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In some ways, northeastern Japan resembles New England, a picturesque coast, a reputation for rugged independence and a troubled fishing industry. The region was already struggling when the tsunami struck in March. The disaster accelerated the demise of many communities.
Lucy Craft visited one city in the area and sent this report about residents trying not only to rebuild but reinvigorate their city.
LUCY CRAFT, BYLINE: Long before the tsunami swallowed downtown Kesennuma, this city of 70,000 was on the skids.
(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)
CRAFT: Kesennuma, in Miyagi Prefecture, built its fortunes around the sea - building, outfitting and repairing small boats; harvesting and processing seafood, even serving up shark fin and sushi to tourists. But over the last decade, overfishing, soaring gas prices and an aging workforce have taken their toll. Shopkeepers watched their once thriving town fade into irrelevance.
Lifelong resident Masato Sakamoto worked in a dental clinic here. He says store owners felt helpless and resigned.
MASATO SAKAMOTO: (Foreign language spoken)
CRAFT: We didn't try hard enough, he says. The business went slack, shops simply closed on weekends. Then there were even fewer customers. It was a vicious cycle.
So in the days after the disaster, as the shopkeepers huddled miserably in an evacuation center overlooking their ruined downtown, the tsunami seemed like the last straw, says 41-year-old barber Kazuo Onodera.
KAZUO ONODERA: (Foreign language spoken)
CRAFT: The tsunami washed away our houses or trashed them, he says. We figured our lives were over.
Many Kesennuma residents have packed up and left for good. But as the shopkeepers sat together day after day on the floor of their shelter, they say something strange happened. The sense of despair lifted. To their own amazement, the shopkeepers began looking at the tsunami as less a catastrophe than a blessing in disguise. An outside chance, maybe, but a chance still for a little miracle, says the barber Onodera.
ONODERA: (Foreign language spoken)
CRAFT: Our shop was ruined, he says. But the shell was intact. I could start from scratch. This sounds strange, but I was excited at the prospect that total ruin allowed us to build something new.
The tsunami didn't just wipe out Kesennuma's businesses. It demolished fixed ideas about commerce and life in a remote country town. Onodera, Sakamoto and the other shopkeepers leveraged the money and expertise that have been pouring into the disaster zone and set up a nonprofit group to rebuild downtown Kesennuma. For the first time, they say, they have a mandate for wholesale redevelopment.
Armed with pro bono designs from a local university, the shopkeepers of Kesennuma have come up with an unusual blueprint. While the national government has proposed surrounding all coastal towns with 20-foot tsunami barriers, the citizens here are saying, no thanks. Rikio Murakami runs a chain of sushi restaurants and chairs the group.
RIKIO MURAKAMI: (Foreign language spoken)
CRAFT: Since we're trying to boost tourism, he says, it's inconceivable that we'd put up a wall and block off the ocean. Tsunami are a natural phenomenon, so you insure yourself and you figure out how to make it safe to live and work around them.
The new redesign would remove the barely used multi-story parking lot and replace it with a park, an amphitheatre and pedestrian-friendly streets. Instead of zoning the waterfront a floodplain off-limits to construction, the plan would put shops back into the tsunami zone because while the flooding was severe, most of the concrete-foundation buildings withstood the waves.
Structures would be built at least three or four stories high, encouraging residents to live on higher floors and guaranteeing shelter in emergencies since tsunami flooding didn't reach beyond the second floor.
Chairman Murakami, who was among those ready to write off Kesennuma, now says he's never been so excited about the future of his hometown.
MURAKAMI: (Foreign language spoken)
CRAFT: We're totally starting from scratch, he says. This is our one big chance. The chance of a lifetime, to build a new town. We won't have this chance again, so we have to leap at this opportunity.
The first small step comes next month when the ruined shops put out their shingles again in temporary quarters. The plans for remaking their downtown are still on paper only, but if the blueprint is funded and approved, it would be a huge vote of confidence in a town that came close to giving up. For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo.
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