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.”