by Yumiko Iida
KESENNUMA, MIYAGI PREF. – Just two months after the tsunami on March 11, 2011, devastated the city of Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture, Emi Satomi and a group of nursery teachers whose jobs were eliminated by the catastrophe began a makeshift day care center in a warehouse up on a hill.
Satomi, 51, is a niece of the director of a local nursery who died in the tsunami. The nursery school, which had been operating for more than 30 years was swept away. Only its bare foundation remains.
Initially, when she agreed to nurses’ requests in the immediate aftermath of the disaster to help look after their children while they worked, she intended to do so only until the mothers found other day care alternatives. But by summer that year, the number of children at Satomi’s makeshift day care center had reached about 20.
Satomi felt the limits of running the nursery in the warehouse, where there was neither water nor toilets.
But at the same time, she knew there was certainly demand for the service. So she tried to seek assistance from support groups, only to be met with a rather cold response to the idea of temporary day care.
Good news came when a construction company executive in Yamagata Prefecture offered to build a facility for her — on condition that she was “serious” about continuing the nursery.
“I was scared,” Satomi recalled, worrying that demand may not keep up in the long run, given Japan’s low birthrate as well as the hollowing out that was taking place as residents were forced to evacuate or move elsewhere as a result of the disaster. “Would we be able to keep going?”
One thing was certain, however. The city had a shortage of day-care services, especially for babies and toddlers up to around 2 years old. Moved by the executive’s words that “these children will be the ones to revive Kensennuma” in the future, Satomi made up her mind to stay the course.
She named the new nursery, completed last July at a location safe from future tsunami, Kids Room Ohisama, which means “sun.” More than 50 children are enrolled, and the number will rise to 60 when the new school year starts in April. The rest are on a waiting list.
Finances are tight but Satomi is sticking to her decision of not registering the facility as an “approved” nursery because she wants to be able to serve all parents and children in need, regardless of their background and whether they meet the rigid enrollment qualifications for “approved” nurseries.
Operating as an “unapproved” nursery means Kids Room Ohisama receives much less in public subsidies than “approved” nurseries.
Satomi also petitioned on behalf of about 20 of the nursery’s children who are still in temporary housing and finally succeeded in getting aid so their fees can be reduced or exempted.
“It’s tough, but we are fortunate and thankful that even now relief supplies are being sent to us from everywhere,” Satomi said.
“Parents (with small children) can stay here and work in Kesennuma because our nursery is here. We’ll be able to keep going for as long as we are needed.”
According to a tally by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry as of last April 1, 50 day care facilities were destroyed or swept away by the March 2011 tsunami, while another 61 were heavily damaged.
A total of 76 nurseries have closed down in the disaster-hit areas, whether “approved” or “unapproved.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on March 19 formally endorsed a reconstruction program for 12 nuclear disaster-affected municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture, paving the way for the implementation of a project to construct a new road linking Onahama port in the city of Iwaki with the Joban Expressway.
The project, to be financed by the central government, calls for constructing an 8-kilometer straight road, tentatively called Onahama Road, linking a harbor road, which runs through the Onahama industrial complex area near Onahama port, with the Joban Expressway, which links Tokyo with Sendai, capital of Miyagi Prefecture, along the Pacific coast.
Under the project, the envisaged road will be connected to the Joban Expressway at a halfway point between the Iwaki-Yumoto and Iwaki-Nakoso interchanges on the expressway.
Currently, motor vehicles need to take about 30 minutes from Onahama port to the two interchanges. If the Onahama Road is built, the time could be cut.
The Fukushima prefectural government plans to decide on the route of the Onahama Road during fiscal 2013, promote studies on how to connect the road with the Joban Expressway and make efforts to take a consensus on the acquisition of land for constructing the new road.
The prefectural government plans to complete the construction of Onahama Road by fiscal 2020, some 10 years after the March 11, 2011 earthquake-tsunami disaster, as well as the subsequent nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Total construction costs are expected to reach tens of billions of yen, topping 20 billion yen.
The 12 municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture subject to the reconstruction program are those where evacuation zones were set up in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster.
The government said Thursday that it will build nearly 20,000 public housing units by March 2016 for people affected by the March 2011 megaquake-tsunami disaster in the Tohoku region and consequent nuclear crisis.
The goal was stipulated in a plan for rebuilding homes and towns that the government compiled prior to the second anniversary Monday of the March 11 disaster, in which some 19,000 lives were lost.
The government also reiterated its pledge to accelerate efforts to decommission the four crippled reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear complex and said it plans to finish revising the current work schedule for the whole process around June. The decommissioning is expected to take decades.
“What is mainly expected after two years is to rebuild homes and make the prospects clear to enable people to return to Fukushima Prefecture,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said during a meeting to discuss reconstruction projects.
The plan calls for the government to build around 5,100 public housing units in Iwate Prefecture, about 11,200 units in Miyagi Prefecture and around 2,900 units in Fukushima Prefecture by the end of fiscal 2015.
At the Fukushima nuclear plant, the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. plan to start removing fuel assemblies stored in the spent-fuel pool of reactor 4 starting in November.
Under the current work schedule, the whole decommissioning process is expected to take around 40 years, but Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Toshimitsu Motegi has ordered ministry staff to consider moving up the schedule.