For Kiichi Kida, the reason he doesn’t want to leave the land where the Great East Japan Earthquake shook his home and then triggered a killer tsunami that swept it away begins 500 years ago.
That’s where he starts the story of his fight to stay on his land in Arahama, a southeastern coastal district of Sendai that was devastated on March 11, 2011 when 36-foot waves — looking more like a black stew of broken trees, bobbing cars and unmoored houses than water — rushed far, far inland.
His ancestors, he explains, were samurai who lived on Shikoku, an island in western Japan. After they hung up their swords five centuries ago, they moved to the Arahama area where fish were plentiful and the mountains full of game.
Now, little remains of Arahama beyond the stone foundations of the homes once occupied by Kida, 69, and his neighbors. The city has told them they can’t rebuild on their ancestral lands because they are too close to the coast.
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The local government would like to buy the land and turn it into a park or other public facility, but it can’t force people like Kida to sell.
That tug-of-war in Arahama points up the problems of reconstruction and rebuilding lives nearly four years since the twin wallop of the earthquake and tsunami claimed nearly 16,000 lives — 2,623 are also still listed as missing — and destroyed 127,305 homes. More than 1 million others were damaged.
In Arahama, 187 people died and six are classified as missing. It once had a population of 3,400, but now Arahama is little more than a ghost town. A wall of water that swept over the pine forest separating the community from the wide beach snapped off the trees like toothpicks and turned them into spears that came crashing into homes.
“It’s the city’s opinion they should move to a safe place, rather than rebuild — expensively — on a coastal site,” said Kenichi Suzuki, who has been working with tsunami victims on behalf of Sendai’s Wakabayashi ward office.
But that collides with a traditional way of thinking that some residents still embrace. “They believe that the ancestor spirits still reside in these areas and they should protect the land for them,” said Akiko Sugita, secretary general of Japan’s Foreign Press Center. “Public authorities want to encourage them to give up the land and move on, but it is taking a long time.”
Even for the third-largest economy in the world, putting communities back together is a struggle. During the disaster, 470,000 people were forced out of their homes. Some 240,000 people, including 80,000 evacuated because of the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster that followed the quake and tsunami, are still displaced.
They live in temporary housing or bunk with relatives and friends. “Home rebuilding is our top priority,” said Yoshifumi Ayusawa, of Japan’s Reconstruction Agency. But shortages of building materials and construction workers, land ownership issues and the relocation of residents from areas no longer considered inhabitable have slowed the process.
This fiscal year work is expected to be underway on 87 percent of the public housing planned for those who lost homes. Over the span of five years, the cost of reconstruction is expected to reach $220 billion.
The plan is to close the reconstruction agency dealing with the triple disaster known as 3-11 by March 2021 but the expectation is that dealing with the fallout from the nuclear plant will take far longer.
Some 1.35 million tons of debris were cleaned up in Sendai after the tsunami and quake and the mountains of destroyed cars were sent to the recyclers long ago.
But the memories of March 11 are everywhere.
The bridge where traffic became so congested that people couldn’t escape still stands. At the Yuriage Junior High in nearby Natori, the clock is still stopped at 2:46 p.m., the hour the 9.0 earthquake — the greatest magnitude ever recorded in Japan — hit 40 miles offshore.
Along the more than 300 miles of Japanese coastline affected by the tsunami, tide walls are being constructed or rebuilt, and the concrete barriers — the highest will be nearly as tall as a five-story building — aren’t without controversy.
Critics claim this Great Wall of Japan won’t be sufficient to protect against a tsunami of the magnitude that ravaged the coast on March 11, are an eyesore that cuts off the sea from fishing communities and could adversely affect the environment. The government says they are needed to save lives in a country that experiences 1,000 earthquakes a year.
In Sendai, the tsunami walls are being raised from almost 20 feet to 23.6 feet.
Work also has begun on raising land that sank as much as three feet after the quake and elevating a 6.2-mile stretch of the Sendai Tobu highway to 20 feet. New stairways and signs indicating people should climb the highway embankments in the face of a tsunami are being put up.
The highway project is expected to take five years to complete but officials say it is vital because during the 2011 tsunami elevated sections of the highway prevented waves from flowing even further inland.
