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In Tsunami Aftermath, ‘Road to Future’ Unsettles a Village, NYT, 12/31/2011

Kazuhiro Yokozeki for The New York Times

Babanakayama’s plan to relocate its 370 people has stalled.

But so far the road has led nowhere. The road and a planned settlement, on a flat swath of high ground set inland from the destroyed village, have split this community’s leaders into opposing camps, deepening the uncertainty for its 370 mostly aging residents. Unused and unrecognized, the Road to the Future lies covered in gravel, with little prospect of being paved anytime soon.

The difficulties for Babanakayama and its neighbors help explain why, more than 10 months after the earthquake and tsunami, few villages and towns along the devastated coast here have succeeded in doing what seemed obvious early on: finding land on high ground where their communities could be transplanted en masse.

The scarcity of flat land, wrangling over the price of privately owned mountains, the reluctance to consolidate into centralized communities and the different needs of a graying population are complicating plans by many communities to relocate.

With little progress, increasing numbers of people and communities are simply giving up hope of securing land on high ground. Some people, defying the authorities, are even starting to rebuild in areas inundated by the tsunami.

In Ofunato, for example, city officials are strongly discouraging residents from rebuilding in inundated areas, but like their counterparts elsewhere they have not issued a direct ban — possibly for fear of legal challenges. With a move to high ground years away, if ever, new houses began popping up in inundated areas a few months ago.

In one Ofunato neighborhood, within a stone’s throw of the sea, a small wooden house sat on a disproportionately large lot, where a much larger home had been swept away by the tsunami. Late one afternoon, as winter winds could be felt inside her home, Kikue Shida, 80, explained that she did not want to live with relatives or in a prefabricated temporary home. So she had asked a younger brother to rebuild a home for her, and she moved there in August.

Much of her neighborhood remains destroyed. But friends drop by regularly for tea, and Ms. Shida said she was glad she had not waited to be relocated.

“I’m already 80,” she said, “and I may not have that many years ahead. That’s why I decided to move back here.”

Under Tokyo’s reconstruction guidelines, the central government will pay to acquire land on high ground if at least five households wish to move there together. But the land must meet cost requirements established by local governments. With little flat land available, most proposed locations will require the authorities to buy inland mountains from individual owners and flatten them for residential use.

The difficulties of even securing an appropriate location were underscored by the experience of Babanakayama, which attempted to do so more quickly and assertively than other communities. The village was even showcased by NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, as a role model for quick response to the tsunami because of its community ties and the leadership of one of its two chiefs, Kurayoshi Abe, 61, a strong-willed fisherman who led a cleanup without waiting for the government.

“We didn’t depend on the government, we moved first,” Mr. Abe said.

But villagers said that the cleanup was the easy part.

As the dust settled, a group of village leaders began holding meetings at evacuation shelters and planning for the future. Deciding that it was best to move the destroyed coastal houses together to a hilly area behind the village, they undertook the difficult task of asking about 50 landowners in the area for permission to build the Road to the Future.

“They felt that they had to do it right away, when everyone’s memories of the tsunami were still fresh,” said Kaoru Chiba, 36, whose father was one of the leaders behind the road’s construction. “Otherwise, if they waited, they wouldn’t get the cooperation of the landowners.”

All of the landowners agreed, except a critical one, Ichiro Miura, 60, the other village chief.

Like many victims of the tsunami, Mr. Miura was worried that he would not be able to afford to build a new house, even if land was secured. Although the central government will provide land, people will be responsible for building their homes. For those unable to do so, the government has indicated it will build public housing — a bigger priority than high ground for some.

“All they keep talking about is moving to high ground,” Mr. Miura said of the villagers supporting the road construction. “But I’m now 60 years old. Even if we’re allowed to move to high ground, how will I build a house there? What bank is going to lend me money at the age of 60?”

Despite opposition by Mr. Miura and others, the group behind the Road to the Future pressed ahead in July. The road bed was laid down in a matter of days.

Ichiro Sasaki, 64, a group leader, defended the decision. “It’s not as if we unilaterally went ahead and built the road. We had the landowners’ O.K. — well, all but one,” he said. “Now, there’s no progress at all in transferring the village to high ground, neither here nor anywhere else.”

Indeed, the proposed site along the Road to the Future is not being considered for a future settlement partly because of a lack of village consensus, said Akira Oikawa, the head of reconstruction in Minamisanriku, the town that oversees Babanakayama, even though there is enough land there “to accommodate all the houses.”

So far, no alternative land has come up. Owners of mountains here are reluctant to sell to the government because of the low prices offered; though of little value, mountains have been passed down for generations and are of sentimental value to many families.

“If they are offering such low prices, no one will sell,” said Kunihisa Oikawa, 59, the owner of a mountain here. “Any talk of moving to high ground will be swept away.”

