Image: Evacuation center in Japan
Hiro Komae  /  AP
A man walks between spaces for families, divided by corrugated boxes, at the evacuation center at the Big Palette Fukushima sports arena in Koriyama, Japan, April 12.
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updated 4/19/2011 9:48:02 PM ET 2011-04-20T01:48:02

The evacuated families in the school gym outside Tokyo are bound by their suffering to those in shelters closer to the disaster zone. Both lost homes, friends and livelihoods in the tsunami that pounded northeastern Japan last month.

But the conditions they live in now as they try put their lives back together are markedly different.

At the school in Kisai, a 90-minute drive north of Tokyo, masseurs tend to creaky joints. A bus arrives several times a say to ferry people to public baths. Volunteers help seniors make colored paper crafts. Then there are the frequent visitors who provide free entertainment — from professional athletes to military bands.

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A couple hundred miles (several hundred kilometers) to the north, families are crammed into every spare bit of floor space at a community hall at Natori — under the stairs, in the hallways, along the large windows in the front. At another shelter in Ishinomaki, some people have taken to sleeping in their cars for privacy, using cardboard or newspaper to cover the windows.

The government says it is not discriminating against anyone in the relief effort, but it is having a harder time reaching people further from the main cities and closer to the destruction.

"It's a matter of logistics," said Toshiki Agou, a health ministry official in charge of living conditions at the shelters. "Some shelters are located in areas where roads are blocked."

Can't return home
Tens of thousands were made homeless by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which left 27,000 people dead or missing and damaged a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. About 135,000 people are living in nearly 2,500 shelters set up in schools, gymnasiums and community centers along the northeast coast, while the government races to build temporary homes and prepare public housing units for them, a process expected to take five months.

The government says those living near the nuclear plant won't likely be able to return home for six to nine months or maybe longer.

Though conditions vary in Japan's shelters, they are far better than those in displacement camps in Africa, central Asia and much of the developing world, where survivors of wars and natural disasters often live outside under U.N. donated tents and eat rations of rice and beans, sometimes for years.

Some lucky Japanese evacuees even found temporary spots at the Grand Prince Hotel Akasaka, an upscale resort near the Imperial Palace in Tokyo that once charged up to 150,000 yen ($1,750) a night and was in the process of closing down.

Still, many of the tsunami survivors are forced to sleep in communal halls, where they complain of hard floors, a lack of blankets and an overdose of instant ramen.

"There's no privacy in these big gymnasiums," said Akemi Osumi, a 48-year-old mother of three, at the shelter in Kisai, a two-hour drive north of Tokyo. "We are living with another hundred people in the same room with no dividers. I'm worried about how long everyone can stand it."

'Almost like we're spoiled'
Despite that, the No. 2 gymnasium at Kisai High School is teeming with resources, a sign of the tremendous generosity shown by the Japanese since the disaster.

Refugees comb through boxes of donated clothes, books and toys, while volunteers cart cases of goods back and forth. Behind a mesh curtain lay dozens of unplugged refrigerators and coolers donated by businesses and citizens.

Six thousand bottles of green tea await drinking; 400 pairs of new shoes need owners. There are 2.4 million pollen-filtering masks, a four-year supply for the residents. Local farmers donated 2.5 tons of rice. Nearby shops have been sending box meals and pastries for breakfast, lunch and dinner, funded by the government.

Image: Japan's emperor visits quake evacuees
Koji Sasahara  /  AP
Japan's Emperor Akihito, second from left, and Empress Michiko, left, talk with an evacuee at an evacuation center at former Kisai High School in Kazo, Saitama Prefecture, Japan, April 8.

Every other day, a celebrity visitor comes to cheer up the 1,400 survivors who fled Futaba, home of a damaged nuclear plant. Two weeks ago, Japan's Emperor Akihito showed up. Morning group exercises keep people limber and volunteers help seniors make "chigirie" crafts using shreds of colored paper.

"It's too good, it's almost like we're spoiled," Osumi said. "We don't have to even say anything and we're fed."

Spartan conditions
Conditions are far more Spartan for the 380 people living at the community hall in Natori, near the tsunami-hit area some 320 kilometers (200 miles) north of Kisai.

