukushima disaster is said to be responsible for 22 million cu. meters of such waste.

In Tomioka, a waste-reduction facility opened in March 2015, complete with sorting, crushing and incineration equipment. The waste is brought to the site in black bags, each with a capacity of 1 cu. meter.

The dark piles of dangerous rubbish are a grim contrast to the rays of hope elsewhere in the region.