Post Japan’s Triple Disaster – To Rebuild or Relocate?

By Adelyn Zhou

On March 11th, 2011, a 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck northern Japan and unleashed a devastating tsunami and nuclear power plant meltdown at Fukushima.  Over two and a half years later, much of the population in the affected area has left.  Formerly bustling commercial centers lie as fallow lots filled with rocks and weeds, and the majority of remaining residents are still living in temporary housing with no end in sight.

This past January, I had the unique opportunity to visit the post-disaster Tohoku region in Japan as part of an IXP.  We toured the displaced communities, hearing the first-hand stories of fishermen, farmers, high school students and town leaders.  I was inspired by the resilience of the community as they worked to rebuild their lives.  However amongst the rebuilding, there laid another more sensitive debate “not on how to rebuild, but whether the area be rebuilt at all.”  Similar to the class discussion on New Orleans, there has been heated conversation about this topic in Japan.

Prior to the 3/11 disaster, many of the Tohoku communities were already in decline as the youth left the region for city jobs and only the elderly remained.  There were discussions around consolidating small towns to operate more efficiently and share resources.  However, the disaster struck and the community worked to rebuilding the area.  However, rebuilding may not be the best for the region in the long run – rebuilding does not guarantee a return economic viability and also perpetuates living in a tsunami disaster zone.  Because Japan falls in the Ring of Fire, there will be future earthquakes and tsunamis, the only question is when.  In anticipation of this, some community leaders have announced their intentions to elevate their cities by adding 8+ meters to the land.  However, how high will the next tsunami be? 9 meters?  10 meters?  Who can predict.

Beyond the debate of rebuilding, there are also questions of what to do with the land of the people who left.  There are proposals for the communities to buy back the land at 25% of its original value.  This would provide liquidity to those who have moved away, and also allow the city to reclaim the reclamation of the land.  Yet this policy is controversial – is 25% too high to pay for barren land that would be worthless unless there were redevelopments?  Or is 25% too low given how much people had lost already due to the tsunami?  Which government agency has the jurisdiction to make these decisions – the local community, city, state or federal government?  These questions are being actively debated, which no real solutions on the way.  As a result, the rezoning process has been very slow and the rebuilding of the communities even slower.

Ultimately, there is no one right answer to any of these questions.  This will remain a constant dialogue among community, with everyone hopefully aligned to a strategy that is focused on sustainability (geographically and economically) for the long term future.

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2 thoughts on “Post Japan’s Triple Disaster – To Rebuild or Relocate?

  1. Thanks for sharing this experience.

    I’m curious about what the residents of the area actually want. Citizens have emotional attachments to specific pieces of property- but at the same time, people recognize the dangers and downsides you described. They may even have negative associations with the area, after what occurred there.

    I think the assumption is that citizens want to rebuild, but benevolent city planners know better- and I wonder if that’s really true.

  2. I had the pleasure of traveling with Adelyn to northern Japan to view the destruction of the so-called “triple disaster” first hand. It was truly awe inspiring to witness the utter devastation that the region had experienced, still fully evident nearly two years later. I agree that the most important conversation that needed to take place — no if, but whether to rebuild — seemed to be off limits. I felt as though I personally witnessed government resources being put to sub-optimal uses, pursuing the dream of rebuilding small towns that were literally wiped off the map. In a country with a national debt of 225% of GDP, one of the highest rates of indebtedness in the world, chasing these pipe dreams may simply not be an option [1].

    Further complicating the rebuilding efforts are macro-scale demographic trends that stack the cards against revitalizing these regions. Northern Japan is aging, and the few young people remaining are fleeing to urban centers like Tokyo. These two trends raise the question — who would you be rebuilding for? To be sure, what happened to Japan is a travesty. But perhaps this shock to these already struggling regions will allow the government to more comprehensively plan for the future of these rural areas. Instead of fighting the uphill battle to rebuild, the Japanese government should consider helping these communities more quickly transition to their future identities, whatever those may be.

    While those seeking to rebuilt surely have the best of intentions, I hope the government considers whether or not that is the best interest of the country in the long term.

    1. The Economist, http://www.economist.com/content/global_debt_clock, accessed February 2013.

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