“We think that with these two barriers (the elevated highway and the walls), we will be able to protect against a tsunami of the once- in-100-years variety,” said Suzuki.
But the waves that pounded the northeastern coast of Japan in 2011 were of the once-in-a-millennium variety.
Simulations show that with the raised embankment and higher tsunami walls, flooding on the west side of the elevated road would be less than 6 1/2 feet.
Through such simulations, “we’re gaining more knowledge about how tide walls can save lives,” said Katsumi Abe, of the Miyagi Harbor Restoration agency. “We expect when the repairs are complete, this area will be safer than before.”
But Kida doesn’t think so: “I’ve opposed the walls from the beginning. They are changing the land. Every time it rains, the water flows toward the sea and those flows shouldn’t be interrupted. We think Sendai City isn’t putting enough focus on nature.”
As the fractious debate continues, memories of the snowy March day when coastal residents’ world went under water are still causing psychological scars.
Kida is determined to hold on to his plot even as he readies a home site further inland. “My ancestors are here and I want to protect this area as long as possible,” he said. “People should have a choice where they want to live; they shouldn’t be forced.
The decision to establish restricted areas is up to Sendai and the other towns and cities along the coast, Abe said.
But Kida said his ancestors came “hundreds of years before Sendai was established. I am not leaving because the city says I have to.”
He heads an organization called The Group that Wants Restoration of Arahama. “We think that living on the shore is natural in an island like Japan. Modern technology should make this possible,” Kida said.
On his former home site, he has put up two buildings that seem quite permanent but technically aren’t homes. One, which has electricity and cooking facilities, is the club house for the Arahama group. The other, which includes a bathroom, will be Kida’s personal office.
One of his neighbors — the only one in the community to resume fishing — has built two rough fish shacks on the land where his home once stood, and Chickako Syoji, who does office work for the Arahama restoration group, has put up a tent near her former home’s foundation stones.
She dreams of someday having a seaside library on the spot. It wouldn’t be a conventional library, but rather a place where local people could come together to tell their stories and bring in books they wanted to share with others.
“It won’t be a big square building with a lot of books,” she said. “My son is a librarian. It’s still in the concept stage and we’re still figuring out the details.”
But despite the hopeful dreams, Arahama and Yuriage are still desolate. Here and there a lonely pine that escaped the onslaught punctuates the coastline or a battered concrete block home stands.
“When we first came back to see Arahama, it was swept clean; there was just this vast space and it was horrifying,” said former resident Adachi Tadashi, a community leader. He later found his crushed house 2.5 miles inland.
Homes, businesses, boats and the top soil from farmlands also were washed away in Yuriage. Now the wide open fields make it resemble a rural area and vegetation is beginning to reclaim the roads in a 158-acre protected area where no home can be rebuilt.
“Part of the reason the damage was so great here was because we weren’t acting responsibly,’’ said Koichi Sakurai, who worked in a Yuriage seafood processing plant and fish market that was destroyed by the tsunami. “People in this area weren’t expecting a tsunami or perhaps only a small one.”
Instead, he said, the giant waves came five times, killing 750 people in a district that had a pre-tsunami population of 5,000.
“Evacuation drills only took place once a year — and usually only elderly people participated,” said Sakurai. “But it was a drill in name only.’’
He shows a terrifying aerial video of people moving leisurely toward higher ground as, apparently unbeknown to them, a menacing wall of water just a few rows of houses away rushes toward them.
No tsunami warning was given in Yuriage, Sakurai said, because the earthquake had already knocked out emergency communications equipment. In other areas, the rising water damaged emergency equipment.
“They thought all they had to do was install the devices and their job was over. Residents have lost faith in the authorities and that is one reason reconstruction is so slow in this area,’’ Sakurai said.
Abe, of the Miyagi Harbor Restoration agency, said lessons were learned during the tsunami and new emergency facilities will be built on higher ground.
Meanwhile, the work of repairing docks and fish packing and distribution houses continues. The ports in Miyagi Prefecture sustained damage of around $2.2 billion but all are now at least partially operational.