More than anything else, some villagers say, the split that has emerged in Babanakayama makes it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to move together to high ground. Perhaps homeowners will be forced to move up separately or rebuild along the coast.

“We should all be working together,” Yoshihiro Miura, 46, a fisherman, said in an exasperated tone as he wove rope by the port. “But even in this little village, there’s this kind of wrangling. It’s just human nature.”

Relocated disaster victims hard to track down / Some March 11 survivors left isolated as aid groups get tied up by red tape, privacy concerns, yomiuri, 12/29/11

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Regulations intended to protect personal privacy have hampered relief efforts for people affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, with aid supplies still not reaching many people living in facilities being rented by local governments.

With local governments often denying requests for access to residents’ personal information, aid groups have found it difficult to get help to disaster victims, including disabled people. This rigid administrative attitude has been criticized, with one expert calling for local governments to be more flexible.

Early last month, Takato Chiba, 73, of Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, received a box of detergent from an aid organization. “I’m relieved [aid] has finally arrived,” he said with a smile.

Chiba’s house was destroyed by the March 11 tsunami. After failing twice to win a spot in temporary housing compounds, he settled with his 72-year-old wife on the second floor of an apartment building in July. The Iwate prefectural government has rented the couple’s apartment and other existing facilities for people who lost homes in the disaster.

The detergent was the first aid Chiba had received since he moved to the apartment.

“We don’t get any information about local events or reconstruction plans,” he said. “We don’t know anyone here, so it’s a bit lonely.”

Yume Net Ofunato is one of the nonprofit organizations that visit people like Chiba. In addition to distributing relief supplies, the group has helped by preparing meals since the March disaster.

The NPO said it had heard that aid supplies were not reaching many disaster victims who do not live in the temporary housing compounds built after the disaster, but the organization did not know where these people were living. Yume Net Ofunato has dispatched about 10 workers to go door to door since early November to search for people living in housing rented by local governments. About 700 households are reportedly living in such arrangements in Ofunato, but the NPO has only located 20.

Iwate Prefecture’s ordinance on the protection of personal information has been a bottleneck for aid groups. Based on the Personal Information Protection Law, local governments have created regulations to safeguard personal information such as names and addresses. The prefecture’s Reconstruction Bureau, which is in charge of finding housing for disaster victims, said it cannot give out personal information because it would be a violation of the ordinance.

This ordinance has also undermined a system launched by the central government to provide counseling to disaster victims. As of late November, the Japan National Council of Social Welfare had hired 534 counselors to visit disaster areas in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. However, the council has been unable to access personal information managed by local governments.

The Iwate Prefectural Council of Social Welfare said its staff has visited almost all the households living in temporary housing compounds built after the disaster. However, the council has located only about 40 percent of the about 5,000 households living in facilities rented by local governments. And just 341 such households, less than 10 percent of the total, had been visited by counselors as of late October.

Last shelters in Fukushima Pref. close, yomiuri, 12/28/11

FUKUSHIMA–The last two evacuation centers in Fukushima Prefecture were closed Wednesday, more than 9-1/2 months after the March 11 disaster.

All shelters set up in hard-hit Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi prefectures–which held 448,000 evacuees at their peak–have now closed.

The evacuees have moved to temporary housing units, apartments rented for the evacuees or secondary shelters at hotels and other facilities.

At the evacuation center set up in the Hibarigahara athletic stadium in Minami-Soma, 13 evacuees of nine households from the city and Namiemachi started packing up their belongings at about 9:30 a.m. Six individuals moved to temporary housing units in the city in the morning, and seven people of three households moved out in the afternoon.

In Aizu-Wakamatsu, a shelter set up in a civic sports center–where one evacuee lived–shut its doors.

Although the shelters in Fukushima Prefecture have closed, 631 evacuees from Futabamachi in the prefecture are still living at an evacuation center at a high school in Kazo, Saitama Prefecture.

The last evacuation centers in iwate Prefecture closed in August, and the last one in Miyagi Prefecture closed Friday.

Evacuees face serious noise dilemma / Mothers worried thin walls at temporary housing units create stress for children, yomiuri, 12/27/11

Yuko Shiojima and Shinichiro Matsuda / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers

Children play at a temporary housing unit in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, on top of futons laid on the floor in an effort to reduce noise.

KAMAISHI, Iwate–Thin walls and a lack of soundproofing have led to noise problems for people living in temporary housing units built after the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Residents, particularly families with children, have struggled to find ways to reduce noise coming from their units.

The units, which were built in a very short time, do not have appropriate soundproofing. However, officials say additional soundproofing measures would be difficult to implement.

“I’m most worried about making noise. I tell my kids not to jump inside the house,” said Eiko Sasaki, 43, a resident of a temporary housing unit in Kamaishi.

