In Tsunami's Wake, Tough Choices For Japan's Elderly

Damaged homes stand in the debris at the tsunami-destroyed town of Yamada, Japan. The government will soon decide whether it will rebuild towns like Yamada or move residents elsewhere. Relocation, if it happens, will be hardest on the elderly.

Damaged homes stand in the debris at the tsunami-destroyed town of Yamada, Japan. The government will soon decide whether it will rebuild towns like Yamada or move residents elsewhere. Relocation, if it happens, will be hardest on the elderly. Vincent Yu/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Vincent Yu/AP

The area of northeastern Japan hit by the tsunami is called Tohoku. It is largely rural, agrarian, traditional — and, in a country that already has the oldest population in the world, Tohoku is where you find the most seniors.

Soon, the government must decide whether to rebuild some two-dozen destroyed seaside cities and towns in the northeast, or move the residents to higher ground elsewhere. Relocation, if it happens, will be hardest on the elderly.

The fishing town of Yamada was in slow decline even before the epic tsunami swallowed it whole. In the past three decades, Yamada had lost 26 percent of its population, mostly young people who moved to larger cities in search of opportunity. Today, 28 percent of the city is older than 65, and the decisions they must make after the tsunami are wrenching.

Standing on the porch of his wrecked house, house painter Tokuji Yamazaki, 73, says he can't decide whether to stay or move.

"Since we experienced this terrifying tsunami, I don't know what to do," he says. "We've decided to tear this house down. I have a feeling I want to move away, but we have so many friends here."

Many of the newly homeless elderly have been brought to the Yamada High School gymnasium. Evacuees sit cross-legged on futons; there seems to be a lot of staring into space. It's loud. It's crowded. It's cold at night. They all want to go home. But there is no home anymore.

"I want to stay in Yamada," says Shunpei Abiko, a 67-year-old truck driver.

There is a local saying: Bounty from the sea; bounty from the soil. Oysters, scallops and wakame seaweed from the ocean, and prized matsutake mushrooms from the mountain.

Abiko can't imagine leaving. But he says his house was washed away, he can't afford a new one, and he doesn't know what the government will do for him.

Indeed, the Japanese government doesn't know what it's going to do, either. Last week, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said at a news conference that he will shortly appoint a special panel to come up with a blueprint to rebuild the coast.

"We should consider having new homes built on higher ground by leveling mountainous areas, with residents commuting to fishing ports and fisheries along the coast," he said.

There are no good options: Do they raise the seawalls and reconstruct the low-lying towns? Or do they relocate the populations away from the tsunami zone?

That's easier said than done, says John Traphagan, an anthropologist at the University of Texas, Austin, who has studied the Tohoku region of Japan.

"Rural Japan is not like West Texas, with large areas of open space. It's populated everywhere," he says. "There are rice fields and houses all over the place, so it's not like there's really any empty space where you could put a new community."

Traphagan says the emotional dislocation of moving elders away from their communities would be profound.

"They've lived their whole lives in that same place, and that's where they want to live and that's where they want to die," he says.

Their ties to place are so strong that many seniors are reluctant even to leave the unpleasant evacuation centers close to their old neighborhoods. But some have accepted invitations to spend a few weeks at an onsen, a traditional Japanese hot-spring hotel.

Tei Taro (left) and Kiyoko Abe are widows whose houses were swept away in  the coastal town of Yamada. Though the government suggests  relocating devastated towns elsewhere, the two women say they cannot imagine living anywhere  else. i i

Tei Taro (left) and Kiyoko Abe are widows whose houses were swept away in the coastal town of Yamada. Though the government suggests relocating devastated towns elsewhere, the two women say they cannot imagine living anywhere else. John Burnett/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption John Burnett/NPR
Tei Taro (left) and Kiyoko Abe are widows whose houses were swept away in  the coastal town of Yamada. Though the government suggests  relocating devastated towns elsewhere, the two women say they cannot imagine living anywhere  else.

Tei Taro (left) and Kiyoko Abe are widows whose houses were swept away in the coastal town of Yamada. Though the government suggests relocating devastated towns elsewhere, the two women say they cannot imagine living anywhere else.

John Burnett/NPR

Tei Taro and Kiyoko Abe are widows in their late 70s whose houses were swept away. They were already friends; they belonged to the same morning walking group in Yamada. The disaster has brought them even closer.

"The onsen is really healing; we are so grateful," Taro says. "I haven't had a hot bath for 10 days."

"We can stretch our legs and make new friends in the onsen bath," Abe says.

The two women sit in an overstuffed sofa in the lobby of the posh Mori No Kaze hotel, with its artificial cherry tree and koi swimming in clear pools.

"What do you think about living on the hill?" Taro asks her friend. "There are lots of people who don't want to live on the coast anymore."

"It's difficult for me to buy land and build a house on the hill since I'm almost 80," Abe replies. "I don't know how many more years I have, and I'm on my own."

"We're having a great time here, but we really love Yamada and we want to go back," Taro says.

Her friend agrees.

"We would be very sad if Yamada disappears," Abe says. "We could never leave Yamada."

The problem, of course, is that Yamada no longer exists.

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