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Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011

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Long-term project: Work continues last week on a seashore embankment in tsunami-hit Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture. KYODO

Owners bet on Tohoku revival, restart businesses along coast

The Washington Post

RIKUZENTAKATA, Iwate Pref. — The day Masahiro Osada reopened his Chinese restaurant, the mayor showed up for a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

A local TV station covered the event for the evening news. Osada spoke of the courage it took to restart his business in the tsunami-devastated town of Rikuzentakata, whose recovery remains in doubt as skeptical residents move elsewhere.

"I am hoping for a chain reaction of courage," Osada said.

By now, the towns along the northeast coast have drafted their reconstruction plans, with color-coded maps showing new commercial zones, public parks and residential communities on higher ground. Osada bet on this vision, taking out a nearly ¥3 million loan to buy restaurant supplies, even though he was some ¥16 million in debt. From last week, he began serving noodle dishes in a white prefabricated building erected by the central government.

But in the hardest-hit towns, including Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, many fear the rebuilding won't work, that the economy will never be rekindled and "that life 15 years from now will be even worse," said Tsutomu Nakai, director of the town's chamber of commerce.

Even before March 11, the sliver of fishing and agricultural towns along Tohoku's shoreline ranked as perhaps Japan's most imperiled region, accounting for just 2.5 percent of the country's economy. With its population graying and its young people taking off for larger cities, coastal areas had become a patchwork of shriveling small businesses, with fishermen and farmers doing jobs they had no one to hand down to.

And after the disaster, brittle local economies simply shattered. In Rikuzentakata, the tsunami leveled four out of every five buildings, including the Chinese restaurant Osada's father opened 25 years ago. About 92 percent of the town's business owners lost their possessions, and one-third said they wouldn't try to rebuild. About eight months later, the town's train station is still rubble and its downtown a dust bowl. The town's tax revenue is zero.

The destruction is so vast that municipal officials estimate it will take three years just to repair infrastructure and five more to develop an economy. Mayor Futoshi Toba says he'll be working out of a trailer for eight years.

But according to reconstruction experts, Rikuzentakata's long-term recovery also depends on early progress — a hook on which to hang hopes. The longer the town resembles a dust bowl, the more incentive investors and business owners have to take their money elsewhere.

"I worry about Rikuzentakata," said Junichi Hirota, a member of the Reconstruction Design Council, which advises the central government on rebuilding. "To be honest, it's a 50-50 chance that Rikuzentakata can recover."

As the central government envisions it, the stricken towns should make the main decisions about reconstruction themselves. The rebuilding of this coastline, then, depends less on one grand plan than on a hundred little plans, each as conservative or ambitious as the people behind them.

In the ravaged fishing port of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, just 18 km south of Rikuzentakata, officials hope incentives can help attract information technology companies and auto manufacturers. The town has put a hold on new construction, seeking time to plan "a new smart city," Mayor Shigeru Sugawara said.

But Rikuzentakata's plan aims for something simpler — a restoration of what it had. It calls for "resilience against disasters," with a 12-meter tsunami wall at the shoreline and an economy that provides its residents with a "comfortable and charming life."

"When you lose something, you want it back," Osada said. "We all want to go back to the state of life we had before March 11."

A month after the disaster, Osada had decided to rebuild — regardless of the debt he would incur — because he had a wife and two children and felt too young at 46 to give up something he enjoyed doing.

The question was: Where to rebuild? He spent weeks waffling. While he preferred to remain in Rikuzentakata for sentimental reasons, prudence kept pushing him to start a business elsewhere — perhaps the fishing port of Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, 20 minutes to the north and where he already was living in a prefabricated home.

In May, Osada heard from another local businessman, Masahide Saito, about a little-known central government program designed to help small and medium-size businesses. If a few such businesses banded together and secured land, the government would put up a building for them, which they could use rent-free for five years.

Saito had done the hard work, finding a plot of land just off Route 45, where an auto-body shop and a candy store had been leveled by the tsunami.

By July, he had assembled several business partners, including the owners of a sporting goods store and a hair salon. But he figured Osada, who'd fallen out of touch, wanted nothing to do with Rikuzentakata. He figured wrong. When the two met face to face, Osada told him, "I'm in."

Because Osada had lost everything in the tsunami, college volunteers created new laminated menus. A musician donated Bose speakers, on which Osada decided he'd play only upbeat music. He bought ¥500 stools and found tables at an old high school. On the day the restaurant opened, he took out an ad in the local paper apologizing for the limited food selection. At the bottom was the restaurant's telephone number — his cellphone.

"Osada, he lives in Ofunato now," Mayor Toba said at the opening ceremony for the restaurant and its neighboring businesses. "He'd been thinking about opening there instead. But this is where he was born. It's been seven months since he first thought about reopening, and for those seven months people were waiting and waiting and waiting."

Osada has decided that reconstruction makes more sense viewed as a long-term process, which is why, after a frantic opening day — 13 hours on his feet in the kitchen, serving customers all day long — he made one change, designed to help with longevity.

He placed a strip of Astroturf in the kitchen so his knees wouldn't feel so sore.



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