Thursday, June 13, 2013

Journey to a Dying Town

KAMAISHI, Japan - Two years after the disastrous March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, most of the debris from the deluge has been cleared away in this small city on the northern edge of Japan’s tsunami coast. The cars and vans once piled on top of each other like some kind of apocalyptic traffic jam have been sorted out or sold for scrap.
My guide, a local teacher who lost three of her aunts in the deluge, drives us up to a lookout. Spread out below us is the coastal village of Unosumai, or more accurately, what once was the village of Unosumai. The view reminds me of pictures taken of Hiroshima after the atomic bombing, everything flattened except for one surviving building still standing like the former Industrial Promotion Hall in Hiroshima’s Peace Garden.

The village hall is still standing, broken windows and all with the huge clock over the main entrance still fixed forever on 3:25, the time when an enormous wall of water washed in drowning many of the village workers. A small shrine and flowers is set in front. While we stopped there, several people arrive to pray and give obeisance.

Kamaishi is a hilly city with little flat land. Rising directly behind the central business district are three steep hills and a network of wooden ladders, stairways and pathways that have long provided a natural shelter against tsunami, a kind of local version of the storm shelters in Oklahoma, tsunami being an historic threta in the same way that deadly tornadoes are there.
These stairs and pathways were critical in saving many lives. The town is extremely proud that not one of the approximately 3,000 elementary through high school children was killed in the surge, even though their schools, located along the shore were inundated. It is often called the “Kamaishi Miracle.”

By all accounts, the teachers and students performed admirably in the thirty minutes or so between the earthquake and the tsunami. Teachers had the presence of mind to tell their charges to literally take to the hills. Don’t wait.  Older students carried the younger elementary school children on their backs as they climbed the nearby hill to safety.
Kamaishi was famous for its network of seawalls built at considerable expense before the tsunami that ultimately failed utterly to hold back the surging tide. Plans to rebuild or strengthen these seawalls using money from the national reconstruction fund however are controversial. Why spend so much money on a system that demonstrably failed to ultimate test?

Some argue that the sea walls gave the residents a false sense of security. Loud speakers all over the city had warned people to flee, with enough time to get to higher ground. Most of the town is within a couple hundred yards of this nearest evacuation stairway “I do believe that, unconsciously, the breakwater’s presence did give people a false sense of security,” says Mayor Takenori Noda.

 There isn’t much evidence of construction going on. The national government has appropriated billions of yen to facilitate the rebuilding, but not much is being spent in this town. When your slate is wiped totally clean, it is not surprising that one takes time to decide what to write in replacement.

What Kamaishi, and other Japanese towns along the northeastern tsunami coast need even more than millions of yen in reconstruction aid sunk into greater seawalls, is something more basic –namely, a rationale for their existence. For more than a hundred years, that rationale in Kamiashi was grounded on its famous Steel Works.
Kamaishi was the location of Japan’s first steel mill blast furnace built in 1857, even before the Meiji Restoration began Japan’s transformation into a modern industrial society. The furnace was established initially to provide the steel needed for modern artillery to defend the country.

Probably the heyday for Kamaishi was in the 1950 and 1960s when some 12,000 people were employed by the mill, and the town had a population or more than 90,000. However, Nippon Steel closed the works in 1988 putting thousands out of work. The town’s population has steadily declined, now around 40,000 today.
Kamaishi Steel Works  never found a niche to justify itself, unlike Japan Steel Works a little further north on the island of Hokkaido. It too supplied the steel needed to build the large guns for the Imperial Japanese Navy and then evolved a lucrative niche business forging reactor pressure vessels for nuclear power plants, for which it has virtually a global monopoly.

Kamaishi struggled to find a substitute, recruiting various metal-working enterprises, some of which stayed and others left because they were too far from regular supply networks. The small harbor was thought to have container-ship potential but never developed into the kind of terminal that some of the city fathers had planned. The day I visited it was quiet and empty of ships.
In 2010 Foreign Policy Magazine used Kamaishi as an exemplar for an article “The Japan Syndrome” on what it thought ailed Japan’s economy, especially the propensity to spend billions of yen on unneeded and ultimately useless public works projects, including Kamaishi’s famous city breakwater.

One element of the town’s new reconstruction plan involves a request for funds to build a rugby stadium. But one wonders who would play there? After all, the once formidable Kamaishi Nippon Steel Rugby team is long gone.


Post a Comment

<< Home