Copyright ©2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

DAVID GREENE, Host:

The minor damage we saw in yesterday's earthquake is worlds away from the disaster that hit Japan's northeast coast in March. We'll check in now on just one aspect of that long and difficult recovery. The region's biggest fishing ports are trying to get back to work. But as NPR's Frank Langfitt found, that earthquake and surprising aftereffects have crippled plans to rebuild.

FRANK LANGFITT: At first glance, the port of Kesennuma looks like it's making a comeback. A half-dozen fishing boats arrive one morning and unload tons of bonito, a silvery tuna-like fish.

The fish roll down a conveyor, beneath a freshwater shower, splash into plastic bins filled with ice water.

Then the bidding begins. One of the wholesalers is Mitsuo Iwabuchi. He says the port is improving, but the infrastructure that drives it, including scores of fish-processing and ice-making factories, still lies in ruins.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING)

MITSUO IWABUCHI: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: When we had factories, we used to make bonito sashimi and we'd freeze them and ship them to Thailand. Now, we can't do any of that. We can only ship the bonito fresh.

Iwabuchi's two processing plants were among those destroyed. Unable to cut up, freeze and package fish in any volume, the port can only handle one tenth of the catch it used to. And so far, the regional government won't let anyone rebuild.

Iwabuchi says the reason is as simple as it is surprising.

IWABUCHI: (Japanese language spoken)

LANGFITT: The land sank and more and more water is coming in, and it's flooding all over.

The magnitude nine earthquakes on March 11th reshaped the coast-line - literally. Kesennuma's shoreline is now, on average, nearly two and a half feet lower than before, officials say. The result: The city's most valuable industrial land floods twice a day at high tide.

(SOUNDBITE OF OCEAN WAVES)

LANGFITT: The coastline here has indeed sunk. I'm back here at the port right now and it's high tide and in fact what you just heard were the waves actually pouring in over the port. In some places it's eight or nine inches deep. When high tide comes in really strong, it can get up to your waist.

The government is trying to draw up a rebuilding plan. Iwabuchi has already laid off 80 of his 100 employees. He says the fishing industry is losing precious time.

IWABUCHI: (Japanese language spoken)

LANGFITT: The question isn't how much patience I have. It's how long my money can last.

Across from the port sit nine trawlers. Some are freshly painted, repaired from the tsunami and ready to go. But most haven't moved in months.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

LANGFITT: Hiroyuki Sasaki owns a tuna boat. He says without the port's infrastructure, there's no point in fishing. Before the tsunami, the fishing industry here was already struggling with low prices and an aging workforce. Unless Kesennuma rebuilds quickly, Sasaki worries many fishermen will retire with no one to replace them.

HIROYUKI SASAKI: (Through Translator) I don't even want to imagine it. It's so scary. I really want young people to study and get captains and engineering licenses.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN ALARM)

LANGFITT: Kesennuma marked the five-month anniversary of the disaster by sounding the tsunami alert. Mayor Shigeru Sugawara spoke at a ceremony remembering the more than 1,400 people who died here or remain missing. Afterwards, he said the sunken coastline is the city's biggest problem and poses tough questions.

SHIGERU SUGAWARA: (Through Translator) First, to what height should we reclaim the land? Secondly, how close can people live to the coast? Where they can live? Where can they not? And where do we locate the factories?

LANGFITT: How long do you think it'll take to decide that?

SUGAWARA: (Through Translator) We'll make this decision in one or two months and have them get started, but there is a lot of work to do so the construction might take several years.

LANGFITT: Business people here say the work should already be underway. Hiromitsu Miyagawa owned a grocery store next to the port, which thrived off its activity. Like everything else here, it was wiped out. Now he sells bananas, pineapples and grapes from an abandoned pharmacy with blown out walls and a collapsed ceiling.

HIROMITSU MIYAGAWA: (Japanese language spoken) I think the government's approach has been really bad. They should have focused on the city's main industry, and raised the land around the port by three feet as quickly as possible. And if that had happened, I could have put my shop in a better place.

LANGFITT: Miyagawa's business is the only one for blocks. He says the delay on rebuilding adds to the uncertainty surrounding the city's future.

How can people start back, he says, when they don't know what is going to happen.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.