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JAPAN: Tsunami Brings Sea Change to Tohoku

MINAMI-SANRIKU, Japan, Jan 23 2012 (IPS) - Yumi Goto, 60, lives with her husband in a temporary shelter on a windy hill that overlooks vast stretches of tsunami-devastated seacoast where her home was once located.

“The huge earthquake and tsunami destroyed the life I had known till now. We are waiting to return to our former lives as soon as possible,” Goto told IPS.

Over the past month, Goto’s family has resumed its traditional occupation, but they are nowhere near harvesting seaweed and oyster on the scale they did before the Mar. 11 catastrophe that devastated the Tohoku region covering the worst-affected prefectures of Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi.

A poll conducted by local officials in the region last week indicated that fewer than 20 percent of displaced residents wanted to leave Minami-Sanriku which straddles bustling fishing ports, fertile farmland and small towns in the Miyagi prefecture.

For centuries, these pristine northern areas provided marine and agricultural resources for the capital Tokyo, with traditional livelihoods remaining undisturbed and communities content to remain isolated from the drastic global changes around them.

“Minami-Sanriku is an example of the challenges facing the post-disaster recovery process. The population, as illustrated by the polls, is deeply rooted in its traditional ways and does not want to move to new locations,” explained Prof. Akio Shimada, public policy expert at Tohoku University.

Japan has embarked on a vast recovery programme for Tohoku that the government says will take three years. For planners Tohoku with its displaced and aging population presents several dilemmas two months away from the anniversary of Japan’s worst disaster in recent times.

Populations in Tohoku’s disaster-affected towns are being asked to make tough decisions. Some like Goto and her husband have decided to remain, knowing that they can continue fishing only if they stay on in Minami-Sanriku.

But the younger generation is not so sure and already the total number of households in Minami-Sanriku has shrunk from 5,400 before the disaster to 4,893.

Population expert Ryuzaburo Sato at the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research in Tokyo told IPS that the shrinking of the rural population had begun even before the March disaster. “Youth prefer to seek jobs in big cities that offer them stable and modern lifestyles,” he told IPS.

Japan’s population fell by a record 123,000 in 2010, falling for the fourth consecutive year. The total number of new adults or people who turned 20 years in 2011 was 1.24 million, or less than one percent of the national population of 127.36 million.

Tohoku already has the lowest population density in the country with less than 200 people per sq km.

Determined to establish a new concept in the recovery process, Tohoku mayors and experts are pushing for a highly localised development strategy which, they say, is crucial for revitalising the region.

One of the more vociferous advocates of a new development model in Tohoku is Hiroya Masuda, former mayor of Miyakoshi, a fishing town of 60,000 people in Iwate prefecture, also devastated by the earthquake and tsunami.

Masuda is spearheading a movement pushing for funds from the central government to prop up the local marine industry as a priority. This, he insists, will boost the local economy and encourage the younger generation to stay on.

“Pre-disaster Tohoku depended on the economy of Tokyo given that our policies were based on selling our produce to the big companies in the capital. This is the time to start thinking locally and create a sustainable Tohoku,” he said.

Similar demands are heard in Fukushima prefecture that is grappling with radiation contamination from the disaster-damaged nuclear reactor the local government had accepted 40 years ago in exchange for funds from Tokyo to support economic development.

Former governor Eisaburo Sato is a vehement critic of Japanese traditional development policy which he has publicly condemned as wasteful and not benefiting local communities that are forced to play the role of supporting rich companies in Tokyo.

Fukushima is already reporting the largest exodus of people – 30,000 from the total of 45,000 – reported from Tohoku. The general trend is for older residents to stay back while the working population, worried about jobs and health risks, has moved out.

Shimada explained to IPS that the Tohoku disaster, an important turning point for local economies, is now providing lessons in disaster recovery.

“Funds must be targeted into innovative projects that will enrich the local people which is what the new recovery budget must support,” he said. He pointed to larger support for technology transfer to the traditional fishing and agriculture sectors.

Biotechnology-driven fish farms, new energy research, and high quality agricultural produce are some of the projects now being proposed for Tohoku.

Goto, despite her determination to restart her life in Minami-Sanriku, also wants change. “Since I was a teenager I have been helping my father and then my husband to grow seaweed and manage the oyster catches. The work is strenuous for women.”

“While I am too old to move out, I am sure new businesses would encourage my daughters to stay on and make Minami-Sanriku an attractive place to live in,” she mused.

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