Japan Disaster Victims — returning and rebuilding decisions are fraught with conflicts

Decisions to return and rebuild, or not, in Japan are similar to those experienced in the U.S after major disasters. The article Too Late’ for Some Tsunami Victims to Rebuild in Japan presents some of the conflicts inherent in that decision; NY Times, March 19.  A week after the tsunami obliterated most of this northern Japanese city’s seafront and not a little of its inland, some of the shopkeepers and their employees were outdoors shoveling mud and hauling wreckage from their businesses, the first signs of restoration.  Will they stay and rebuild or not?  Among the factors to consider:

“These are declining areas. With an exogenous shock like this, I think it’s possible that a lot of these communities will just fold up and disappear.” Some have been hollowing out, albeit slowly, for a long time. Japan’s population as a whole is shrinking and graying, but the Japanese prefectures hardest hit by the tsunami — Miyagi, Fukushima and Iwate — often outpace the national trends, and their workers’ average incomes are shrinking as well.

“There’s really no economic engine in these communities,” said Mr. Aldrich, whose 2010 book “Site Fights: Divisive Facilities and Civil Society in Japan and the West” details the government’s strategy for locating reactors in struggling areas. “These facilities bring $20 million or more to depopulating, dying towns. Many people saw these power plants as economic lifelines at a time when their towns are dying.” And they were, until an earthquake and tsunami changed the economic equation last week.

Now at least one of the Fukushima complexes appears destined never to reopen. Part of the prefecture could remain off limits for years because of radiation. The future of similar plants could be thrown into doubt, along with the jobs and supporting businesses that sprung up around the nuclear industry.

… the tsunami wiped out thousands of businesses and tens of thousands of homes, many of them owned by retirees who lack the spirit or money to rebuild. And Mr. Aldrich — also the author of a long-term study of the societal impact of major disasters like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans — says the dislocation caused by the tsunami threatens to permanently rend the social fabric that keeps many coastal villages afloat in hard times.

“We faced exactly the same question after Katrina,” said John Campbell, an expert on aging at the University of Michigan and visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo. “There was a big discussion about whether we should rebuild the Ninth Ward, since it was below sea level, and so on. In terms of economic rationality, it didn’t make any sense, really. But on the other hand, it’s where these people lived, and there were emotional reasons to do it. “These villages may not have the same sentimental attachment. Nonetheless, there’s an emotional argument that’s going to be made, and I think it will be a potent one.”

Thanks to Bill Cumming for pointing out this article.

See also another NYT article, same date, titled Reeling from Crises.

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