Tohoku (東北) after 500+ Days

Japan Notes: Special Edition Tohoku

Long Road to Recovery for Northeast (東北) Japan
by E. Kodama

Tohoku (東北) after 500+ Days
by C. Usui, H. Ishida, and R. Colignon
Ishinomaki (石巻) in June 2012
by U. Segal and T. Anmei
JCIE US Giving Report


Tohoku after 500+ Days

Chikako Usui, Hiromi Ishida, and Richard Colignon

           We toured Ishinomaki (石巻), Onagawa (女川), and Okatsu (雄勝) in Miyagi prefecture on July 24-25, 2012.  Mr. Hiroshi Abe from the Lion’s Club International in Ishinomaki gave us  a comprehensive tour of the area.  The city of Ishinomaki and the towns of Onagawa and Okatsu experienced the most extensive destruction from the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. The scenic coastal line of Tohoku is known for rias formation, teeth like (or treelike) configuration that is extremely irregular and deeply indented. This topography is ideal for small fishing ports and harbors. Five hundred meter high mountains abut the seacoast separating areas of flat land where residential homes, factories, schools, government offices, and hospitals were built. The unique features of the rias coastline also produced a kind of hydraulic destructive force with increasing depth and velocity of the tsunami wave as it moved inland. The rias served as pathways of massive destruction conveying the tsunami waves inland.


Area Map with Ishinomaki and Onagawa (Kusaka Mari at: 


Extent of Destruction

Ishinomaki is the second biggest city in Miyagi prefecture. It was the city with 160,000 people. The city lost nearly 4,000 (3,938) people or 2% of the population in the disaster. The town of Onagawa where 10,000 people lived in some 15 small villages lost 10% of its population. There is a nuclear power plant in Onagawa. Ironically, this nuclear power plant building provided protection and saved the lives of 200 people whose homes were destroyed by the tsunami.  The nuclear power plant has been in cold shutdown since the earthquake/tsunami of 3/11.

A building turned over during the disaster is still upside down and remains a reminder of the destructive power of the tsunami.


Debris (がれき)

The City of Ishinomaki has 60 million tons of disaster debris in massive mountains of accumulation, which accounts for 30% of all the debris in the entire affected Tohoku region (that is, Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima prefectures). So far, 10% of the debris has been moved, sorted, burned, and shipped elsewhere as landfill. During our tour, we saw blocks and blocks of building foundations and mountains of multicolored debris some reaching 30 meters in height and blocks long that are yet to be moved and sorted. In Onagawa, 1,637 vehicles have been scrapped to date.

Earlier this year the central government has asked other prefectures and cities to take disaster debris and some of them have accepted them. The media have widely supported the need for more  cooperation to among prefectures to receive these debris.  However, during our trip we learned that there is no need to ship the disaster debris to other prefectures as debris removal and disposal will create new and desperately needed jobs in the city.

An unfortunately common sight: a mountain of debris.


Temporary Housing (仮設住)

There are 3,852 family households in Onagawa.  The tsunami destroyed more than 3,200 buildings (including homes). The people who had stayed in evacuation centers and shelters now live in temporary apartment housing. The Onagawa government has built 1,294 temporary housing units, each equipped with air conditioning, TV, refrigerator, washing machine, microwave oven, and a rice cooker. People moved to these temporary housing units from May 2011 to November 2011 based on lottery. These housing units are free of charge, except for utility fees.

During our trip, we saw four such temporary housing complexes.  Each temporary housing complex included 40 to 200 apartments. Most apartments are 2LDK, consisting of 2 rooms with living room, dining area, kitchen, bath, and the toilet.


One example of the temporary housing units constructed to provide shelter for the victims.

Yet another example of the temporary housing constructed.

