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One year after Japan tsunami: Roads repaired, but lives still disrupted

A year after the triple disaster – earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown – that slammed northeastern Japan, recovery has been painfully slow.

When Takako Ouchi’s elderly mother died last December, tradition dictated she be laid to rest in a cemetery near her home.

But the cemetery, like her old house, lies in the shadow of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, rendered unreachable — perhaps forever — because of radiation. Instead, Ms. Ouchi has constructed a shrine to her mother in the bedroom of her new home, 40 miles away.

Her mother’s final resting place remains in flux — as does much of Ouchi’s life. “I think about different plans every day, and it’s driving me crazy,” she says, sitting cross-legged on the floor at a low table in her living room. “I cannot see when this uncertainty will lift.”

A year after the triple disaster — earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown — that slammed northeastern Japan, recovery has been painfully slow. Roads and railways have reopened, most debris has been cleared, and the gyms and schools that served as shelters in the first days of the crisis now ring once again with the voices of athletes and students.

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But longer-term prospects for the region and its inhabitants are still hazy. Few of those who lost homes know where they will be living this time next year, or where the money they need to live on will come from. Recovery efforts have been hampered by the scale of the disaster and “a lack of leadership,” says Masaru Kohno, a political analyst at Tokyo’s Waseda University. “The authorities have not done what they needed to.”

Decisive leadership has not been easy for a government constrained by an opposition-controlled upper house that has blocked many of its initiatives. But even when decisions have been made, they have often become bogged down in Japan’s notorious bureaucracy. Only a fraction of the funds for reconstruction has been spent.

Though Ouchi says she does not know how long she will stay in the rented house she found last October, one thing she is sure of: Although her husband still works part time at the nuclear plant that went into meltdown following the tsunami last March, she will not be returning to live in Okuma, her village.

“I’ve seen a documentary about Chernobyl,” she says. “Nobody lives there, and that was 25 years ago.”

‘We just live day to day’

Ouchi’s situation is similar to those of the 78,000 people ordered out of an “exclusion zone” stretching 12 miles from the reactors. Nor is the future much clearer for the other 264,000 people displaced by the earthquake, tsunami, and wider concerns about radiation. Officials up and down the battered northeastern coast say that complications of finding safe land and sufficient funds mean it could be five years or more until they are rehoused.

“I can’t think about being here for five years,” exclaims Chikako Nishihara, a grandmotherly physiotherapist whom the authorities have squeezed with her husband into a tiny prefabricated housing unit in the city of Iwaki. “We just live day to day.”

The barracks-like compound is the sixth place Mrs. Nishihara has laid her head since she and her husband left their home in Tomioka, next door to the nuclear plant, last March 11 for a series of schools, gyms, and relatives’ homes. Now their plans are on hold until the government decides whether their village can be made habitable or until TEPCO, the plant operator, compensates them.

For now ‘we are in-between’

The company has so far resisted property compensation, saying it is not yet clear if some homes might be usable in the future, and that assessors cannot reach the empty houses in contaminated areas to value them. TEPCO is, however, paying the salaries of all those who lost their jobs to radiation, though how long that will last “has not been decided yet,” says spokeswoman Mayumi Yoshida.

“We can’t move now because neither the government nor TEPCO has said clearly where we can go or what plans they have for us,” Nishihara says. But financial questions are not the only issue. “I can’t think about moving at the moment because I’m still stuck on March 11,” she says, almost apologetically.

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When the earthquake hit at 2:46 p.m., Nishihara was caring for elderly patients in a day-care center. She stayed with them and helped move them to a shelter; they survived. But she feels guilty that she could not return all of them to their families, as she normally would have done. “I didn’t finish my job,” she says. “Psychologically I’m still in a kind of limbo. My husband and I had a plan [for] what we’d do with our lives when I retired, but those plans changed in an instant, and now I just can’t make up my mind about things.”

Taeko Ouchi, Takako Ouchi’s daughter-in-law, is finding it difficult to make plans, too, as she tries to cope with her two boys, 6-year-old Kazuhito and 4-year-old Yuto, in a dilapidated public housing apartment in Iwaki that had been slated for demolition before the earthquake. “Please just tell us … if we are not going to be able to live in Okuma again so we can focus on making a new life,” she pleads. “For now, we are in between.”

Government response

Government experts are still reviewing radiation levels in the exclusion zone. The Okuma village council is hoping some residents may be able to return. But Taeko’s husband, Masaru, says he will not go back to the house he finished building 18 months before the quake.

He still has his old job as an electrician at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, now helping to shut it down. “Every day I go back to Okuma, and I have to wear coveralls from head to toe and a respirator,” he says. “How am I going to take my children to live in a place like that?”

The government will pay his rent for another year, he has been assured. He does not know what he will do after that.

The Okuma council would like to house as many former residents as possible in one place. Officials are seeking land outside the exclusion zone. “Villagers are asking us when and where we are going to settle them, but we cannot give them a specific answer yet,” says Hisashi Suzuki, head of the council’s planning section. “It will be at least three to five years before we’ve built everything we need.”

That’s the sort of timeline that officials in the port of Ishinomaki, 115 miles up the coast, are also thinking of as they seek to rehouse the 17,000 people living in prefab housing.

The city government has banned new construction near the seashore, and most of the buildable land in town is already full of temporary housing. Planning chief Hiroshi Goto says he has identified two districts on the outskirts and has been negotiating with more than 300 landowners to buy their plots. “It has been very hard agreeing on a price,” he says.

But until he has secured the land and created an urban plan, he cannot apply for government funding, he says. Then it could take years to build. “Maybe people could move in around 2017 or 2019,” Mr. Goto predicts.

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Back in Koriyama, Takako Ouchi lights a joss stick in memory of her mother and her former life, and sighs. “I’m not sure I have the courage to face a new world,” she says. “I feel like a caged bird.”