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Tôhoku: Post-Disaster Life and Business

Recovery is slow and demographic trends suggest a bleak future.

Tôhoku: Post-Disaster Life and Business
Credit: John W. Traphagan

Shortly after the 3.11 disaster along the northeastern coast of Japan, numerous members of the media descended on the area to cover the disaster and report on the response to the devastating situation locals faced. While a great deal was written and broadcast for a few weeks following the tsunami, media attention waned and relatively little has been written about the post-disaster recovery process outside of Japan.

While conducting research this summer on small businesses in the Tôhoku region, I had the opportunity to spend time touring the cities of Ofunato, Kesennuma and Rikenzentakata – some of the areas worst hit by the disaster. A visit to these places remains quite sobering.

On the one hand, the extent to which debris has been removed is amazing. Cities like Kesennuma at first glance show few signs of the disaster. Along the wharf, new buildings have been erected for the fish processing industry and boats float in the harbor. But look a little more carefully, and the scars remain visible. A large tuna trawler still sits awaiting demolition along the side of a road slightly inland from the waterfront, and a business and residential neighborhood near the harbor remains vacant for the most part. In this neighborhood two houses have been rebuilt and there is a lone barbershop that opened only four months after the tsunami. The barber operates in a temporary structure that has been decorated with flowers and wood trim.

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Driving further up the coast to Rikuzentakata still brings one face-to-face with the extent of the destruction. The downtown area is gone; it’s now nothing but a collection of vacant lots with the remnants of streets and sidewalks running between. There are no buildings other than the shells of two that somehow survived the deluge. While the roads remain, the train tracks were washed away. And there is no sign of reconstruction. Dump trucks continue to haul away debris, but nothing has been built in place of the city that once stood there. This is in part a result of the fact that there is concern about returning to the area for fear that another tsunami might hit in the future as well as ongoing discussions and debates about what to do with the area.
Many locals continue to struggle as they deal with post-disaster life. One man, who runs a hotel in Kesennuma that sits on a hill overlooking the harbor where the tsunami destroyed everything, told me that after the tsunami hit he opened his doors to refugees and about 200 people stayed at the hotel for a few months. There was damage to the building from the earthquake, but the government has been slow to provide funds to help with repairs, so they can only incrementally fix small areas of the hotel that were damaged.

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Nonetheless, the hotel is still in business and the owners have done well, because it is usually full with construction workers. Unfortunately, the owner’s family must also live in the hotel because they lost their house – and everything in it – to the tsunami. The owner told me that he once had a collection of 1700 jazz records, but he lost all but one when his house was destroyed. And the one he found was melted from the fire that burned what was left after the tsunami hit. His family has been waiting two years for an opportunity to exchange their current site for other safer land where they can rebuild. In the meantime, they live in the hotel and take their meals in an area of the lobby that has been blocked off as their living space.

In many of the towns along the coast, some businesses have opened or re-opened. One can find small shopping malls made of temporary buildings in which entrepreneurs have opened restaurants and other shops. The restaurant business does well, given the number of construction workers in the area.

Some storeowners have been helped by their customers. One man told me that a number of years ago he had retired from his job in Tokyo to pursue his dream of running a small jazz club. A few years after it opened in Ofunato, the club was destroyed in a fire. He rebuilt, only to have the club again destroyed by the tsunami. At this point, the owner was ready to give up, but customers from around Japan and even other countries donated money, records, and other items so that he could re-open. Today, he has a pleasant little club with a grand piano and Yamaha drum set (both donated) that sits a few kilometers from the coast along a main road.

While there are numerous other examples of human kindness allowing some to return to a relatively normal life, the future of the region remains a very open question. Many businesses have not returned. The prefectures of northern Japan were struggling economically prior to the disaster, which has made it even more difficult for those who had businesses prior to the disaster to reopen. And, like the hotel owner mentioned above, many business people lost their homes as well, but did not have the good fortune to run a hotel in which they could live while awaiting land on which to rebuild.

P1010090But there is a looming problem that represents a potentially insurmountable obstacle for reconstruction in the relatively near future. Even prior to the disaster, the prefectures of northern Japan were experiencing the beginnings of population decline and a rapid aging of the population that remained. As of 2010, the population of Ofunato was 40,737. By 2015, this is predicted to drop to 37,669, or about an 8 percent loss. In the two years since the disaster, the city of Kesennuma has lost nearly 5,000 people out of a population of 70,000.

Predictions for the future are much more bleak. By 2020, the government estimates that the population of Ofunato will to drop to 32,576 and by 2040 it should reach 24,969. This represents a loss of 39 percent of the population from 2010 to 2040. At the same time the current population the city consists of 30.9 percent of people over the age of 65, while only 11.9 percent are between birth and 14. These numbers will change to 8 percent aged up to 14 and 44.5 percent over 65 in 2040 if current predictions hold.

While certain types of businesses, such as those that provide care for the elderly, may be able to operate successfully for a while in these areas, the long-term prognosis is not good, because the number of people in these towns will decline significantly over the next two decades or so.

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The coastal regions are not alone in this demographic transition; most of northern Japan is experiencing similar changes and the entire country will encounter significant population loss over the next several decades. But for the coast of Tôhoku, the demographic changes occurring more generally were exacerbated by the disaster, creating a set of intensified problems for the future.

P1010060The intersection of an already aging population with loss of population due to the disaster and an otherwise weak economy means that there is little to attract new businesses; and it seems likely that when the construction workers leave, many of the current businesses in temporary structures will not be able to survive. Add to this the fact that debates about how to reconstruct the region have slowed the process and the general fear many have of living again in an area where there is a risk of a similar disaster in the future, and the attraction of starting a new business in the region is limited at best.

After the tremendous events of 3.11, coastal Tôhoku still has a very long road ahead to recovery – and it is quite possible that some areas, such as Rikuzentakata, may not recover at any time in the foreseeable future. The combination of a generally weak economy and an unattractive climate for creating and growing businesses presents significant obstacles for the future reconstruction of the region.

With thanks to the IC2 Institute, University of Texas at Austin