Residential Relocation

According to the government plan, people are to live in these temporary housing for up to two years, until their permanent housing units become available. Since July 2012 the town has begun the process of assessing priorities of each family’s needs for permanent housing. The town must find new areas for residential development as the flat areas where the families once lived are no longer permitted for re-building. This is a new challenge for the sea coast town that has very limited flat land for residential development. Only those who can afford buying new properties on higher ground have moved out the temporary housing.  The overwhelming majority of the families living in the temporary housing are dealing with the fact that their villages will not be re-built and they must re-start their lives somehow and somewhere.  One compounding problem is that new homes will be built on the higher grounds where the access to basic necessities (such as grocery stores, medical services and government offices) may be limited.



Businesses are reluctant to re-establish themselves in the town on the speculation that their business will not return as people will be moving to new subdivisions or even out of the city.  Factories are unwilling to incur the replacement costs of mature businesses causing acute shortage of jobs in the area.  For example, in Ishinomaki Port, which was one of the biggest fisheries in Japan, only 20% of fisheries and processing factories are back to pre-disaster capacity.  There is a long line of people seeking employment in the City’s employment service office, The city’s parking lots are completely filled with job seekers every day.  There are over 7,000 people looking for work while there are 4,000 positions advertised and many of these positions are temporary or part time jobs.


Disaster relief fund

The victims and survivors have received compensation from three different sources: national government, prefectural and/or city government, and disaster relief organizations such as the Japanese Red Cross Society.  For example, we learned that the amount of housing relief given from the national government is determined by (1) one’s future plan, that is, one will rebuild/buy new homes, repair existing homes, or will rent; (2) the extent of damage sustained to the home (fully destroyed or partly destroyed); and (3) household size.  Thus, in a hypothetical scenario, a couple whose home has been completely destroyed and wishes to buy a new home receives 3 million yen (about $30,000).  Other kinds of compensations are made for deaths, dwelling damage, children, and seniors.

According to the Japanese Red Cross Society website, the total amount of 3,145 oku yen ($3.1 billion) has been paid out to each victim/survivor family.  This translates as 88% of the total relief funds donated to Japanese Red Cross Society within Japan (not including foreign donations) have been dispersed to the affected individuals/families.

(Note: For convenience, the exchange rate of $1 = 100 yen is used.)


Volunteers after 500+ Days

After the post-disaster recovery period, communities began to develop their own perspectives for re-building by assessing what needs to be replaced or restored within complex political and financial circumstances.  While the disaster recovery processes seem like moving targets, it is intermediate volunteer organizations and individual volunteers that keep the hope alive.  They have been the bright spot in this disaster.  Intermediate organizations like the network of Lions Clubs provide coordination of individual volunteers, allocation of resources, and communication to government authorities of what has taken place and what is still needed.

Many young volunteers came to the area.  While some came for a short duration, many others came to help on weekends and continued their efforts for months.  Some others have become long-term relief workers by staying in the affected area without returning to their home towns for months at a time.  The kinds of relief and recovery work they did changed with time.  Initially, volunteers spent a lot of time moving debris, cleaning the deposits from the disaster, moving around boxes of supplies and handing them out.  After 500+ days, they are in demand for more specific, skilled work, including handy men’s jobs as many residential homes need a wide variety of repairs.  The children also need more attention.

We met Kinako Fujizoe, a young volunteer who has stayed in Ishinomaki for more than a year.  Her current project is to help the children take photos.  She goes to different schools and helps them make photo albums so that they can document this part of their lives and have something to build on the family identity when they lost everything in the disaster.  Lacking material supplies, she makes use of cardboard boxes.  Children enjoy making their own family photo albums from a scratch.  She showed us some of beautiful hand-made albums.  We learned that she used to be a professional photographer and that she is happy to have found projects with children using her skills with photography.

Lion’s Club International Office
From left: Hiromi Ishida, Hiroshi Abe, Richard Colignon, and Chikako Usui

Kinako Fujizoe with a photo album


Notes:  All the photos in this report were taken by Chikako Usui

 Chikako Usui, Ph. D. is President of Japan America Society of St. Louis and Associate Professor of Sciology at University of Missouri-St. Louis.  Hiromi Ishida is a cultural/art specialist and lives in the Mr. Fuji area.  Richard A. Colignon, Ph. D. is Chair and Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University.