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To rebuild or not? Japan's tsunami coast wonders

Japan is starting to confront years of post-tsunami reconstruction along its northeastern coast, grappling with an estimated 18,000 people dead and  hundreds of thousands left homeless.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When he was younger, the carpenter picked a spot just off the Shikaori River and built his house. Toshio Onodera chiseled the joints for the wooden roof beams and cemented the tiles onto the front porch. He mounted ivory-colored siding on the outside walls.

His parents moved in with him, and so did his mother's mother. He is the oldest son, and that is what tradition dictates here. He lived in the house for nearly 30 years. Then suddenly, on March 11, it was no more — destroyed by the tsunami, a three-story wall of black water that followed the course of the river and all but obliterated his neighborhood.

Now he sleeps on the floor of a crowded junior high school gymnasium, next to his 83-year-old mother and alongside hundreds of neighbors, nearly all of them long past retirement. It's a community living beneath basketball hoops, adrift on a sea of acrylic blankets.

At 57, Onodera is one of the gym's youngest residents. If he insists Kesennuma will emerge from the wreckage of the tsunami, he also knows it faces an immense demographic challenge.

"This is a town of old people," he says as he stands on the foundation of his house on a cold winter morning, the smashed remains of someone else's roof on the ground next to him. "Young people just don't want to live in Kesennuma anymore."

The beams he had chiseled were 75 feet (25 meters) away, tangled with wreckage from across the neighborhood. The air stank of mold and mud and fuel that had leaked from the nearby port. He pointed to the remnants of house after house where the residents are either dead or missing.

"No one will come back here," he predicts of his old neighborhood, saying he will stay in town but move further inland.

Japan is starting to confront years of post-tsunami reconstruction along its northeastern coast, grappling with an estimated 18,000 people dead, hundreds of thousands left homeless, entire villages destroyed and a nuclear crisis 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of here that could still turn catastrophic. For the towns and farming villages — places like Kesennuma that have been battered for decades by economic decline, an exodus of young people and a rapidly aging population — the challenge could prove impossible.

"The prospects for the future are pretty grim for these communities, because of the high percentage of aged people," says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Tokyo campus.

Elsewhere in Japan, people from this part of the country have long been known as "gaman zuyoi" — roughly, "tough people." The winters are brutally cold, especially along the coast. The soil is rocky and hard to farm. Famines were once commonplace. Such an environment bred resilience, tight-knit communities and a fierce attachment to traditional family life among the people who remained.

Now, thousands of those families have been shattered. Multigenerational homes have been destroyed. Traditional family support networks have been ripped apart.

"In places like this, old people are supposed to raise grandchildren and drink tea. And suddenly that's all gone," says Kingston. "Where are they going to get the mental and physical resources to come back?"

Japan's population is among the world's most rapidly aging. Birth rates are plunging as young Japanese wait to get married and have fewer children. Life spans are increasing.

The numbers are stark: people age 65 and older account for a record 23.2 percent of the population in 2011, compared to 12.9 percent in the United States in 2009.

The demographic challenge that has created, affecting everything from pension plans to national politics, is magnified intensely along the tsunami-savaged northeastern coast.

As Japan rapidly became a modern economic power after World War II, life around here lost its appeal. Generations of parents watched as their children fled small-town life, abandoning farms and fishing boats to find office jobs in big cities.

Then, as Japan's overall economy began sagging in the 1990s, townspeople watched again as fish processing factories — long a regional manufacturing mainstay — started laying off workers or closing. More young people left.

The result is places like Kesennuma, a town of about 73,000 with a small port and down-at-the heels hot-spring resorts. Officials say about 30 percent of the population is older than 65.

"The younger generation sees no future in places like this," says Shinichiro Yoshida, 36, a manager for one of the city's nursing homes. Yoshida, an earnest man in glasses and a white face mask, has been working to exhaustion since the tsunami tore through the nursing complex, killing 45 of the 136 residents.

After getting survivors to the gymnasium-shelter, he has been struggling to find places where they can stay for the coming months. "We're taking them all over the area — anywhere we can find for them with electricity and with water, and where we can get transportation to move them there," he says.

Despite what happened to them, he says they haven't discussed the tsunami. In many ways that's not surprising. Japanese ideals of stoicism and reserve are magnified among the country's elderly, and even more among the gaman zuyoi. Publicly reflecting on pain just isn't done, and Yoshida says the nursing-home residents have made that clear.

"They don't talk about it," he says, "and we don't ask about it."

Yoshida says most of his peers left Kesennuma years ago for Sendai, the closest large city, or Tokyo. Now it will be even harder for his hometown to hold onto its young people, as the destruction drives away even more businesses.

The carpenter's mother doesn't even want to think about that.

Tamiko Onodera spent her life in Kesennuma. She worked in a fish processing factory, and her husband was a construction worker until he died a few years ago. They earned enough to buy a couple of plots of land in the town.

Now, a tiny space has become her world — the two straw mattresses where she and her son sleep, the four folding chairs set up at one end, stacked with a few handfuls of donated goods. She sits among these items and says she is terrified of even going back to the destroyed home.

She and her son left the house immediately after the massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake that caused the tsunami. They drove away with the wave's strange, hissing roar just a few hundred yards (meters) behind them.

"I don't want to move," she says, her tiny eyes almost hidden amid a face filled with wrinkles. "This has always been where I lived. ... But I haven't decided anything. I don't know if we'll rebuild."