With space at a premium, many families have made small walls of chairs or cardboard to mark their territory. During the day the younger people go to their jobs or back to the rubble of their homes to search and volunteer, while older people lie covered in blankets. There is one TV, surrounded by half a dozen office chairs.

Mika Kadowaki, a high school student, lives with 17 others in the classroom of a junior high school in nearby Ishinomaki. She has moved five times since the quake, between shelters and friends' houses. The families have spread blankets over the tile floor to buffer the cold. Showers were installed only a few days ago.

The lights are turned off at 10 p.m., and then people are expected to stay quiet.

"It's not bad in my classroom, the people that live there have become like family," she said. Still, "the stress gets to some people and they have conflicts with others, which brings everyone down."

The school will reopen soon for the new academic year and the 600 people living there will all have to move to another shelter.

About 9,000 of the displaced have been moved to hotels or inns and more than 4,300 families have been admitted to public housing units. But demand overwhelms supply. The lotteries held each time a unit comes open are oversubscribed many times. The draws often are weighted to favor the elderly, those with disabilities or small children.

"Emotionally, I'm a mess," said Kazuko Suzuki, 49, who is desperate for a semi-permanent place so her daughter can finish her second year of high school. She lost a lottery. School already has started, but she hasn't given up hope. "I can't fall into despair," she said.

___

Alabaster reported from Natori. Associated Press writers Tomoko A. Hosaka in Kamaishi and Shino Yuasa in Tokyo also contributed.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Triple tragedy for Japan

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  1. Office workers in Tokyo look at smoke rising over the skyline after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Japan's northeast coast on March 11, 2011. (Xinhua via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Waves pour over a seawall and roar into a seaside village near the mouth of Hei River on March 11 as the tsunami generated by the massive earthquake hits shore. (Mainichi Newspaper via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Hotel employees squat around a pillar at the hotel's entrance in Tokyo after the powerful earthquake on March 11. (Itsuo Inouye / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A tsunami wave sweeps away homes in its path in Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 11. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. One house bursts into flames after the tsunami swept it and many of its neighbors off their foundations in Natori on March 11. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Shaken evacuees gather in Shinjuku Central Park in Tokyo on March 11. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. An aerial photo shows Sendai Airport being inundated by a tsunami on March 11. Later reports said the first wave hit 26 minutes after the quake struck at 2:46 p.m. local time. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A swirling pattern is evident in this aerial photo of the tsunami as it hit a port in Oarai, Ibaraki prefecture on March 11. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Toya Chiba, a reporter for local newspaper Iwate Tokai Shimbun, is swept away while taking pictures at the mouth of the Owatari River during the tsunami at Kamaishi port, Iwate prefecture. Chiba managed to survive in the rush of water by grabbing a dangling rope and climbing onto a coal heap around 30 feet high after being swept away for about 100 feet, Kyodo News reports. (Kamaishi Port Office / Kyodo via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Natural gas containers burn in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo, on March 11. The massive earthquake triggered many fires, posing additional problems for first responders. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Containers for cargo are strewn about like giant Legos in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, on March 12. (Itsuo Inouye / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. People use a floating container to ferry survivors to higher ground in Kesennuma City, Miyagi prefecture, on March 12. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Cars swept into a jumble by the tsunami are seen in Hitachi City, Ibaraki prefecture, on March 12. (Yomiuri via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A line of residents seeking water snakes across the playground of a school in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13, two days after the earthquake. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Japanese firefighters rescue tsunami survivors in Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A Japanese home drifts in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Sendai in this photograph taken on March 13. (Dylan McCord / U.S. Navy via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A woman cries while sitting on a road in the devastated city of Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13. (Asahi Shimbun / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. An "SOS" signal scrawled on the sports field of a high school beckons potential rescuers on March 13 in the town of Minami Sanriku, Miyagi prefecture. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