Many people don’t want to return to Yuriage even though they still owe debt on their destroyed homes, Sukurai said. “If I had the money, I would be rebuilding elsewhere,” he added.
Many former residents are still living in temporary housing far inland from Yuriage.
“My mother is 85 years and she says she doesn’t plan to have a funeral in temporary housing,’’ Sakurai said. “I’m grateful for temporary housing but now very few people are appreciating it.”
Scattered around Sendai, a city of 1.7 million, are 20 temporary housing sites with 1,500 units. Many more families, said Suzuki, have rented apartments on their own.
Around 130 families live in temporary quarters on a city-owned site earmarked for the Arai elementary school. Some residents have tried to brighten up their low portable dwellings with plants and flowers but others have fallen into depression. Teams of mental health workers visit periodically.
“Some are really depressed and for them, small problems can seem very big. Everyone is feeling stress but some people are annoyed by the very trivial,” said Tadashi, 72, who is a leader at temporary housing as he was in Arahama.
“They complain their neighbors are too noisy or they hear pigeons and sparrows walking around on the tin roofs because people are feeding them,” he said. “We listen to their stories even if we can’t solve them. I do think this has helped me grow as a person.”
To keep spirits up, there is karaoke and dancing at the community center, and a group of women has learned to play songs, such as Orange Tree on the Hill on the koto, a traditional instrument.
Katsuyoshi Hayasaka, 74, who headed the Arahama Residents’ Association has taken up a similar role at the Arai community. During the tsunami, he helped to organize community residents who sought refugee at the Arahama Elementary School and were rescued by helicopter from the roof.
At the school, he tried to keep his neighbors together and drew up lists of who was there and who wasn’t. “It was very cold and the teachers tore down the curtains and wrapped the children in them,’’ he said. Now he feels a similar sense of responsibility for the people at Arai.
Syoji also lives there with her 89-year-old mother Tsumeko. They are packed in but the tiny apartment does have air conditioning and everyone was given a refrigerator, microwave, rice cooker, small television, washing machine, blankets and a pot to boil water.
Still, Tsumeko is happy. When the family’s home was swept way, the wooden memorial plaque for her ancestors was lost. It later turned up in a lost-and-found and she beamed as she displayed the nicked but still intact ihai to a visitor.
Syoji had hoped to only be in temporary quarters for two years but she said there have been delays in finishing the public housing where she hopes to move.
Sendai plans 3,200 units of new public housing but in October, just 660 units had been completed.
At Arai-higashi, where a new 197-unit building recently opened, residents gathered at the community center on a rainy afternoon after the remnants of a typhoon had blown through.
Even though the complex hasn’t been fully completed, they were moved in anyway because the need was so great. The rent varies at Arai-higashi depending on income, but it is about one-third the cost of regular public housing.
About a third of the residents used to live in Arahama, and about 40 percent are 65 years or older — an age when change comes hard.
With Suzuki’s help, they had just formed a residents association.
“We’re planning on building a community here,” said Kimio Oyashi, 71, the newly minted association president. “We’re pretty satisfied to be here. The size of our apartments is about double what it was in temporary housing. And there you could hear everything the neighbors were doing.”
“We’re making efforts to get our lives back together. We just have to keep trying,’ said Teruko Sumi, who recently move in with her two chihuahuas. Unlike most public housing buildings, pets are allowed at Arai-higashi.
Tani Endo, who used to live in Arahama, is feeling much better since the first traumatic days after the tsunami. “It was almost like watching a movie — not our real lives. People were all stacked together after the disaster and we all had to sleep in the same room.
“I try to forget but when I look from this building I can see the place where all the pines trees were in Arahama and now there is nothing there,” she said. “But this is a nice place and we have our privacy. Now we are smiling again.”
“More than 3 1/2 years have passed,” said Oyashi. “Many people who are here lost everything and we think living in a safe place is most important. Only a small percentage of people want to return — mostly the rice farmers. But for former office workers, it is just too scary.”
Sokichi Shoji, 78, and his wife Sachiko have done their best to make their new apartment seem like home even though it is only about a third of the size of their former house. They have brought in plants, artificial turf and stones to recreate the tranquility of a zen garden on their small balcony.