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Tsunami towns at crossroads, despite clean-up
by Staff Writers
Otsuchi, Japan (AFP) March 8, 2012

The boat that was dumped on the roof of Otsuchi's two-storey hotel has gone, and much of the rubble that littered this fishing port has been cleared. But the town lies paralysed, unable to rebuild and unwilling to abandon.

Up and down Japan's tsunami-ravaged coastline, roads have been repaired and are now busy with cars taking people back to the prefabricated units they have learned to call home in the last year.

Devastated communities are gradually limping back to life, emerging from the ghostliness as new street lamps illuminate the night, lighting the way to clusters of small restaurants, shops and drug stores that have sprung up.

In towns like Ofunato, the crumpled houses that lay strewn across the road and the battered shells of cars that littered the pavements are gone. Telegraph poles have been righted and the detritus of daily life has been cleared.

Further south, the twisted rail tracks of Tagajo have been re-laid and services have restarted, linking this small town with its neighbours along the coast.

In Ishinomaki, a bridge that dammed the river with chunks of splintered houses is re-open to traffic.

Some areas look almost normal; the newly-laid tarmac with its freshly painted markings guide traffic through brand new signals, where gleaming signs give directions.

But the signs point to places that are there in name only.

The streets of tightly packed houses in places like Rikuzentakata were reduced to matchwood by the ferocious waves. For months afterwards, fields of debris stretched where children had once played.

Now, for the most part, these spaces are clear.

Large areas have been razed to reveal the dusty ground, pockmarked by traced outlines of houses, or gridded by the car park of what was once a supermarket.

Here and there lie giant piles of debris, sorted by type. In other places a half-wrecked house stands sentinel, its owners untraceable and no one prepared to sign the order to pull it down.

But the people who once lived in these towns are still wondering: what next?

Some say the risk is too great and rebuilding towns that were in any case dying is not worth it.

They say the crumbling economies that can no longer provide jobs for young people -- of whom there are fewer and fewer -- were killing these small settlements anyway.

Maybe these places should pass into history, swallowed up by larger settlements built further inland.

But others are desperate to have their villages and towns back, unprepared to surrender their birthplaces to the power of nature.

In Otsuchi, memories of the horror of March 11, 2011 are still fresh.

"When I fall asleep, I flash back to what I saw -- a lot of people were sinking into the waves one after another," said Shigeru Yamazaki, 63, who lost his wife and mother in the tragedy.

"But I won't abandon the place I was born and raised," said Yamazaki, who has reopened his clothing store at a prefabricated shopping mall, thrown up in a tsunami-hit schoolyard.

"I don't want to see the name of Otsuchi disappear," said Yamazaki. "We have to make it a place where young people can live."

Shimako Kariya, 78, says she is determined to spend the rest of her life here.

"My kids are telling me, 'Let's move, grandma,' but I told them, 'You can get out of here. I will hang in.' I just can't run away."

Otsuchi town mayor Yutaka Ikarigawa understands the feelings of those who want to rebuild at any cost, but says there have to be jobs if younger people are to stay.

The town, 450 kilometres (280 miles) from Tokyo, lost its main source of employment and income in January when the local fishing cooperative went bust, owing 1.1 billion yen ($14 million).

The tsunami claimed around 1,300 lives in Otsuchi. An exodus over the last 12 months has seen the town's population shrink by 17 percent as younger people leave in search of work.

Even before tragedy struck, around a third of those living in this once serene port were aged over 65. It is greying Japan in miniature.

"It's as if we are bleeding," mayor Ikarigawa told AFP. "We've got to stop this population outflow, no matter what.

"We are racing against time because a delay in reconstruction will lead to the secondary tragedy" of depopulation, he said.

"We are at a crossroads that will determine whether or not the town can survive."

For some, the way ahead is clear.

Yuki Tanaka says it is the stumbling local economy that will drive her away.

"We have to leave Otsuchi if my husband can't sign a new contract with his company this spring," she said.

"A hometown is important, but we have to consider our children and family first."

For those on the cusp of adulthood, there is no choice.

Riho Nagaoka will leave Otsuchi when she graduates from high school in late March.

"There is nothing to do here -- no place to work, no place to play," said the 18-year-old as she stood by the abandoned railway tracks that have not seen a train for almost a year.

"My hometown is my hometown, but it is not a place to live anymore," she said quietly.

"I don't think I will be able to make my dreams come true here."

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