Japan tsunami survivors struggle to imagine future

April 11, 2011 - 0:0

RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan -- A month after a huge earthquake and tsunami devastated their lives, evacuees in Japan's northeast are still so paralyzed with grief and fear they cannot even begin to contemplate the future.

The 9.0-magnitude quake triggered towering waves that devastated Japan's northeast coast, leaving nearly 28,000 people dead or missing and more than 150,000 people homeless in this island nation.
As the mammoth task of rebuilding towns and villages destroyed by the biggest earthquake ever recorded in Japan gets under way, some say they will never return to their coastal homes for fear of history repeating itself.
“I am scared even to think of the reality that awaits me,” 43-year-old Ken Hiraaki told AFP in the school gymnasium in his native city of Rikuzentakata, which now serves as a shelter for survivors.
“I think that 90 percent of people will never want to return. I think this city will disappear,” he said of Rikuzentakata, which lost around one in 10 of its 23,000 inhabitants in the March 11 disaster.
Along with his wife and mother, Hiraaki escaped the tsunami with seconds to spare by racing up to the third floor of the city hall.
But the local official who urged him to climb higher was swept away by the giant wave, along with many other friends and two relatives of the former steel recycling worker, who is still visibly traumatized by the disaster.
“How can you want to live here after seeing the floods swallow your friends and relatives? I grew up with the sea, the sea raised me. I used to love taking walks down to watch the sea, but now I can't look at it any more,” said Hiraaki, whose house was completely flattened by the tsunami.
“I try not to think about (the future), because I think it is healthier not to . . . I feel like I am in a dream, and I'm afraid to return to reality.” On Saturday, around three dozen households in Rikuzentakata became the first to move into temporary homes, carrying their few remaining possessions from the shelter to prefabricated buildings just metres (yards) away.
Local governments in the hard-hit Miyagi and Iwate regions are aiming to build temporary housing for 62,000 households, but construction has reportedly begun on only 10 percent of them.
Rikuzentakata's mayor Futoshi Toba told AFP work on clearing the devastated town was slow, with bodies still being found under the rubble, and questioned whether it would ever fully recover from the disaster.
“I think it will take at least 10 years to rebuild this town,” said the 46-year-old, who cremated his wife this week but has not yet told his children their mother is dead.
“I don't think we will be able to recover the original population of 23,000,” he added.
“There are 2,500 people dead or missing, children who lost their parents and have moved out of the prefecture to live with relatives, and people who are now simply too scared to live here.”
Ryo Yamazaki, the self-appointed spokesman for the Rikuzentakata shelter, said the city was “not even at the starting line” of recovery, despite being the first to complete initial emergency housing.
“We are still dealing with the aftermath of the disaster because it has left many scars,” he said.
“A month has passed but it is as if the situation has not changed since the disaster struck . . . We don't know what the future holds for us, and that is the biggest fear for many evacuees.”
For Hiraaki, the month that has passed since the disaster has done nothing to heal the pain and the process of moving on has not even begun.
“I can't remember anything other than the tsunami. Even if I start to recollect what happened yesterday, or the day before yesterday, the memory of the tsunami overwhelms me,” he said. “Nothing else exists in my heart.”
(Source: vancouversun.com)