    The body of a victim of the twin disaster lays on the stairs of a destroyed house in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Sixty-year-old Hiromitsu Shinkawa waves to members of Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force preparing to rescue him about 9 miles off Fukushima prefecture on March 13. Shinkawa survived by clinging to a piece of roof after the tsunami hit his hometown of Minamisoma. (Japanese Defense Forces via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. People walk along a flooded street in Ishimaki City, Miyagi prefecture on March 13. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. An explosion at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant sends a plume of smoke skyward on March 14. The blast was believed to have been caused by a buildup of hydrogen inside the reactor building, caused by the partial meltdown of nuclear fuel inside. The plant was crippled after the earthquake cut power to the station and tsunami waves knocked out backup generators. (NTV / FCT) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A 1-year-old boy is re-checked for radiation exposure after being decontaminated in Nihonmatsu, Fukushiima prefecture, on March 14. (Toru Nakata / Asahi Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Officers examine a Mitsubishi F-2 fighter jet of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force on March 14. The warplane was swept by the tsunami into a building at Matsushima base in Higashimatsushima, Iwate prefecture. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Japanese rescue team members carry the body of a man out of the village of Saito on March 14. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A woman survivor is reunited with her relatives at a shelter in Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture, on March 15. (Lee Jae-Won / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A bicyclist wheels across a hellish landscape in what was the city of Minami Sanriku, Miyagi prefecture, on March 15. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Tsunami survivors cook on an open fire in front of their damaged house in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 15. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Vehicle headlamps illuminate a devastated section of Yamada town, Iwate prefecture, on March 16. (Jiji Press via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Evacuees carry bowls of pork soup from a soup kitchen to a makeshift shelter in Minami Sanriku, Miyagi prefecture, on March 16. (Tsuyoshi Matsumoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Refugees, including 53 people who were rescued from a retirement home during the tsunami, take shelter inside a school gym in the leveled city of Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture, on March 17. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Members of Japan Self-Defense Force pray over the body of a tsunami victim in Onagawa, Miyagi prefecture, on March 20. (Shuji Kajiyama / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Tomoko Yagi looks at two firetrucks that were tossed around like toys in the tsunami in Kamaishi, Iwate prefecture, on March 20. (Lee Jae-Won / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Survivors relay boxes of relief supplies arriving at their evacuation center in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, on March 21. (Kunihiko Miura / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A boat juts out from the top of a building in Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture, on March 22. (Hiroto Nomoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Manami Kon, 4, uses the Japanese "hiragana" characters she just learned to write a letter to her missing mother in the devastated city of Miyako, Iwate prefecture, on March 22 . "Dear Mommy. I hope you're alive. Are you OK?" read the letter, which took about an hour to write. Also missing were the little girl's father and sister. (Norikazu Tateishi / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Tokyo Electric Power Co. workers collect data in the control room for the Unit 1 and 2 reactors at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant on March 23. (Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. An aerial photo taken by an unmanned drone shows the damaged units of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant on March 24. (Air Photo Service via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Two residents exchange words as they are reunited two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami in a makeshift public bath set up outside a shelter in Yamamoto, Miyagi prefecture, on March 25. (Shuji Kajiyama / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A Japanese funeral parlor worker shovels dirt onto the coffins of victims of the earthquake and tsunami at a mass funeral in Yamamoto, Miyagi prefecture, on March 26. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. A lone pine tree stands in a devastated area iof Rikuzentakaka, Iwate prefecture, on March 27. It was the only one among tens of thousands of other pine trees forming "Takata Matsubara," or Takata seaside pine forest, standing after the March 11 tsunami washed away all the others, local media said. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. A woman whose house was washed away loses control of her emotions on March 29 as she talks about the disaster that befell her hometown of Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture. (Kuni Takahashi) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, left, talk with evacuees at Tokyo Budoh-kan evacuation center on March 30. (Issei Kato / Pool via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Officials of the Tokyo Electric Power Co., (TEPCO), including Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, center, Vice President Takashi Fujimoto, second from left, bow before a news conference at the company's head office in Tokyo on March 30. (Itsuo Inouye / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. A man rides a bicycle in between the ships that were washed ashore by the March 11 tsunami, on March 30, in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture. (Eugene Hoshiko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. An elderly woman waves to her grandchildren in Minamisanriku, Miyagi prefecture, on April 3, as authorities began a mass evacuation of approximately 1,100 homeless survivors to shelters elsewhere. (Jiji Press via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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Interactive: Japan before and after the disaster

These aerial photos show locations in Japan before and after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck March 11. Use the slider below the images to reveal the changes in the landscape.

  1. Above: Interactive Japan before and after the disaster
  2. Image: The wave from a tsunami crashes over a street in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan
    Ho / Reuters
    Timeline Crisis in Japan

Video: Cherry blossoms offer solace in Japan

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