Wanted: A generation to rebuild a ruined Japanese town
OTSUCHI, Japan — Children and adults all bow when they pass Takaaki Goto, even though he sleeps on a crowded gym floor.
He was their geography teacher at Otsuchi’s only junior high school, where he taught for 40 years. He also coached the provincial soccer team. One student to emerge from Iwate prefecture, Mitsuo Ogasawara, played for Japan in the World Cup and was Japan’s soccer player of the year in 2009. With such a resume, many survivors want Mr. Goto, a town council member, to be the next mayor to replace Koki Kato, who died along with 30 other officials when a tsunami swept over the Town Hall on March 11.
But Mr. Goto, 74, doesn’t want the job. “I’m too old,” he said. “If this town has any chance of surviving, we must find younger leaders.”
Many of Otsuchi’s most energetic people, between the ages of 30 and 60, were lost in the 50-foot-high tsunami and fire that gutted almost every building in town. “They were the brightest young people in town, and now they are gone,”Mr. Goto said of his former students.
Hoping to call back many of his top students who pursued careers elsewhere in Japan, Mr. Goto is trying to persuade Naoko Muramatsu, 47, to run for election to join him on the City Council. A poet with a master’s degree in agriculture, she moved away from Otsuchi after junior high school and now lives in the provincial capital of Morioka, a three-hour drive from Otsuchi, which has no train service. Now that her son has left home to begin university studies in Sendai,Mrs. Muramatsu said she is considering the idea. “I would like to help Otsuchi if I can,” she said. “There’s not enough younger people or educated people there.”
An NHK-TV survey in June of 489 people in evacuation shelters across the disaster zone in northeastern Japan found that more than a third of respondents younger than 30 planned to live elsewhere in the country. Many surviving youths left their hometowns immediately after the tsunami to look for work in more prosperous areas than the northeast. Mrs. Muramatsu said most of her junior high school classmates left Otsuchi several years ago to study or work in Morioka, Sendai or Tokyo. With careers and families, they cannot easily give up their lives to move back to a devastated town reeking of charred debris. “Otsuchi was beautiful, and we loved it growing up. But everybody’s goal was to move to the bigger cities,” Mrs. Muramatsu said.
Another son of Otsuchi, Susumu Fujiwara, moved an hour’s drive north to Miyako city to become a high school teacher of economics, politics and world history. Having lost his home to the tsunami, he is now back in Otsuchi, staying with relatives at a shelter in a hilltop gym. Like others, he said he is not sure where he will live in the future. “People are very tired here. It’s not a physical exhaustion, but a mental and spiritual fatigue because we have no clear view of the future,” he said. “No matter what happens, we need to have a good leader. Otherwise, people will simply give up on Otsuchi and move elsewhere when they can.”
He said survivors in Otsuchi should not wait for help from Prime Minister Naoto Kan or Iwate Gov. Tasso Takuya. “We have to have the spirit to do it ourselves. We have to be more independent. That would be more democratic,” he said.
To give Mrs. Muramatsu a taste of local politics, Mr. Goto took her on a trip around town in a reporter’s vehicle. He had to remind her of where everything stood. “This, you might recall, was Otsuchi main street. This was the library. This is where people used to live,” he said, pointing to a flat expanse of mangled nothingness, where things exist only in the memories of survivors.
In a tatami-mat meeting room now housing 70 evacuees in the Inari shrine, which survived intact on high ground, they speak with elderly ladies proud of their “Yamato damashi,” or tribal spirit, and their endurance. “We are strong. We survived the war, and we worked together to build this town,” they declared, one after another.
But even they are worried that the March 11 disaster could spell the end of Otsuchi, which has recovered from disasters in 1896, 1933 and 1960, as well as in ancient times. Their lowland neighborhoods are haunted with ghosts of the past and horrific memories. Steep mountains and sheer cliffs provide little or no room to build communities. Besides, survivors have no money to buy or rent land elsewhere in Japan.
Mr. Goto said he does not want to see survivors all move to their nearby rival Kamaishi city, which overtook Otsuchi in size and wealth about 100 years ago because of its iron-ore and steel industry. Instead of letting Kamaishi annex Otsuchi, Mr. Goto said, all the battered towns along Highway 45 on the Sanriku Coast should at least band together and form a single district called Sanriku-ku. “Now we are weak because we are so small. Each small town has no economy, and therefore no power in Japanese politics. So the prefectural authorities in Morioka don’t really care about us, because there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said. “But if we all joined together with a single voice, the prefecture in Morioka and the central government in Tokyo would be forced to help us. This is the only way we can survive.”