Before Rebuilding, Japan Faces Massive Clean Up

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JIJI PRESS / AFP / Getty Images

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, center, visits the tsunami-ravaged area of Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture, on April 2, 2011

The best way to grasp the depth of the devastation on Japan's northeast coast is to go for a drive. The mess of crumpled cars, mangled houses, and a seemingly endless swirl of worldly possessions stretches on, block after block, town after torn up town. Pulling into Ofunato, a once picturesque fishing village surrounded by mountains and a temperamental sea, a woman walking with a floral sun umbrella strolls past low-rise buildings that have been gutted like the creatures this place has caught and sold for centuries.

Down the street, a stone's throw from hulking fishing boats that were tossed inland, Yuko Shida surveys what's left of her bakery and second floor apartment. When the 98-foot tsunami started spilling into Ofunato, Shida dashed up a nearby hill, the water licking at her heels. She points to the last bits of bread left from that horrifying Friday in March, hanging in a bag from the bones of the ceiling. While she talks, her husband and son, Yugi and Masatoshi, pick through the debris, searching for anything they can salvage. "Don't come in here, it's not safe," Yugi Shida warns.

Like thousands of others on Japan's northeast coast, the Shidas are facing the daunting task of rebuilding their lives. "It's difficult to say if we can continue," Shida sighs. Difficult, or muzukashii, is an oft-used word in the Japanese language, but its utterance is even more frequent among the survivors of the tsunami. It's also what the Shidas' neighbor, Michiko Takahashi, says when asked to guess when she'll ever have a home again. She knows one thing for sure, though. "All the people in the town say they don't want to live here anymore," she says in front of the skeleton of her apartment. "They want to live on higher ground."

This week, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has promised to build safe, eco-friendly homes throughout the ravaged northeast, away from the reach of monster waves. But before that can happen, crews have to haul away the debris. And because the tsunami chewed up and spat out vast chunks of Japan's Pacific coast, the cleanup process could perhaps be even more difficult than the rebuilding itself. Untangling the mess of metal, wood, and concrete will take many, many months. "The Kobe earthquake in 1995 generated 20 million tons of debris over an area of 50km," says Kyoto University environmental engineering professor Nagahisa Hirayama. "Here we are talking of nearly 27 million tons over 500 kilometers." Once roads are cleared, the debris has to be hauled away to temporary sites, separated, and either reused, recycled, or scrapped. He says the task will take years, but is not insurmountable. "People need to realize it's not impossible to manage such an amount of debris, especially if everyone pitches in the recovery effort."

But in many places, from Sendai and up the coast to Ofunato, the job looks all but impossible. Though some roads have been cleared, which helps with transporting people and supplies, that process itself has only magnified the mounds of dirt and debris that need to be hauled away. In some spots, heavy machinery claws away at piles of rubble that were once homes and businesses; in others, the smell of tons of seafood being scooped up from bayside storage facilities hangs in the early spring air.

The activity tapers off at sunset, when the light makes the landscape of these towns and villages appear almost post-apocalyptic, eerily similar to photographs from Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. In the town of Rikuzentakata, flattened cars are scattered about like neglected toys. A railway line is twisted up like a ribbon. Eviscerated buildings stand somewhat proudly next to their weaker, crumbled counterparts. Here and there you'll find a photo of a couple getting married in traditional Japanese dress, or a group picture of a school class smiling on a sunny day. Estimates suggest the sea inundated three quarters of this place, killing one-in-ten of its 20,000 residents. Here survivors, crammed into evacuation centers, say they're relying on elected officials to give them their lives back. "In order to rebuild, we need to imagine what the ideal Rikuzentakata will look like," says Takeharu Chiba, who lost his mother, sister, nieces, nephews, and neighbors to the tsunami. "The government must help us."

Prime Minister Kan has vowed to give those affected by this disaster their lives back, but he can't say when that will happen. Kan is planning to convene a national council before the one-month anniversary of this disaster to figure out a way forward. Until then, the thousands of Japanese who were touched by this catastrophe will have to live in temporary housing, with relatives, or move on. Sanichi Niinuma, a sushi chef in Ofunato, has made the painful decision to leave the fishing town his family has called home for seven generations. "I would like to rebuild, but it's not like people are going to be eating sushi here for a while," he says, standing on the remains of his restaurant. "I plan to go somewhere else. All I need is a knife. Once the situation has returned to normal, I want to come back to start again."

With reporting from Miguel Quintana