Two years after the devastating tsunami and earthquake that killed close to 19,000 people and wiped out many coastal villages on March 11, 2011, too many people are still living in temporary housing, villages closer to Fukushima are still struggling to recover from the radioactive fallout caused by the nuclear crisis, and people in many remote fishing villages who were economically strapped before the tsunami face a future that’s uncertain at best and bleak at worst.
Recent photos of before (2011) and after (2013) posted in the Atlantic's website illustrate how almost all of the rubble has been removed, or stacked neatly away.
You may call that quintessential Japanese efficiency–or a Pecksniffian obsession with appearances.
Meanwhile, Japan’s recovery is stuck in neutral, afflicted by a failure of flexibility and imagination on the part of government, bureaucracies and the people who have the power to change existing rules and regulations but don’t use it.
Rule-bending, of course, has never been Japan’s forte.
In a press briefing held at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan earlier this year, Futoshi Toba, mayor of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, noted, “Honestly speaking, the state of our city is nowhere close to recovery.” Rikuzentakata, hard hit by the tsunami, saw 1,556 people killed, including the mayor’s own wife, with 218 people never found. In summary, 7 percent of its total population disappeared.
Asked about the root cause of the delayed recovery, the mayor cited government red tape, vertically organized government agencies (each working in a silo) and leadership’s inability to act and think outside regulations never formulated to cope with a thousand-year storm.
Futoshi Toba, mayor of Rikuzentakata
After two long years, Mayor Toba said, “We see piles of rubble everywhere, while damaged public facilities remain inactive.” The situation for Rikuzentakata is particularly devastating, because the town itself, located in the middle of nowhere, is built on weak economic and financial foundations, while its small population has many senior citizens.
While there are several reasons for our slow recovery, Toba pinned the main blame on “the way our bureaucracy thinks and acts.”
Toba recalled what happened several months after the earthquake and tsunami hit the town. “We were left with not a single supermarket in town. There were no retail outlets standing where our residents could even buy bottled water, let alone food.” The plan for a much needed supermarket was turned down by regulators, said Toba, on the grounds that the area is zoned for agricultural use. Every day, the town smacks head-first into a Japan too rigid to adapt compassionately to crisis.