Sasaki lives with her husband and three daughters aged 6, 3 and 2. Her daughters easily become wild and unruly if Sasaki takes her eye off them, hitting walls and crying during quarrels. As she often hears noises from other units, Sasaki said, “Our neighbors definitely notice noise from our unit.”

To reduce noise, Sasaki puts a futon on the floor at around 5 p.m. every day and has her children to play on it.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami has cast a shadow over her children’s minds. Remembering the disaster, Sasaki says her daughters sometimes cry during the night. The next day, Sasaki visits her neighbors to apologize for the noise.

Recently, Sasaki’s eldest daughter has also started sucking her fingers.

“Children relieve stress in their daily life through physical activity,” Sasaki said.

“Since there are fewer outdoor play areas during the winter, their stress increases,” Sasaki said.

Meanwhile, families with disabled children have even deeper problems.

“If my son stops singing, what should I do?” asks another Kamaishi resident, Sachie Numari, 40.

Numari worries over the implications of limiting her 7-year-old son Rui’s ability to sing and speak freely.

Rui, who was diagnosed with autism, did not say anything until he entered primary school. Recently, Rui has started counting out numbers.

When Rui starts singing songs loudly late at night, Numari asks him to lower his volume, saying, “Be quiet, my boy.” However, Numari actually loves listening to Rui’s songs.

“In November, Rui finally called me as ‘okaasan’ [mother]. His song is a sign of his growth. I’ve waited for this for a long time. It’s very sad for me to stop his singing.”

Before the disaster, Rui often stomped his feet on the floor in their detached house, as if he enjoyed moving his body. He also hit walls with his hands.

After relocating to the temporary housing unit, Numari bought tatami mats to reduce noise. She also padded the mats with a kotatsu futon and carpet in addition to covering their walls with sponge mats. Despite these efforts, Numari still received complaints from her neighbors.

Now, she becomes very nervous when Rui makes noise, to the point where she has trouble sleeping.

Numari wavers between apologizing to her neighbors for making noise and her concern that frequently cautioning her son may negatively influence Rui’s growth.

Masayoshi Tsuge, 53, research director of the education information department at the National Institute of Special Needs Education in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, said, “If a child actually enjoys what they’re doing, stopping them is not good for the child’s growth.”

Tsuge, an autism expert, said, “To avoid isolating families with autistic children from society, municipalities and educational organization should be required to ask neighboring families to understand the needs of families with autistic children.”

In a survey conducted in August and September by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry on the living conditions for about 2,000 households in temporary housing units in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, 118 families said they could easily hear noise from neighboring units and that soundproofing measures were insufficient.

Thirty-three households said they could hear footsteps (especially those of children), objects falling or things being thrown.

An official at the health ministry’s Social Welfare and War Victims’ Relief Bureau General Affairs Division said, “Full-fledged measures [of the noise problem] require big-scale renovation. It’s almost the same as building [them over] again.”

“We’re considering what measures are possible and are consulting with related industries,” the official added.
(Dec. 27, 2011)

Ministry to buy up cesium-tainted rice from Fukushima Pref., mainichi, 12/27/11

TOKYO (Kyodo) — Farm minister Michihiko Kano said Tuesday his ministry will buy up rice from farmers in Fukushima Prefecture whose products mark radiation levels over 100 becquerels per kilogram in the wake of the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, triggered by the March earthquake and tsunami.

The announcement of the support measure for farmers came after the health ministry proposed last week to lower the maximum allowable radioactive cesium level to 100 becquerels per kilogram from 500 becquerels for rice and other regular food items.

While the tougher standard is set to take effect in October 2012, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries will adopt it for the rice-purchasing program immediately to stabilize farmers’ financial profile and isolate tainted rice to eliminate radiation concerns among consumers.

The purchase of about 4,000 tons of rice including more 3,600 tons with radioactive cesium levels above 500 becquerels per kilogram will cost nearly 1 billion yen.

The ministry will start the purchase as early as January and eventually ask Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the nuclear plant, to cover the payments.
Chiba Prefectural employees thresh sheaves of rice in the town of Tako in preparation for radioactive contamination tests. (Mainichi)
Chiba Prefectural employees thresh sheaves of rice in the town of Tako in preparation for radioactive contamination tests. (Mainichi)

Kano also said the ministry will restrict rice planting next spring in areas where rice with radiation levels above 500 becquerels per kilogram was cultivated this year, while it will be considered later how to deal with areas where radiation levels in rice exceed 100 becquerels per kilogram.

Areas for rice planting restrictions will be specified after the Fukushima Prefecture government ends rice tests in February.

Following the accident at the Fukushima complex, the ministry banned rice planting for this year in radiation-tainted areas close to the plant. Overall rice planting restriction areas are expected to expand next year.

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