Japanese Town Hopes For Post-Tsunami Reinvention

Nov 2, 2011

Long before the March 11 tsunami swallowed downtown Kesennuma, the city of 70,000 on Japan's northeast coast was on the skids.

Kesennuma, in Miyagi Prefecture, built its fortunes around the sea: building, outfitting and repairing small boats; harvesting and processing seafood; even serving up shark fin and sushi to tourists.

But over the past decade, overfishing, soaring gas prices and an aging workforce have taken their toll. Shopkeepers watched their once-thriving town fade into irrelevance.

Now, a debate is raging in Japan over how best to rebuild the region after the March disaster. While the tsunami is likely to accelerate the demise of many towns in northeast Japan, not everyone is throwing in the towel — yet.

One place hope is still alive is Kesennuma, one of the largest cities in the disaster zone — though it may be a surprising place for revitalization to take place.

Hope From Despair

Lifelong resident Masato Sakamoto worked in a dental clinic. As business declined, he recalls, store owners felt helpless and resigned.

"We didn't try hard enough. When business went slack, shops simply closed on weekends. Then, there were even fewer customers. It was a vicious cycle," he says.

So in the days after the disaster, as the shopkeepers huddled miserably in an evacuation center overlooking their ruined downtown, the tsunami seemed like the last straw, says 41-year-old barber Kazuo Onodera.

"The tsunami washed away our houses or trashed them. We figured our lives were over," he says.

Many Kesennuma residents have packed up and left for good. But as the shopkeepers sat together day after day on the floor of their shelter, they say something strange happened: The sense of despair lifted. To their own amazement, the shopkeepers began looking at the tsunami as less a catastrophe than a blessing in disguise, an outside chance, maybe — but a chance, still, for a little miracle, says the barber, Onodera.

"Our shop was ruined, but the shell was intact. I could start from scratch. This sounds strange, but I was excited at the prospect that total ruin allowed us to build something new," he says.

The tsunami didn't just wipe out Kesennuma's businesses; it demolished fixed ideas about commerce and life in a remote country town.

Blueprint For Recovery Bucks Convention

Onodera, Sakamoto and other shopkeepers leveraged the money and expertise that have been pouring into the disaster zone, and set up a nonprofit group to rebuild downtown Kesennuma. For the first time, they say, they have a mandate for wholesale redevelopment.

Armed with pro bono designs from a local university, the shopkeepers of Kesennuma have come up with an unusual blueprint. While the national government has proposed surrounding all coastal towns with 20-foot tsunami barriers, the citizens in Kesennuma are saying "no thanks."

Rikio Murakami runs a chain of sushi restaurants and chairs the group.

"Since we are trying to boost tourism, it's inconceivable that we'd put up a wall and block off the ocean. Tsunamis are a natural phenomenon. So you insure yourself, and figure out how to make it safe to live and work around them," he says.

The new redesign would remove the barely used multistory parking lot and replace it with a park, an amphitheater and pedestrian-friendly streets.

Instead of zoning the waterfront a floodplain, off-limits to construction, the plan would put shops back in the tsunami zone. While the flooding was severe, most of the concrete-foundation buildings withstood the waves.

Structures would be built at least three or four stories high — encouraging residents to live on higher floors and guaranteeing shelter in emergencies, since tsunami flooding didn't reach beyond the second floor.

'Starting From Scratch'

Murakami, who was among those ready to write off Kesennuma, now says he's never been so excited about the future of his hometown.

"We're totally starting from scratch. This is our one big chance — the chance of a lifetime — to build a new town. We won't have this chance again, so we have to leap at this opportunity," he says.

The first small step comes in December, when the ruined shops put out their shingles again in temporary quarters. The plans for remaking their downtown are still on paper only, but if the blueprint is funded and approved, it would be a huge vote of confidence in a town that came close to giving up.

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